Urban farmers

BT Weekend talks to homegrown tillers who are sowing the seeds of the future of farming in land-scarce Singapore

Published Fri, Feb 20, 2015 · 09:50 PM
Share this article.

Edible Garden City

MOST people would baulk at the idea of giving up a well-paying job to toil under the sun as a farmer, but not Thomas Lim.

The Singaporean was working in Hong Kong in the finance industry for five years, before joining Edible Garden City as an urban farmer in 2012. The company champions the "Grow Your Own Food" movement in land-scarce and import-dependent Singapore.

"The pay was good, and the job had glamour and prestige, but I didn't fully enjoy it," says Mr Lim, 31, who started thinking about what else to do with his life. "Back then, I had no interest in farming or gardening at all."

During his time in the finance industry, he had the opportunity to travel for work and leisure to developing countries in Asia, such as Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia. Mr Lim saw first-hand how life in the rural areas was so different from city life and he began thinking about social, health and environmental issues.

"I thought about farming and food, and how people who were farming were living healthier and happier," he says.

Upon his return to Singapore, he decided to do something related to food, and joined Edible Garden City.

As an urban farmer, he does foodscaping for clients - using food plants to landscape a space. "The result is a garden that is beautiful, and also effective," he says. Some of the food plants that he grows are herbs, vegetables, medicinal plants and fruit trees.

A food garden can be grown anywhere, on roof tops, on the balcony and on the ground. Mr Lim will advise on maintaining the garden, touching on issues such as soil, water, sunlight and dealing with pests.

He's currently working on a rooftop garden for Spectra Secondary School, as well as a rooftop garden at Wheelock Place for the Tippling Club. Being a farmer is a lot of physical work, sometimes it involves "carrying tonnes of soil up the stairs" and often under the sun. Mr Lim's tanned skin and well-defined biceps are testament to that. "I'd rather use my strength and body to do something useful, than to just lift weights," he quips.

Mr Lim's job requires him to clear the land, sow seeds, add compost to the soil, harvesting and prune the crops, and "also letting nature do its job", he says, adding that he still relies on traditional tools, such as the changkol.

On rainy days, he works indoors, replying to e-mail and working on proposals. "I see farming as a lifestyle. It is a hobby and an exercise rolled into one - and at the same time, it produces food," he says.

Apart from foodscaping, Mr Lim is also an urban beekeeper. "It is part of my interest in growing food," he says. He has beehive boxes in the corner of his grandmother's garden, and one in Kranji. He says that beehive boxes are common in cities such as London and New York, but are still very rare in Singapore. He reads up online about beekeeping, but says that he has been stung before.

The honey that is produced is shared with friends. "It tastes different from store-bought ones. The honey that I get has a more distinct floral scent," he says. Mr Lim doesn't think that more Singaporeans will become farmers like he has, but he hopes that more people would be interested in growing vegetables, "even through a community garden".

His family found it hard to believe when he told them he wanted to be a farmer. "My grandma asked me: 'Why do you want to hold a changkol, when you can hold a pen instead?'"

Mr Lim admits that he doesn't earn as much as he used to, and now spends less on dining out. "But I don't see these as sacrifices. I'm happier with less."



Ruling the roost at family farm

Lian Wah Hang Farm

IT is a funny yet heartwarming sight: a grown man running after a two-day old quail chick and then catching the bird in his hand, and putting it back in the cage.

"This little one was trying to run away," says William Ho, 49, owner of Lian Wah Hang Farm, one of two quail farms in Singapore. His father, Ho Seng Choon, began farming in 1954, and now the farm is run by his son. Mr Ho recalls when he was a child, his mother would bar him from going to the farm, because he was the youngest in the family. Back then, Lian Wah Hang was a chicken farm.

"By the time I was in secondary school, I was allowed to take the bus on my own, and my first bus ride was to the farm," he says. "I found it to be the most wonderful place, where I could climb trees, catch spiders and crickets, and also watched my father and brothers working in the farm."

His father soon got him helping out at the farm. "I was made to clear chicken poop, which was a terrible chore to do as it was so smelly," he says. He later learnt that it was an important task, as from analysing poop, he would be able to check on the health of the birds.

And when his father later asked him to take over the farm, Mr Ho agreed - giving up his dream of working for the Singapore Air Force as an engineer. He learnt animal husbandry from a farm supervisor and was later made farm manager, where apart from managing the farm, he also took on the role of educating children about farming. "The farm was open to visitors, which gave us exposure and revenue," he says. ""It was our way of showing kids where chickens came from."

Later when the farm had to move from Choa Chu Kang to Lim Chu Kang, Mr Ho decided to go into quail farming instead. "Rearing chickens was not a competitive business," he says. Unlike chickens which take 21 days to incubate, quails needed only 16 days for incubation, and 42 days to mature. Once mature, they can lay eggs. For city folk who may not know, a bird lays only one egg a day.

Mr Ho has 150,000 quails on his 2.7-hectare farm, and he collects about 30,000 to 40,000 eggs a day. "Quail is a white meat and more tender than chicken," he says. "Contrary to what people think, quails eggs are actually low in cholesterol." The eggs are sold to egg wholesalers before they are sold at supermarkets.

