IN PARTNERSHIP WITH ROLEX

Meet the local farmers growing vegetables in underused spaces to feed S’pore sustainably

They plant produce in places like rooftops and community gardens to boost food security and build community spirit

When Mr Bjorn Low first started farming in Singapore, he began with a community garden and helping friends set up gardens before the inception of Edible Garden City. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

 

Walk around Singapore, and you’ll find people growing vegetables in many corners of the island, from rooftop farms to herb gardens in hotels, community plots near homes and indoor systems in industrial buildings.

Over the past decade, urban farming has spread and flourished in Singapore, with Mr Bjorn Low and Mr Allan Lim, two pioneers in the field, nurturing its growth through Edible Garden City (EGC) and ComCrop, respectively.

While the two men have taken different paths to bring local urban farming to the fore, their shared passion stems from the same roots: To see Singapore become more self-sufficient in food, support locally grown produce, which is better for the environment, and foster community spirit by using farming to bring people together.

Since 2012, EGC has trained scores of urban farmers, created over 270 food gardens in a variety of underused spaces, and inspired countless others to try their hand at urban farming. It was rewarded for its achievements in 2021, when it received the President’s Award for the Environment, Singapore’s highest sustainability accolade. 

For more than a decade, Mr Allan Lim has encouraged many Singaporeans to take up urban farming. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

ComCrop, for its part, has popularised rooftop farming, since Mr Lim, 50, set up the firm in 2011. It is Singapore’s first and only commercial rooftop farming company, and has helped to promote homegrown produce in local supermarkets, guide the country’s standards on urban agriculture, and shape courses on the subject in schools.

Mr Lim shares: “We want to champion the idea that there is a nobility in growing food. It is a higher calling to feed people with good food grown sustainably.”

Feeding Singapore

Singapore has been slowly but steadily preparing ourselves to produce 30 per cent of our nutritional needs locally. Here is the total number of local farms as of March 2022.

*Other farms include those for rearing goats, frogs, shrimps etc. 
Source: Singapore Food Agency

Making Garden City edible

For Mr Low, 42, the calling came in 2010 when he was working in advertising in London. Searching for a greater purpose and inspired by the British capital’s farm to table movement, where chefs advocated local food production, he took a sabbatical to travel and work on organic farms across Europe with his wife.

Mr Low learnt to grow more local plants such as ulam raja and luffa which suit the climate better. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

Even though the couple struggled with the work at times, it felt right. The sabbatical turned into a career change. “We originally wanted to save money and buy a farm in Wales, but I kept thinking about Singapore, and how we could apply our experiences to create a better food ecosystem back home,” he recalls.

Returning to Singapore in 2011, he considered his options. The conventional route of leasing land in Lim Chu Kang or Kranji for a farm was too costly and difficult for individuals. While he started with a community garden, he began to notice underused spaces that could host mini farms, and set up EGC to explore that. 

A turning point came in 2012 when Mr Bjorn Shen, chef and owner of the Artichoke restaurant and a long-time friend, asked him for help to convert the eatery’s patio into a garden for vegetables and herbs. “After that, many restaurants were interested in building gardens on their premises, too,” Mr Low says.

Mr Low learnt from the community that certain flowers, vegetables and fruits grow better in Singapore’s climate. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

Even so, the early years were challenging. “Many of our early members were like me: People who left corporate jobs as they believed in the cause. We were taking little to no pay, driving around and setting up gardens in people’s homes and restaurants.

“When we approached institutions and property developers, they associated farming with smelliness, messiness and empty patches after harvests. We spent a lot of time showing that we could create aesthetically pleasing edible gardens and urban farms that would fit into their plans for their buildings.”

Mr Low had to adapt too. “With my training overseas, I tried to grow temperate plants locally. It didn’t work. With the help from the community gardeners, the aunties and uncles, I learned to grow plants that suit our local climate, like ulam raja instead of arugula, luffa instead of zucchini.”

As EGC started edible gardens across Singapore, more people warmed to its mission of growing local food production. In 2017, it put down roots, building an 8,000-sq m urban farm in Queenstown.

