For the last 40 years, Malaysia has tried a variety of ways to mechanise the harvest of oil palm fruits as the industry works to improve efficiency in the face of a worsening manpower shortage.
Todate, the mechanisation of fruit evacuation remained largely unsuccessful. As a result, the industry has been working on the trees - to make them easier to harvest and to have more oil.
In the small town of Paloh, Johor, scientists have produced the next set of trees that could significantly improve the industry further. Not only are these trees easier to harvest, they will also have a fifth more oil from the current batch.
Buyers are coming from as far as Sarawak.
"I like what I see. It is easier to harvest and handle. The most important thing is, it will give me higher oil yield," said one planter during a recent seed-buying mission to Applied Agricultural Resources Sdn Bhd (AAR)'s oil palm seed garden in Paloh.
Malaysia is now the world's second largest palm oil producer after Indonesia. But data from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board is showing a worrying trend: palm oil output is likely to stagnate at 17.6 million tonnes for the third straight year in 2010.
Assuming this amount of oil is gathered across 4.9 million hectares, this year's yield will only total 3.6 tonnes per hectare in a year. Many planters say this is due to a severe shortage of harvesters.
While the search for the best mechanisation system continues, Malaysian crop scientists are making headway in raising tree productivity.
In the past, as oil palm trees grew taller and taller, planters use very long poles to harvest the fruit bunches. This got many crop scientists thinking. Why not breed shorter palms that bear very big fruit bunches?
So in the 1960s, crop scientists introduced the hybrid called the Dura X Pisifera (DXP) as the standard planting material. As time goes by, many in the industry affectionately referred to the DXP hybrid as "the Dolly Parton type" because the trees are shorter and produce big fruit bunches.
Fifty years on, Malaysia's oil palm landscape is mostly populated with Dolly Parton trees.
In an interview with Business Times, seed producer AAR is giving a sliver of hope for the industry. AAR research director Dr Kee Khan Kiang introduced the higher oil yielding semi-clonal hybrid called "AA Hybrida I".
"One of the problems of big bunches is that the inner fruitlets do not have space to develop fully. In smaller bunches, however, the inner fruitlets have a greater chance to develop and ripen more evenly. Therefore, for the same weight, smaller bunches yield more oil," he said.
It then became apparent - bigger is not always better.
Seed selection is crucial in oil palm planting because those who use seeds gathered from existing estates suffer from low yields no matter how many bags of fertiliser are applied to the trees.
Kee confirmed that the AA Hybrida I is "the cream of the cream" and can yield 20 per cent more oil than the previous generation of DXP seeds.
His team of scientists adopted the semi-clonal strategy to step up seed production while maintaining key qualities like the dwarf stature of the tree and high oil yield in the fruit bunches.
"Our semi-clonal seed production technology ensures clients get consistent quality in every seed they buy from AAR," Kee said. "And the good thing is, for now, we're not charging a premium."
During the tour around the Paloh seed garden, planters from Sarawak witnessed firsthand how AAR scientists match-make oil palm trees, working daily to perfect Malaysia's top cash crop with the latest breeding technology.
Another compelling feature of the AA Hybrida I is that its dwarf stature means more trees can be planted. It allows for a higher density of 148 trees in one hectare compared with the current standard of 136.
A smallholder, owning 1,000 hectares in Betong, Sarawak, noted the higher productivity per harvester in planting the AA Hybrida I. "This is good. When the palms start to bear fruit, I don't need to hire as many harvesters like others and yet I can get more oil per hectare."
AAR head of crop improvement Tan Cheng Chua concurred that at prime fruit bearing age, the AA Hybrida I, under good management and environment, is capable of producing 40 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches with 24 per cent oil extraction rate. That works out to be more than nine tonnes of oil per hectare in a year or 2.5 times higher than the country's average yield.
AAR, an equal joint venture between Boustead Plantations Bhd and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd, had started selling the AA Hybrida I two years ago. The company is now working on the AA Hybrida II that will see a further 25 per cent improvement in oil yield. It is scheduled to be launched in 2015.