As quail eggs are a popular ingredient for steamboat, the eggs are flying off the shelves during this period. But during low seasons, extra eggs (S$1.40 for 15) are sold at Farmart Centre, a retail space for local produce in the Sungei Tengah area. Mr Ho also sells his quails, at S$1.80 each there, mostly to housewives. His produce are sold under the "Uncle William" label.

He rears quails but also eats them. "As a farmer, I don't associate produce with pets." Apart from running the farm, Mr Ho also conducts tours for school kids at Farmart Centre, teaching them about quails and frogs. Time is running out for the farm in its present location, as its lease will not be renewed. Lian Wah Hang Farm and its neighbours will have to make way for army training grounds. The quail farm has about 21/2 years lease left.

Mr Ho reckons he will need at least S$5 million to invest in a new farm. He is open to investors coming in. "But in the worst case, I may pull out of quail farming, or go into vegetable farming, which requires lesser capital."

He doesn't see farming as a sunset industry, but rather, "it will be the next big industry".

He adds, "I want to be there when it happens, so I'm holding onto what I can."

By Tay Suan Chiang

Home to 15,000 American bullfrogs

Jurong Frog Farm

SHE'S no fairy-tale princess but Chelsea Wan has kissed many frogs and has no intention to stop. Ms Wan, a "frog-o-logist", as stated on her business card, works at Jurong Frog Farm, which is owned by her family.

The sprightly 31-year-old has been working on the farm for the past nine years. She has an older sister and a younger brother, both of whom are not keen to work on the farm. But even in the early days, her father would give her a part-time job, to help run farm tours.

"Perhaps, because I'm independent and have always been left on my own, which is why I don't mind taking over the farm," she says. "Plus, I don't want my parents' efforts in building the farm to go to waste." She adds that she has never been scared of frogs or their sliminess.

Jurong Frog Farm was started in 1981, by her father Wan Boon Thiaw, who foresaw the potential of farming American bullfrogs. The farm, the only one of its kind in Singapore, has about 15,000 frogs.

There are workers on the farm involved with the farming of the frogs, but Ms Wan will also chip in to help. She has never dissected a frog, but plays a part in helping to debone the frogs and to sort out the meats.

Having lived on the farm since she was 14, the vast space of the farm appeals to her. "Two days after moving into our apartment, I told my husband I couldn't live in it anymore," she says. "It is just so tiny."

There are rows and rows of tanks on the 1.1 hectare farm. A few of the tanks are filled with tadpoles, while some others have froglets in them, and the remaining house the grown frogs, staring at anyone who walks by.

When she is not helping with the processing of the frog meat, Ms Wan takes charge of the branding for the company. The farm is open to the public only on weekends, where customers arrive to buy frozen frog meat and frogs' legs. Jurong Frog Farm also sells its produce to restaurants and supermarkets. But acknowledging that the farm is not centrally located, three months ago, Ms Wan started The Royal Frog Shop Online, so that customers can buy the produce without having to trek across the island. She has also refreshed the company logo into a cuter one of a frog peeping out of the water.

Conducting tours remains a part of Ms Wan's role. But unlike before when it was a simple one around the farm, now "it is more interactive", says Ms Wan, who graduated from the National University of Singapore.

For example, Ms Wan teaches primary school kids who join the tour the fine art of telling the difference between toads and frogs. There are also hands-on tours with live displays and demonstrations. For example, visitors will be able to hand-feed the frogs, learn how to differentiate between a male and female frog and see how frogs camouflage themselves in their natural environment.

Nothing gets her going more than receiving positive feedback from visitors who join the tours. "It is also great when the kids keep coming back to the farm for more," she says. Like some other farms in the area, the lease for Jurong Frog Farm will not be renewed. The farm will have to move in the next 21/2 years. "All we know for now is that we have to move. We don't know how big the new plot of land will be," says Ms Wan.

Naturally, she hopes to carry on running the farm. "But this will depend on how much capital is needed to rebuild the farm," she says.

By Tay Suan Chiang

Villas amid edible gardens

D'Kranji Farm Resort

HOW long does it take for a corn plant to be ready for harvesting? Ryan Ong, 22, director of D'Kranji Farm Resort, an agri-tainment farm would know. "It takes 65 days," he says, adding that a stalk of plant will have two ears of corn. There are about 9,000 stalks of corn on the farm resort, and Mr Ong himself participates in the harvesting. After harvesting, he helps chop the corn plants down. All this is done by hand, and Mr Ong can chop about 300 stalks in an hour. "The corn can be fed to animals. But we also sell it to restaurants within the resort," he says.

While most young people his age may be more comfortable working in an office in town, Mr Ong's office is out in ulu Lim Chu Kang area, amid five hectares of land.

At 16, he worked part-time at the farm resort, helping to plan events to draw the crowds in. After graduation, where he studied business management, Mr Ong returned to the company last year. D'Kranji Farm Resort is managed by HLH Group, of which Mr Ong's father, Johnny, is the executive deputy chairman.

