Sweeter mangoes, quality durian: Fruitful harvest expected amid heatwave in Malaysia

May 06, 2024 - 18:42
The uncomfortable, even hazardous, heatwave currently gripping South-east Asia has some of Malaysia’s fruit farmers anticipating bountiful harvests in the coming months, but the output of the country’s key cash crop, oil palm, is expected to take a hit.


Malaysia's durian industry is expected to have a bumper crop, due to the hot weather. Photo The Straits Times/ANN


KUALA LUMPUR  The uncomfortable, even hazardous, heatwave currently gripping South-east Asia has some of Malaysia’s fruit farmers anticipating bountiful harvests in the coming months, but the output of the country’s key cash crop, oil palm, is expected to take a hit.

The durian industry is expected to have a bumper crop, in particular for the famous Musang King variety. And scorching temperatures are likely to enhance the quality of Malaysia’s most famous mango, the Harumanis.

Durian trees need very hot weather to bloom, said Datuk Paul Mak, managing director of durian plantation, products and retail company Brighthill Synergy.

The Malaysian Meteorological Department said the heatwave began on Nov 11, 2023, due to the El Nino phenomenon.

Mr Mak has noted about 50 per cent more flowering on his durian trees, he told The Straits Times. This holds “promising” potential for a higher fruit yield in the March to August durian season.

However, other farmers have told the media that they expect the durian season to stretch until October, seeing that the fruits are maturing more slowly and the trees are blooming over a longer period due to the heat.

Intense heat also forces the trees to absorb more nutrients and fertiliser in their surroundings as a natural survival mechanism, Mr Mak explained. This generally leads to fruits with better aroma, flavour, colour and texture.

But the profusion of blooms is also at risk of drying up – or getting damaged by wind or rain – before they turn into fruit.

“Our current challenge right now is to ensure that our trees will receive enough water, or they will obviously dry up and die. We will be more certain of the productivity level this month,” said Mr Mak, who added that if the trees are not cared for properly, the hot, dry season could result in fruits with “burnt” flesh.

The industry veteran, who has worked with durians since 2008, said that it usually takes 120 days for the fruits to ripen from the flowering stage.

A more bountiful harvest, however, is known to bring down prices. The best grade of Musang King was sold for RM20 (S$5.70) to RM30 per kilogram during 2023’s bumper crop, down from a previous high of RM50 to RM70 per kilogram.

Similarly, Malaysia expects a higher yield of even sweeter Harumanis mangoes this year.

The signature agro-product of Malaysia’s northernmost state Perlis, this species thrives in hotter conditions. And the region is recording average temperatures of 35 to 37 deg C, about 2 deg C higher than in 2023.

The harvest period is usually in April and May. Similar to durians, however, the mangoes are growing slower because of the heatwave but are expected to have greater yield and better quality across a longer period – till the end of June.

“Usually my trees will bear fruit at the same time, but this year the growth is staggered. At the start of the season last month there were fewer fruits compared with last year, but my trees are still flowering even after fruiting, so I expect higher yield this year,” Mr Zainol Abidin Ahmad, who owns the 300-tree Ladang Harumanis Cikgu Non farm, told ST.

The 68-year-old retired school principal said that his fruits taste sweeter when compared with his last harvest and expects a 30 per cent increase in profit because of the longer season and higher yield.

Despite the better-quality mangoes, he does not intend to increase his prices as he expects to make more profit from the volume of sales.

Mr Zainol prices his fruits at RM62 and RM80 for a 3kg box, depending on the size of the fruit. In 2023, his farm made RM25,000 and he expects to net around RM32,500 in 2024.

Like other farmers, he has to ensure that there is enough water for his trees, which has run up his water bill.

Kuala Lumpur resident Sarah Abdul, 68, is a Harumanis fan and usually buys the fruit by the bulk to distribute to her family and friends.

“I usually purchase between 10kg and 15kg. This year, my supplier told me she only has 6kg to sell at the start of the season. Since I’m a regular, I was given the privilege to buy her whole stock, which I did. The fruit tastes a lot sweeter this time,” the retired government officer said.

“She promised to call me when she has more fruits to sell.”

Meanwhile, an expert foresees a weaker output of oil palm – the fruit from which crude palm oil is extracted – as the hot, dry spell continues.

The industry veteran, who requested anonymity as he works for a public listed company, said: “As each palm tree optimally needs about 72 litres of water a day, it is virtually impossible to water all the palms. Our experiments with an irrigation system have not brought about the desired effect.

“However, a lower crop yield is still mitigated by a higher crude palm oil price.”

This will compound the cyclical dip in palm oil output, which is usually experienced after a strong yield such as what his plantations experienced in 2023. The next bumper harvest would typically be two or three years later.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board recorded that in 2022, crude palm oil production increased by 1.9 per cent to 18.45 million tonnes, from 18.12 million tonnes in 2021. The Straits Times/ANN