IN ancient China, scholars were held in high regard. Next in line were the farmers, followed by the artists and craftsmen. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the merchants — rich but not well respected.
Farmers were honoured because they grew food for the people and put food on the table in spite of their tough lives.
A leap to the present, and we have the Perak-born Loi Tuan Ee who is looking to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor and ensuring food security for the nation.
The 59-year-old entrepreneur behind the Farm Fresh brand, who only started the business at the age of 42 after quitting his job at a packaging company in 2005, is a believer that "doing good" is the best business philosophy.
"When you do good, blessings will come back to you. It may be in the form of your customers rewarding you with more orders or simply getting positive feedback from them."
Loi recalled the early days when he was promoting its products to sceptical customers together with his partner Azmi Zainal.
"At times, it was very demotivating when some Malaysians had more faith in overseas brand rather than a homegrown brand.
"However, through word of mouth and honest work ethic, we started seeing many repeat customers. Some were even willing to give us a chance and it is their faith in us that helped me and Azmi persevere."
From a single farm in Kota Tinggi, Johor that commenced operations in 2009, Loi now has two farms and a processing plant in Johor, a farm and factory in Pahang and a Farm Fresh @ UPM farm for visitors in Selangor.
Another farm in Perak with a factory is poised to commence operations by year end.
The processing plant in Larkin, Johor Baru, churns out 137 million litres of milk annually using state-of-art European technology.
The company also has two farms and a processing plant in Australia.
The company was one of the darling listings for the Main Market of Bursa Malaysia this year.
Getting Khazanah Nasional Bhd to believe in Loi's vision and to come on board was a game changer for Farm Fresh in 2011.
But like all success stories, there were also many struggles and hurdles that Loi had to overcome. But he did it by tapping his unwavering spirit and through reading books on farming and agriculture.
The initial problem that he faced was finding a suitable cow breed as even the best from Australia could not survive the Malaysian climate.
In 2014, Loi finally discovered the Australian Friesian Sahiwal breed, which had combined the genotypes of the temperate Holstein and tropical Sahiwal breeds.
Self-doubt did creep in during the early years but he kept going after hearing from parents who told him "my child or children love the milk".
Loi's advice for anyone, especially youths who want to be entrepreneurs, is "perseverance, patience and hard work".
"Never give up but no shortcuts. Things will turn around when you least expect it. But you have to work hard and keep believing in yourself and your dream.
"When Farm Fresh developed its home dealer network workers in rural areas, the stockist and home dealers were so grateful they called it 'rezeki susu'. We have shared our wealth with the society at large and this in return has driven up our revenue.
"Money is important. But how much money can one spend? The sense of achievement means more to me than the money per se. Food chain is a big problem today.
"Some shareholders will push the chief executive officers to deliver the numbers. But if one were to cut corners, the quality deteriorates. That is not what we do at Farm Fresh. We believe in sustainability not because ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) is all the hype today but we walk the talk," said Loi.
A walk around its Farm Fresh @ UPM farm in Selangor, recently opened to the public, showed many pieces furniture on display made from recycled wood.
"In the early days, Farm Fresh products were given only a small shelf space at supermarkets. There were also unsavoury comments, saying we would not last more than six months.
"But I have realised over the years that flying under the radar can be an opportunity as it gives you the chance to move unhindered by your competitors," he said.
Loi's life story is proof that agriculture economy provides great opportunity.
The writer was a journalist with the New Straits Times before joining a Fortune Global 500 real estate company. This article is a collaboration between the New Straits Times and Tradeview, the author of 'Once Upon A Time In Bursa'.