In highly urbanised Singapore, agricultural land takes up less than 1 per cent of our total land area and more than 90 per cent of our food is imported. Our relationship with food often starts at the supermarket or the wet market and ends at the dinner table. While we may share photos of our meals on social media, the focus is first on aesthetics followed by taste. There is often little thought given to where our food comes from, how they are grown and the farmers who grow them.
A new breed of farmers in Singapore hopes to address the disconnect between people and their food through their work at Citizen Farm, a sustainable and socially-driven urban farm that opened in the heart of Singapore’s Queenstown (Jalan Penjara) in June last year. The farm is made up of a band of 25 farmers from diverse backgrounds but with a shared vision of bringing the community together through urban agriculture. Many of the farmers are mid-career switchers such as former engineers, bankers and civil servants, and 10 of them are individuals with special needs. “The urban farm provides that backdrop for creating that bridge between the consumer and the food,” says Darren Ho, 29, who heads the farm. “As opposed to just going to the wet market, they now have a farm within a town for them to visit and to touch and feel. We want to create that community farming experience and at the same time become a production hub for freshly grown produce.”
Urban farming model
The farm is the brainchild of Edible Garden City, an urban farming company which supports the grow-your-own-food movement in cities. Since 2012, Edible Garden City has been building urban farms for restaurants, hotels, schools, offices and private homes. Citizen Farm is the next step in its vision to promote urban agriculture, especially at under-utilised spaces.
“We wanted to create a bigger impact on the community so we needed to find a place where we can call home,” says Ho. It found the perfect location at an 8,000 sq m plot of land, which used to be the site of the former Queenstown Remand Prison. Unlike traditional farms, Citizen Farm practises a closed-loop urban farming model which integrates different indoor and outdoor farming systems to cultivate sustainably-grown, pesticide-free quality produce with minimal waste. Its closed-loop model takes any agricultural waste generated from one farming system and recycles it for use in another system.
The farming systems employed on the farm include a combination of indoor hydroponics and aquaculture into an aquaponics system to grow leafy greens such as kale and chard; an indoor substrate-based system to grow microgreens like micro basil and pea tendrils; an outdoor soil-based garden to grow edible flowers and herbs such as Mexican tarragon flowers and mint; as well as organic waste to grow mushrooms such as oyster mushrooms.
Apart from mushrooms and greens, the farm also has facilities to raise black soldier fly and jade perch, both of which contribute to the farm’s sustainability. The black soldier fly, which is not harmful to humans and does not transmit diseases, is reared to break down food waste such as soy pulp and brewery grains into compost for its vegetables. At the larva stage, it has a voracious appetite. A tonne of black soldier fly larvae can consume as much as four tonnes of food waste each day. The larvae can also be harvested as protein-rich animal feed and are also fit for pet and human consumption. The farm currently feeds the insect to its jade perch.
To grow leafy greens, the farm’s aquaponics system helps to convert fish waste generated from cultivating jade perch into nutrients for the plants. This system also helps to purify the water used to rear the fish, and promotes water conservation by using 10 – 20 per cent less water to grow the leafy greens than traditional soil- based farming. While Citizen Farm is focused on its green produce for now, it does have plans to sell the jade perch when they have grown to size.
On what sets its produce apart from others on the market, Ho says: “We talk about our produce in a way that no other farmer does. We place a lot of emphasis on quality and honesty. Freshness is a quality that money cannot buy. You can invest in the best technology to preserve the freshness of the food grown in Australia and bring the food here, but it’s not the same as harvesting it that morning and eating it that afternoon.”
For instance, its microgreens, a tasty and nutrient- rich food that enhances both the aesthetics and flavours of a dish, are grown in space-saving, vertically stacked substrate trays under energy-efficient LED light. The clean and controlled indoor environment not only eliminates the need for harmful pesticides and chemicals but also ensures consistency in quality. These factors make its
microgreens popular with chefs. The farm currently supplies microgreens and edible flowers, which are carefully harvested by hand, to 30 restaurants in Singapore. It counts Michelin-starred restaurants such as Labyrinth and the now-closed Restaurant Andre, as well as 1-Altitude and Super Loco, among its clients. The farm also supplies raw materials such as lemon balm and calendula for home-grown lifestyle company Spa Esprit Group’s spa and beauty services, as well as fresh produce for its restaurants like Tippling Club and Open Farm Community.