As director, Mr Ong's role now is to ensure that operations run smoothly. At times, he is required to get his hands dirty, when he has to work out in the fields, sometimes ploughing the land. He is happy both out in the sun, and in the office. "I'm a hands-on person. I like to step into the mud, even in my office wear," he says. Walking past a greenhouse, Mr Ong proudly says that he installed pipes by hand, so that the plants can be automatically watered instead of relying on workers to do it.

The resort farm, at 10 Neo Tiew Lane 2, has Singapore's first and only drive-through check-in villas. There are 35 such villas. The company owns the villas, and also some fruit and vegetable plots. Produce that's grown include corn, ladies fingers, papaya, longan, guava, starfruit and rambutans, which are sold to the public.

There are other facilities in the resort, such as restaurants, a spa, beer garden, a swiftlet museum and a pond for prawn-fishing. These are all run by tenants.

Mr Ong works seven days a week. Half a work-day is spent in the office, while the other half is spent outdoors doing harvesting or planting.

Since he took over, he has increased villa sales by 150 per cent. In 2013, another 15 rooms were added, boosting the total to 35. The villas were refurbished, and sheltered walkways were added in. Occupancy rate is at 75 per cent.

With its off-the-track location, being at the resort affords visitors the feeling that they are no longer in Singapore. But unless you have a car, getting to the location can be a problem. "A lack of public transport is our biggest challenge," says Mr Ong. To entice more people to come to the area, the resort recently held a weekend farm fair which attracted about 2,000 visitors.

While the other farms in the Lim Chu Kang area have been told they'll need to move, the lease for the land on which the resort sits on only expires in 2027. "It is too far ahead to think about plans for the future," says Mr Ong.

Mr Ong's friends think that it is cool that he is a modern farmer. "They all want to come to work here as well, but they cannot do that yet, as they still have to go for National Service," he says.

By Tay Suan Chiang

Heeding the call of the sea

Tim's Farm

TIMOTHY Hromatka begins his mornings just like any other parent: he wakes up early, washes up, and drops his two kids off at school. The rest of his day however, is a bit different - it involves driving to Lorong Halus, hopping onto his boat, and heading out to his kelong fish farm near Pulau Ubin.

"Back in Minnesota, people have cabins out on the lakes. Here, how do you get out of the city? You fly to another country, or for me, I go to my kelong," says Mr Hromatka, who came to Singapore in 1997, and is now a permanent resident.

He recalls how the sea "called out" to him five years ago, when he was working from home one day in his sea-facing HDB flat in Pasir Ris. "I thought. 'Wow, isn't that romantic?'" All those guys out there have such a high quality of life, I'd much rather be sitting out there," he says.

With that, he decided to apply for a licence with the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, largely motivated by his roots in rearing sheep on a farm when he was growing up in Minnesota. He then spent the next six months out at sea, building his fish farm with little knowledge beyond a degree in biology and a master's in environmental management.

Now, Tim's Farm specialises in breeding organic-certified red snapper and sea bass (barramundi), and churns out about 30 tonnes of fish in a year. For retail, the barramundi are sold at S$15 per kg for whole fish and S$20 for two packs of two fillets, while his snapper will be sold at about S$20 per kg once they are mature.

His fish are fed a special fish feed made up of 50 per cent organic vegetable protein such as soyabean meal, rice and wheat flour, and 50 per cent sustainable ground-up fish meal - a recipe he made himself at a supplier in Thailand.

The fish feed is just part of his organic certification, says Mr Hromatka. The other parts include regular water tests, stocking the fish in low densities (he puts about 2,000 fish in about 100 cubic metres of water) so they aren't stressed, and not using chemicals such as antibiotics. "There's an analogy - at a conventional farm they spray, at an organic farm, we pray," Mr Hromatka says, laughing.

Of course, not everything is left to prayer, or the hand of Mother Nature. Instead, he has what he calls a "dirty net policy", and illustrates this by pulling up one of his fish nets and running his hand across a thick carpet of green algae. "One of the things about going organic is that I create a natural ecosystem by keeping the nets dirty and letting algae grow. Plus, I cultivate mussels in the net and around the whole farm - they help filter water and balance the carbon exchange," he explains.

Pointing to the water at two small moving shadows, Mr Hromatka adds that every net also has 120 "workers" that don't require levies or CPF contributions - lobsters, which he introduced to balance the ecosystem by eating barnacles and mussels.

"They aren't an automated net-washing machine or anything fancy like that, but it's just kind of going backwards and working with nature," says Mr Hromatka, who admits the industry is tough because it is capital-intensive. Still, he doesn't intend to change jobs anywhere in the near future.

"People come out here not to make a fortune - you go to the city for that. People come out here because of a lifestyle choice. The rule of thumb is if you last two years here, you're in it for life. Me, I've been here for five. You do the math," he says with a chuckle.

By Rachel Loi



BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to  t.me/BizTimes



Get the latest coverage and full access to all BT premium content.


Browse corporate subscription here