Salad from a carpark

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 9, 2014

Since the start of the year, Mr Bjorn Low and his full-time team of five have been growing small test batches of organic vegetables that can be used in mixed leaf salads - giant red mustard, mizuna, bak choy - and herbs such as basil and mint.

Like most farmers, they deal with pests such as pigeons nibbling on the plants. Team member Robert Pearce, 37, says jokingly: "I squirt the birds with water whenever I see them doing that."

But unlike most farmers, the team's plots are on the roof of People's Park Complex carpark - the latest rooftop farm to sprout in Singapore.

Surrounded by high-rise buildings, the vegetable and herbs are a part of an urban farm, about 30,000 sq ft, slated to open on the sixth floor of the carpark this year.

Last year, urban farming consultancy Edible Gardens, which helps restaurants and institutions build gardens, was approached by the car park's re-development manager, Goldhill Developments, to see what could be done with the under-utilised space. Few vehicles park on the sixth floor, comprising an open-air area of about 60,000 sq ft and a covered portion of 3,000 sq ft.

Mr Low, 33, who co-founded Edible Gardens with Mr Pearce in late 2012, says: "We've always been looking for a space like this to set up a commercially viable rooftop urban farm. This is our dream."

Edible Gardens has helped set up herb gardens in places such as integrated resort Marina Bay Sands and British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's outpost of his restaurant chain Jamie's Italian at VivoCity. Consultancy fees can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on factors such as size and complexity of the garden.

In the next months, vacant rows of carpark lots in People's Park Complex will be filled up with soil planters. About 1,000 pots of about 30 to 40 varieties of plants are already being grown there.

Goldhill Developments says it intends to build solar panels on the roof to generate power for lights and such. It also plans to lease space to food and beverage outlets, and open an activity centre for residents and school groups.

The 3,000 sq ft sheltered area, next to the open-air carpark lots, has been temporarily converted into a workshop, as well as a gallery and pop-up shop called Nong, which means "farming" in Chinese. It is open 4 to 7pm on weekdays, and noon to 9pm on weekends, until March 31.

Online retailers Naiise and Haystakt run the 2,000 sq ft gallery and pop-up store, which stocks products ranging from small potted plants to furniture. Prices start from $3 for a pack of 25 eco-friendly paper straws to $400 for a chair. Edible Gardens holds free workshops in the remaining space on weekends, on topics including The Principles Of Organic Gardening and Propagating Herbs.

Curious residents from the apartments and HDB flats near People's Park Complex have dropped by to check out the garden.

Mr Pearce adds: "We want to be rooted in the community. We are still learning about the micro-climate of this location, from where the sun is located at different times of the day to how strong the wind is."

Last June, social enterprise ComCrop took over a 6,000 sq ft rooftop space at youth hub *Scape in Orchard Link and converted it into an organic vegetable and herb farm.

Besides handling farm operations, ComCrop, formed last year, was set up to develop urban farming technologies and engage the public in urban farming. It was founded by four people - Mr Keith Loh, 40, Mr Allan Lim, 41, Mr Jeremy Chua, 34, and Mr Kuah Zhen Shan, 34.

One-fifth of the *Scape rooftop is dedicated to community projects such as gardening programmes with schools. The remaining area has been transformed into a commercial farm for herbs and vegetables, including basil, mint and tomatoes.

When the farm is completely up and running, most of its plants will be grown in A-shaped vertical frames that are part of a self-sustaining aquaponic system. They will be connected to tanks that hold tilapia. Waste produced by the fresh-water fish is broken down naturally into nutrients that are transmitted to the plants. There will be planters to grow vegetables and fruits.

ComCrop declines to reveal start-up costs and production levels in its current testing phase. But it aims to hit its full production target of about 500kg a month by early June and be profitable within the first year of operation.

Mr Keith Loh, 40, who is in charge of the sales and marketing strategies for ComCrop, says: "The biggest challenge is growing quality produce consistently while dealing with nature, such as torrential rain and overpowering heat."

These urban farms' fresh produce have already attracted the attention of local eateries. About 20 to 30 restaurants and food and beverage chains have expressed interest in the produce from ComCrop.

One of them is Jamie's Italian Singapore. Its executive chef Gary Clarke, 42, says: "The freshness and convenience of being able to see where your produce comes from and who grows them is quite satisfying."

Jamie's Italian also grows herbs such as thyme and rosemary in seven planters on its terrace.

Mr Bjorn Shen, 32, chef-owner of Middle-Eastern restaurant Artichoke in Middle Road, has sampled some of the early herb and vegetable harvests from both urban farms.

He says: "They brought the produce to me to test if it is up to industry standard. The herbs were especially spicy and the tomatoes were very flavourful. I got them just moments after they were harvested."

His restaurant worked in late 2012 with Edible Gardens to build its own herb garden, occupying about 80 to 90 vertical planters in its alfresco dining area.

Tending it is hard work, says Mr Shen. He and his staff have to pick snails off the plants almost every night.

But some customers appreciate the effort that goes into fresh home-grown ingredients. Post-graduate student Karen Koh, 26, who frequents Artichoke, says: "Getting the ingredients locally and growing it themselves is awesome."

Early adopters of private urban herb gardens include Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel The Stamford hotels near the City Hall area, which built a 200 sq ft herb garden in 2008. The garden expanded last year to 600 sq ft and has more than 50 varieties of herbs, vegetables, fruits and edible flowers, supplying the hotels' restaurants.

In the past year, cocktail bar 28 Hong- kong Street and gastropub Oxwell & Co in Ann Siang Hill have started herb gardens. 28 Hongkong Street has a 105 sq ft rooftop garden to grow basil and mint. Oxwell & Co has a 1,200 sq ft rooftop garden to grow herbs such as mint for use in the drinks it mixes.

Nine months ago, Marina Bay Sands converted the about 100-seater alfresco dining area of its buffet restaurant, Rise, into a 1,722 sq ft herb garden with about 50 varieties of herbs, vegetables and fruits including oregano, sage, guava and tomatoes. It supplements the ingredients at Rise, and the integrated resort's celebrity chef restaurants including Waku Ghin and Sky On 57.

Mr Kevin Teng, 34, director of sustainability at Marina Bay Sands, says: "Chefs around the world prefer cooking with fresh ingredients and our executive chef had been asking for locally grown produce."

In the past four to five years, urban farming has taken off in the United States, Hong Kong and Japan. New York is one of the pioneers of large-scale rooftop urban farms and has a school that provides training in urban agriculture, Farm School NYC.

Urban farming is important for national food security as it helps supplement the country's supply of vegetables, says professor Lee Sing Kong, 62, director of the National Institute of Education. He has been involved in developing technology adopted in urban farming since the 1990s.

One reason urban farming has gained momentum here, he says, could be that people are becoming more aware and want to know where their food comes from. Projects such as the National Parks Board's Community In Bloom programme, which have led to the creation of more than 600 community gardens, have made people more aware about food sources.

Prof Lee adds: "If we were to depend totally on imports, we can be vulnerable when there are natural calamities that affect production elsewhere. Urban farming is the way to go so that we can partially meet our needs."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 9, 2014

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