Citizen Farm is the only mushroom producer here to grow its own lion’s mane mushroom, a type of gourmet mushroom with wispy fringe as well as purported health benefits, from spawn to fruit. It also grows pink oyster mushroom which develops a deeper pink hue when temperatures drop. These are grown using organic materials such as sawdust and coffee grounds, which are later recycled and broken down into compost for its garden.
In all, Citizen Farm is able to grow more than 20 varieties of greens and mushrooms on its premises. Its monthly yield of 50 – 80 kg of produce are sold to 30 restaurants and 40 families across Singapore. The farm has not fully-utilised its entire space to grow food but it is steadily scaling up its production over the next few months. It also continues in trying to grow new varieties of vegetables such as radishes, shiso and other flavourful and nutritious food.
This ability to grow a diverse range of produce and achieve a healthy yield is the result of painstaking research and experimentation undertaken by Citizen Farm to develop and improve on advanced farming systems and create the best conditions to grow its plants. Without this effort, some of its plants including microgreens such as nasturtium and red vein sorrel would not have thrived in Singapore’s tropical climate under normal circumstances. Says Ho: “We grow what is suited to the environment first, and then we look at what we can grow with the technology that is afforded to us. For example, different types of microgreens would require different types of substrate but we managed to figure out how to grow 15 different types of microgreens using one type of substrate.”
Citizen Farm also taps the expertise of farmers in other countries with well-developed agricultural systems such as Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia by visiting them at their farms to learn new methods and adapt them to local conditions. Ho says: “I’m a firm believer in the cross-pollination of ideas between people. Different farmers using the same land and the same resources will do things very differently. No one is right or wrong, it’s just which methods are better preferred. You form your own philosophy as a farmer.”
Small farm, Big dreams
Citizen Farm has introduced various initiatives to further its goal of building a sense of community through urban farming. To provide a link between farmers and consumers, it sells a bundle of its produce which include leafy greens such as lettuce and kale, microgreens like micro coriander, edible flowers and herbs like blue pea flowers and Indian borage, as well as mushrooms like pink oyster mushrooms though an eight – or 12- week subscription service known as the Citizen Box.
By signing up to the subscription service, Ho says that it shows the consumer’s commitment to support the farmer’s efforts for a period of time. This in turn allows the farmer to concentrate on producing the best quality produce for the consumers, and also gives the farmer confidence to grow more over time. He adds: “We encourage the consumers to come down to collect their box and meet our farmers. Our farmers can tell them how to cook it, what the food is about and its history, and that builds that connection.”
To help people better understand its work and agricultural systems in general, Citizen Farm hosts community engagement events such as farm tours and educational workshops for schools, corporations and other interest groups on a range of topics including how people can grow their own edible garden, as well as cheese making workshops. It also regularly offers volunteer opportunities for those interested to work on its farm.
Locally, the farm is looking at ways to duplicate the Citizen Farm model in other towns in Singapore. It has embarked on a project funded by non-profit philanthropic organisation Temasek Foundation Ecosperity, which will see its mushroom, insect and vegetable farming systems combined together to form a three-storey farming unit. These will comprise both indoor and outdoor growing spaces housed in eight shipping containers on its premises. The idea is to test the feasibility of such a unit, with a view to scaling the idea to neighbourhoods around Singapore in the future.
Regionally, Citizen Farm hopes to deepen its links with farms in South-east Asia that share its commitment to sustainability and social consciousness. Besides sourcing for fresh produce from these farms to offer consumers here a wider variety of sustainably-farmed food, it also wants to build a community of like-minded farmers to exchange farming philosophy with. Ultimately, what Citizen Farm hopes to achieve is to change how people think about food. Ho says: “It’s really about a lifestyle, a way of living. It’s mindful eating and understanding how food is medicine and not poison.”
(Text: Lediati Tan. Photos: Choo Hao Xin and Benjamin Soh)