Urban farmers

Urban farmers

BT Weekend talks to homegrown tillers who are sowing the seeds of the future of farming in land-scarce Singapore.

Edible Garden City

Most people would baulk at the idea of giving up a well-paying job to toil under the sun as a farmer, but not Thomas Lim.

The Singaporean was working in Hong Kong in the finance industry for five years, before joining Edible Garden City as an urban farmer in 2012. The company champions the "Grow Your Own Food" movement in land-scarce and import-dependent Singapore.

"The pay was good, and the job had glamour and prestige, but I didn't fully enjoy it," says Mr Lim, 31, who started thinking about what else to do with his life. "Back then, I had no interest in farming or gardening at all."

During his time in the finance industry, he had the opportunity to travel for work and leisure to developing countries in Asia, such as Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia. Mr Lim saw first-hand how life in the rural areas was so different from city life and he began thinking about social, health and environmental issues.

"I thought about farming and food, and how people who were farming were living healthier and happier," he says.

Upon his return to Singapore, he decided to do something related to food, and joined Edible Garden City.

As an urban farmer, he does foodscaping for clients - using food plants to landscape a space. "The result is a garden that is beautiful, and also effective," he says. Some of the food plants that he grows are herbs, vegetables, medicinal plants and fruit trees.

A food garden can be grown anywhere, on roof tops, on the balcony and on the ground. Mr Lim will advise on maintaining the garden, touching on issues such as soil, water, sunlight and dealing with pests.

He's currently working on a rooftop garden for Spectra Secondary School, as well as a rooftop garden at Wheelock Place for the Tippling Club. Being a farmer is a lot of physical work, sometimes it involves "carrying tonnes of soil up the stairs" and often under the sun. Mr Lim's tanned skin and well-defined biceps are testament to that. "I'd rather use my strength and body to do something useful, than to just lift weights," he quips.

Mr Lim's job requires him to clear the land, sow seeds, add compost to the soil, harvesting and prune the crops, and "also letting nature do its job", he says, adding that he still relies on traditional tools, such as the changkol.

On rainy days, he works indoors, replying to e-mail and working on proposals. "I see farming as a lifestyle. It is a hobby and an exercise rolled into one - and at the same time, it produces food," he says.

Apart from foodscaping, Mr Lim is also an urban beekeeper. "It is part of my interest in growing food," he says. He has beehive boxes in the corner of his grandmother's garden, and one in Kranji. He says that beehive boxes are common in cities such as London and New York, but are still very rare in Singapore. He reads up online about beekeeping, but says that he has been stung before.

The honey that is produced is shared with friends. "It tastes different from store-bought ones. The honey that I get has a more distinct floral scent," he says. Mr Lim doesn't think that more Singaporeans will become farmers like he has, but he hopes that more people would be interested in growing vegetables, "even through a community garden".

His family found it hard to believe when he told them he wanted to be a farmer. "My grandma asked me: 'Why do you want to hold a changkol, when you can hold a pen instead?'"

Mr Lim admits that he doesn't earn as much as he used to, and now spends less on dining out. "But I don't see these as sacrifices. I'm happier with less."

taysc@sph.com.sg
@TaySuanChiangBT

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