As envisioned, the facility produces leafy greens, edible flowers, herbs and more, and currently supplies produce to over 70 restaurants a week. The team hosts educational tours and employs the vulnerable too, including people with disabilities, former convicts and the elderly.

Mr Low’s Edible Garden City, located in Queenstown, grows local produce which he supplies to restaurants here, and also hosts educational tours. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

He adds: “We’re using the space to provide physical and mental wellness programmes for the elderly. We’ve done work with the National Parks Board, National University of Singapore and Tan Tock Seng Hospital that shows that simple farming activities and being among greenery is very therapeutic.”

He has other projects on his plate, including a programme that partners Singaporeans with foreign migrant workers to plant food trees and sow friendships. More are in the pipeline. “Our goal is to create social, environmental and community impact. We’ve made some progress, and we want to achieve even more.”

Raising the roof with farms

When Mr Lim co-founded ComCrop in 2011, he had social harmony in mind. He says: “I sensed a general dissatisfaction in Singapore and wanted to create a common denominator for people to come together. I thought of urban farming.”

Profit and even food security was far from Mr Allan Lim’s mind when he first pushed for urban farming in 2011; he merely wanted to build community spirit. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

He pitched the idea of a community garden without fencing or security – unheard of in Singapore then – where anyone could try farming. Many responded to his call: The government provided land in Bukit Panjang, and coffee giant Starbucks, which he had approached for another project, supplied volunteers and coffee grounds for compost.

“We had youths from polytechnics, other tertiary institutions and schools in the neighbourhood. Seniors working in their own nearby allotment came to give us tips. We were so happy when we saw all the interactions going on,” he remembers.

About 1,000 volunteers helped to build up the farm before ComCrop handed it over to residents who lived in the area, in 2012. After that, Mr Lim set his sights on forming Singapore’s first rooftop farm. “I was seeing all these unused rooftop spaces and it seemed to me that we could use them to grow vegetables.

“At the same time, when we were distributing food from the community garden, it got me thinking about how much better it would be if Singapore could rely less on imported food and grow more of its own. I wanted to set up bigger farms in the city that would engage people, produce good food and get people eating more locally.”

Comcrop’s 3,500-sq m rooftop farm sits atop an industrial building in Woodlands. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

With the government’s support, ComCrop created the country’s first rooftop farm at *Scape mall in Orchard Road, in 2014. The experience was formative. “We wanted to install an aquaponics system for efficiency, but nobody in Singapore had done it. We couldn’t buy systems off the shelf or get anyone to ship them to us.”

Mr Lim and his partners designed and built an aquaponics system from scratch, buying pipes from plumbing companies and drilling 14,650 holes in them to grow plants before assembling them. As they ran the farm, setbacks tested their determination, including an outbreak of blight (a type of plant disease) that wiped out all 400 of their tomato plants in a week.

ComCrop continues to make advances. In 2019, it was the first in Singapore to use the nutrient film technique, which requires minimal water, to grow crops. Mr Lim also advised Republic Polytechnic on setting up its part-time Diploma in Applied Science (Urban Agricultural Technology), the first full-qualification course in Singapore that focuses on urban farming.

At 3,500 sq m, the company’s second and much larger rooftop farm in Woodlands has greenhouses with climate control, automated systems and other technologies. It currently produces up to 200 tonnes of vegetables, including chye sim, dou miao, mint and basil, every year, for local consumption. The vegetables are sold to households and businesses, and in supermarkets.

It has held fast to its three founding principles too: Use marginalised land; tap on technology to engage communities, such as harnessing automation so it can employ seniors and people with special needs; and grow food as sustainably as possible, including avoiding the use of pesticides.

Mr Lim shares: “It’s been a long journey. Now, I see communities coming together to farm, more households setting up hydroponics at home, parents coming to ask if their children can intern at our farm. I want more Singaporeans to love growing and buying local food. It’s better for everyone, and the environment.”

We The Earth is a partnership between The Straits Times and Rolex and its Perpetual Planet initiative. Urban farmers Bjorn Low and Allan Lim are stellar examples of the many individuals who are doing their part to solve the issues earth faces.

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