Urban farms taking off all over Singapore

Mr Allan Lim (in red) co-founded founded Comcrop, which is at youth hub *Scape in Orchard Link and supplies herbs to hotels and eateries nearby. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH
Mr Allan Lim (in red) co-founded founded Comcrop, which is at youth hub *Scape in Orchard Link and supplies herbs to hotels and eateries nearby. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH
Mr Balan Gopal grows herbs such as dill, woodworm, mint, stevia (on the left) and basil, indian borage, thyme, oregano, lavender and sage (on the right) along the corridor outside his flat. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Mr Balan Gopal grows herbs such as dill, woodworm, mint, stevia (on the left) and basil, indian borage, thyme, oregano, lavender and sage (on the right) along the corridor outside his flat. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

People are growing their own food in HDB flats and on rooftops of malls as urban farming takes off

A slew of edible gardens is burnishing Singapore's reputation as a garden city.

Over the last two to three years, more than 80 plots with fruits, herbs and vegetables have sprung up not only in private and public housing estates, but also in eateries, malls, schools and offices as urban farming takes off here.

Just last month, the Singapore Management University launched such a garden, about the size of a basketball court, outside the School of Accountancy and Law building along Queen Street.

Companies that help build and maintain these urban farms, which typically range from a few hundred to a few thousand sq ft, report a growing interest.

For instance, Edible Garden City, UGrowGardens and Plantvisionz say they had only a handful of projects when they started a few years ago.

Last year, each handled more than 10 projects.

 
 
 

A Facebook page called Grow Your Own Food In Singapore, set up by environmentalist Bhavani Prakash, 44, has garnered more than 1,200 likes since it was started in 2013.

The National Parks Board's Community In Bloom programme, a nationwide gardening programme which started in 2005, has also seen the creation of more than 700 gardens all over the island.

People want to grow their own food for various reasons, says former aerospace engineer James Lam, 55, who founded UGrowGardens in 2013.

He says: "Chefs and homeowners want fresh produce for their kitchens. Companies use the gardens to help their staff relieve stress.

"Schools use them as a tool to teach teamwork or as part of community service, when they get their students to take the harvests to the poor.

"It is also a good way to promote community bonding and for neighbours to get to know one another."

Some property developers are also beginning to see the value of turning their ornamental rooftop space into a productive food garden, says Mr Bjorn Low, 35, who founded Edible Garden City with former landscape designer Robert Pearce, 38, in 2012.

He says: "Instead of paying a landscape firm to maintain an ornamental garden, they pay us to maintain a food garden and in the process, they can also use the space to conduct value-added events on food growing for their tenants."

The social enterprise is in negotiations with the management of Bugis Village to start a commercial farm at a 10,000 sq ft space on the rooftop of its multi-storey carpark.

The farm will supply fresh vegetables and herbs to eateries nearby.

If successful, it will not be the only commercial urban farm in town.

Singapore's first commercial urban rooftop farm was set up by social enterprise Comcrop at youth hub *Scape in Orchard Link last April.

The 6,000 sq ft farm now churns out 10kg each of basil and mint every day that it supplies to about 30 restaurants and hotels nearby.

Meanwhile, a 5,800 sq ft rooftop farm called G.R.E.E.N.S by two entrepreneurs started running last August at Bugis Cube mall.

Observers trace the growing popularity of urban farms here to several factors, including a growing awareness of how the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers can harm health and the environment.

Says Ms Prakash, who grows vegetables, fruits and herbs on the balcony of her condominium unit: "When you grow your own food, you are more careful about what you put into the soil because you know you are going to eat it."

Other factors include the worldwide food security crisis in 2007, which caused disruptions in the supply of rice and other food products here, as well as recent food contamination scares, says Professor Paul Teng, a food security expert from the National Institute of Education.

"They made Singaporeans realise that some level of self-sufficiency was important," he says.

Information on how to grow your own food is also more easily available these days.

HortPark in the Alexandra Road area holds guided tours to its vegetable garden. The public can also sign up for related talks and demonstrations at its Gardeners' Day Out event, held once every two months.

Edible Garden City has been running free sessions on food growing too. On Feb 21, it will pilot a formal course on urban farming for the public over six weekends at a shophouse in Rowell Road.

Each session, to be held over four hours on Saturday and Sunday, is tentatively priced at $40.

