Share this article
Homegrowing Heroes

Can Singapore’s urban farmers make locavorism work?

By Chin Hui Wen | Jul 25, 2013

  • Homegrowing Heroes
    Quan Fa organic farm
  • Homegrowing Heroes
    Canta Latt
  • Homegrowing Heroes
    Thomas Lim from Edible Gardens
  • Homegrowing Heroes
    Sky Greens
  • Homegrowing Heroes
    Jungle Beer Brewery

Let’s get real: eating a completely locally-grown diet on The Little Red Dot’s never going to happen. We simply don’t have the space. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of homegrown food enthusiasts from trying. There’s even a bunch of government incentives available for aspiring farmers, from the Food Fund—where the AVA co-funds R&D in local food farming technology—to the Skyrise Greenery incentive scheme, which offers subsidies up to 50% of the installation cost for green roofs and vertical gardens. The government has also set aside $12 million for initiatives under NParks’ Landscape Industry Productivity Roadmap.

It’s all very modern and high tech, and though more traditional farmers will tell you support could be more forthcoming (see Canta~Latt and Quan Fa Organic Farm, below), the general situation sounds promising.

Plus, eating local is just plain cool. Folks all over the world are jumping onto the urban farming bandwagon, growing food even in tight spaces. Rooftop farms like New York’s Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and Brooklyn Grange, Lufa Farms in Montreal, Tokyo’s City Farm, Dakakker and Zuidpark in the Netherlands and Hong Kong’s HK Farm may be run by bearded hipsters, but there’s no denying their popularity.

But what does it really take to grow food on this land scarce island? What are the biggest challenges facing Singapore’s farmers? And—more importantly—where can consumers get some really tasty locally produced grub? We talk to the main players to find out.

Canta~Latt: The Artisan

Canta~Latt

Craft food is big. Brooklyn hipsters are distilling moonshine in their basements, and food obsessed Londoners are making home-cured salami. Here in Singapore, dairy farmer Cesare Cantarella makes some seriously delish milk (which he used to sell in old school reusable glass bottles) and wants to make cheese (think fresh ricotta and mascarpone). The founder of artisanal dairy Canta~Latt says, “I was inspired to start my farm due to the lack of artisan craft products in Singapore.” (read his full interview)

But he found the government can be pretty tight with the land they allocate for farms. Cantarella explains, “We’re only producing a very small amount of milk—around 120 litres at the moment—and it’s not even enough to support the running cost. We want to increase production with 100-150 more cows, but no long term leases for more space are available. AVA is just not interested, and keeps repeating that Singapore is not an agriculture country.” Pity, Singapore could really use a good old school dairy and fresh cheese. 

Quan Fa Organic Farm: The Green Director

Another big trend around the world is getting produce delivered straight to your home. In the US, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes have become a popular way to buy food direct from farmers. And here, two hectare plot Quan Fa Organic Farm in Lim Chu Kang delivers boxes of their organic fruit and veggies to individual addresses. Their fresh greens (the choy sum and baby pak choy are particularly good) are nothing like the slimy stuff you often get at supermarkets.

Liao Jun Jie, who runs the farm says, “I started doing the boxes because I feel like people are getting lazier. And they won’t travel to the farm and buy it here.” But he definitely thinks demand for local food is growing. He says, “Four years ago, when we started our service, we only had around 10 customers, but the number of people interested in what we are doing is increasing. Now we have 100 customers a week.”
Still, Liao also finds lack of space an issue. He adds, “We grow just leafy greens and have no plans to expand the range of crops. The cost of land in Singapore is so high we’re unable to sustain growth. And agriculture in Singapore isn’t really supported by the government: They only want hi-tech farming and not traditional farming.” (Liao rounds out his selection of produce with fruits from organic farms in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.)

Edible Gardens: Made To Order Specialists

Edible Gardens

Folks have long travelled great distances to eat at famed destination restaurant-farms like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. And the trend of eateries with their own gardens is catching on here, too. Edible Gardens, a bespoke urban farm consultancy started in June last year, is helping restaurants build their own green patches, coming up with ways to plant crops in small spaces. Clients include restaurants like Artichoke Café + Bar, which uses tomatoes and herbs grown on-site in a range of well spiced Middle Eastern recipes; Morsels, where microgreens grown on-premise make their way into gorgeous salads; and Pathlight School, where autistic children can learn to plant, weed and water their own veggies. They work on all sorts of fun and inventive projects, including a green roof of lemongrass for mobile food truck Kerbside Gourmet. (Once it’s ready it’ll look like a head of hair on top of the truck.)

The business is manned by a small group of urban farmers including Bjorn Low and Thomas Lim. Lim says, “As part of the urban farming movement, we’re realistic about the space constraints in Singapore and we don’t want to fight for space with the government. We want to use spaces that are available right now, but not really utilized.” In fact, the government is pretty supportive of their efforts. “Green roofs and vertical greenery is something National Parks is really trying to promote with subsidies. It helps to reduce the temperature of the whole building, looks nice and absorbs rainwater to prevent flooding,” explains Low.

Low adds, “Urban farming is really in its infancy with test patches in development. What we are trying to do here is more about ‘sowing a seed’ in people’s minds. We believe that just knowing the farmer who grows that spinach in your main course or that chye sim (Chinese mustard greens) in your noodles can create a sense of community and closeness that is so missing in today’s Singapore.”

Jungle Beer Brewery: The Craftsman

Still, in straight-laced Singapore, homegrown food—until very recently—seemed hippie dippy and impractical, and locally made products weren’t always welcomed. Adi Challa (read his full interview), owner-brewer at Singapore-based Jungle Beer Brewery says, “When I was first starting out in 2011, bar owners viewed local beer as inferior quality and thought it should be cheaper. It was difficult trying to get the same premium for our product as similar quality imported products.”

Adi makes a range of beers including inventive bottles with tropical fruit flavors like mango, pink guava and soursop (from countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and India), plus some well-respected classic brews. He says, “I most often drink the English Pale Ale, which is a very easy drinking session beer. But my personal favorite is the imperial stout, the Kiasu Stout, a kind of beer which—to my knowledge—no one else makes in Singapore yet.”

He has noticed an evolution in attitudes of late and adds, “I think a few key things have changed, we had quite a successful run at the Beerfest Asia—and won quite a few awards. I think that it convinced people that our beer was pretty okay, and that their customers might like it.”

Share this article

News

Spanish fiesta brunch at Botanico

Including places to go to avoid the circuit crowd