The Rise of Sustainable Urban Farms in Singapore
"In the future farmers will be the one driving the Lamborghini cars."
What investor Jim Rogers said rang in my head as I strolled alongside the green-fingered Fabian Liao through the rows and rows of chye sim and kai-lan. I mentioned the Lamborghini prediction to Fabian. He laughed and said, “Well the neighbouring farm is doing pretty well. The owners have three cars – a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and a Range Rover.” I uttered God’s name in vain and asked Fabian what produce they sold. “Goat’s milk.”
THE FORGOTTEN FARMLANDS
I was at Quan Fa, a two-hectare organic farm tucked away in the wilds of Kranji. Getting to this place involved traversing a few back roads, a confused passenger and an even more bewildered Uber driver who checked Google Maps more times than what I deemed comforting. But I eventually did reach the farm.
Young and idealistic, Fabian is the marketing manager and the second generation of the Quan Fa family. The organic farm, which still uses traditional, time-honoured methods to grow its crops, has been at Kranji for such a long time that even Fabian is unsure when exactly it started operations. He does know that the farm dispensed with pesticides and chemicals 17 years ago, choosing instead to harness the power of nature and ingenuity when creating fertiliser and dealing with pests. Strips of yellow sticky tape (seen above) mounted on sticks dotted the lands where the vegetables were being grown. “The insects are attracted to the colour and fly straight to it. Then they get stuck,” Fabian explained. I asked Fabian why he was averse to advanced farming methods such as hydroponics and the like, and his answer was simple: chemicals.
Similar to the reasons behind the current backlash against processed food and the rise of cafes hawking paleolithic dishes, Fabian reasoned that the best vegetables for your body are those grown organically. “Let’s talk about hydroponics. This method introduces chemicals into the water to make the crops grow. A lot of these chemicals, in high doses, are bad for the body, which is why the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore has to set limits to the amount that can be used,” Fabian explained.
But with space being such a premium in Singapore, you must admit that we need to find a way to innovate farmlands, I challenged Fabian. He didn’t shy away from it. “I hear where you’re coming from but we cannot urbanise everything. Singapore cannot just rely on imports. We need to have food security,” said Fabian. “I believe the government understands this. It has been shifting quite a number of farms here to Kranji and while I’m not sure if it will take the farmlands back in the future, we farmers here have already told the government what we want, which is to stay.”
FARM TO TABLE
Fabian’s point about freshness and chemically-laden vegetables resonates with a few restaurants in Singapore albeit with slightly different reasons. Artichoke, the popular Middle Eastern restaurant on Middle Road, grows its own herb garden. Started two years ago, the garden allows Artichoke to control the quality of the vegetables it uses in its food. “It’s actually quite cool. We can control the flavour and tartness of our ingredients. Like our pickled green tomatoes, for example. You can’t import these because by the time the tomatoes reach our shores, they’ve turned red and ripe,” said Artichoke’s chef Jonathan Lee.
As much as possible, the restaurant tries to commit 33 per cent of its menu to locally sourced produce although Jonathan says it can be tricky since quality can vary greatly. However, despite this, he still believes in supporting local farmers and reckons the key is to transform the image of local vegetables. The first step is to create a demand and Jonathan feels fine dining restaurants could help with that, “using bok choy or kai-lan instead of their funny French stuff or white asparagus”.
And to push the cause further, the farm-to-table concept can be used by F&B outlets as a marketing tool, like what The Green Door does. Nestled at Dempsey, the bar has a popular fruit and vegetable garden for customers to visit and for its bartenders and cooks to drop by and pluck ingredients fresh from the vine.
“It’s helped to distinguish ourselves from other bars and restaurants. We’re known as a lush garden bar. Customers come because they know that they are going to get refreshing cocktails featuring fresh ingredients,” said Yuan Oeij, The Privé Group’s chairman and mastermind of The Green Door.
Oeij conceded that the unfortunate reality in Singapore is that importing is necessary to keep kitchens well-stocked, such is our voracious appetite. “Ideally, it’s better to be self-reliant,” he stressed.
THE FUTURE OF FARMING
But perhaps self-reliance and food security don’t have to remain pipe dreams for Singapore. Already urban farms have begun sprouting around the country in unexpected places. Head to the top of Wheelock Place, and you’ll find a flourishing urban farm started by Edible Garden City. Its co-founder Rob Pearce revealed, “We also have an urban farm at the Raffles City shopping centre.”
He challenged the notion that space is a premium in Singapore. Instead he posits that there are plenty of empty plots, if only we would upend our conventional thoughts on farming. To Pearce the concrete jungle isn’t a metaphor; it’s literal.
That’s how he managed to secure the plots at the two locations. He talked to the management, explained that they were spending too much money to maintain these ornamental landscapes and proposed that he take over the space.
One of the challenges of setting up an urban farm is the high start-up cost. Aspiring green thumbs need to invest in R&D, physical structures and staffing. After the initial flurry of logistics comes the search for clients. “It can be hard competing with importers on price alone,” Pearce conceded. So the urban farmer is diversifying the business. He’s setting up a retail space in Hort Park, opening next month, to sell home farming supplies and host workshops for those interested to know more.
“A lot of tasty vegetables can actually be grown in Singapore. We have sunlight, rainfall and humidity. You only need the knowledge. It’s just that modern society has grown accustomed to importing food,” said Pearce.
Jim Rogers might be right after all. Time to pick up a hoe. That Lamborghini is waiting.
NESPRESSO'S SUSTAINABILITY EFFORTS
It might seem strange that a global brand such as Nespresso is working closely with local farmers but the coffee producer is dead serious about its sustainability efforts. Nespresso works closely with Quan Fa, supplying the farm with used coffee grounds that the farmers mix into the compost. Why coffee grounds? It retains water better. “Quan Fa and we share the same values in sustainability and quality, and it’s a great way to close the loop,” explained Nespresso’s country manager Matthieu Pougin. The coffee producer is serious about its sustainability efforts. While most brands do the bare minimum, Nespresso consistently does above and beyond. It encourages buyers to recycle the used aluminium capsules by dropping them off at its two boutiques at ION and Takashimaya. And if making that effort is too much to ask, it sends out a delivery person to bring you the new coffee capsules you’ve ordered from the webstore and collect the used ones to recycle.