By the end of the year, it will also pilot an urban food trail linking Comcrop and at least four herb gardens in town.

A first of its kind, the project allows participants to visit the gardens and sample their produce in the restaurants.

As interest grows, farming input and equipment are also becoming more easily available.

For example, Prof Teng says there are companies that sell simple small vertical vegetable boxes, complete with soil and seedlings, at relatively low prices.

These can fit easily on apartment balconies.

And plant nurseries, which traditionally sell mainly ornamental plants, now also sell various kinds of vegetables in pots.

The cost of growing one's own edible garden varies.

For instance, Mr Lam from UGrow- Gardens says its vertical growing systems, which costs about $120 each, can grow up to about 200 vegetables such as kailan, bakchoy and chye sim within a 11/2 sq ft space. The vegetables can be harvested after four weeks.

Mr Low from Edible Garden City says the cost of having an edible plot starts from as low as $10 for three to four styrofoam boxes of vegetables, such as chye sim or xiao bai cai, including soil and seeds.

The amount can go up to $20,000 and beyond for a garden of at least 4,000 sq ft. Such a plot would be big enough for at least 10 fruiting shrubs, 100 pots of different herbs and rows of vegetables. Herbs can be harvested anytime, while vegetables typically take about a month.

Prof Teng notes that the growing popularity of urban farms here is part of a worldwide trend that hopes to tap urban spaces to meet some of the world's food needs.

A study last year warned that the world would face a dire food shortage by 2050, as there may not be enough resources to sustain the projected population of 9 billion people.

Such farms are now common in big cities such as Boston and Toronto while in Asia, there are significant movements in Seoul and Shanghai.

The Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that urban or peri-urban agriculture (farms that are found in cities and its immediate surroundings) now supplies 20 per cent of the world's food needs.

In some cities such as Hanoi in Vietnam, it is estimated that up to 80 per cent of the vegetables consumed during the summer months are from the peri-urban areas.

But while growing your own food at home and in the community is getting easier, those who want to turn it into a viable business still face hurdles.

Prof Teng says land and labour costs in cities are high, and these often drive up the cost of vegetables produced by urban farms.

More than 90 per cent of Singapore food is imported, but the Government has expressed a wish to hit certain sufficiency targets for fish, eggs and vegetables through commercial farms. The targets are constantly being reviewed.

This, says Prof Teng, will encourage people to give running commercial farms a shot.

In 2013, Singapore produced about 10,300 tonnes of leafy vegetables, which made up about 12 per cent of its total consumption.

Government support is vital to the survival of commercial urban farms, says Prof Teng.

"The Government, as a land owner, may want to consider extending the land lease for these farmers to a longer period, such as 30 years, so that Singaporeans would be more willing to go into farming," he suggests.

Comcrop's lease is for six years while G.R.E.E.N.S' lease is for five years.

Still, industry players are optimistic that more people will want to venture into the commercial urban farming scene.

Mr Allan Lim, 42, who founded Comcrop with three others, says more technologies are now available to boost the efficiency of producing vegetables.

Comcrop uses an automated proprietary system which "doubles the capacity and halves the labour".

This helps keep the cost of its herbs competitive. The aquaponics farm cost the founders the "upper end of a six-figure sum" and they expect to break even by the middle of this year.

A growing demand for local produce is also a positive sign.

For instance, Comcrop has seen the demand for its herbs grow by 20 per cent every month since last April.

It is in talks with an industrial land- owner to build another rooftop farm 10 times bigger than its current one, at a food hub in Woodlands.

He says: "Consumers are seeing the value of eating locally produced food which tends to be fresher and hence tastes better."

He pegs the price of the basil and mint Comcrop produces to wholesale prices. So if the wholesale price of 1kg of basil is $40 that week, he would sell his at the same price.

El Mero Mero, a Mexican restaurant in Victoria Street, gets almost all its supply of mint and habanero chilli - about 500g each week - from Comcrop.

But there have been some weeks when Comcrop could not meet the demand due to factors such as bad weather.

Executive chef Remy Lefebvre, 37, says this is to be expected as Comcrop is just one production house. If there are more farms like it, supply would be more stable, he notes.

He says: "We prefer to buy local because the produce is fresher and has a stronger flavour. The price is also competitive."

leawee@sph.com.sg

A version of this story appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, with the headline "Farm in the city".