Monday, June 8, 2009

BTO: Natural growth

Business Times - 06 Jun 2009

Natural growth

It's been 10 years since organic agriculture caught on in Singapore, and farms - along with top-end hotels and recently restaurants - have been conscientiously growing the movement here. Now for consumers to catch up. By Audrey Phoon

BACK in 1999, farmer Chai Nian Kun didn't have a clue as to what the term 'organic' entailed, agriculturally speaking. But he had just begun to rein in the use of pesticides and other chemical products on his parents' Lim Chu Kang property because 'it was affecting our health and we wanted to do something about it'.

'When my father farmed using conventional methods, he got sick a lot. So that was why we started trying to farm without using chemical substances. Organic? We were not really sure what that was at the time,' he recalls.

Fast forward a decade, and FireFlies Health Farm - the Chais' business - is one of the leading organic farms locally in terms of techniques used and produce grown (the family also doesn't need to see the doctor much any more).

The owners travel 'a lot' to keep themselves updated about what other countries are doing, and the farm is run using forward-thinking methods that minimise its carbon footprint and are aligned as far as possible with Mother Nature's. Pests are largely left alone and only hand-picked off the crops when they become too much of a problem, and most recently, a new product derived from mineral-rich sea water minus the sodium was brought on board to nourish the plants.

FireFlies is not alone in progressing with the times. Others, such as Green Circle Eco-Farm and Quanfa Organic which were both set up around the same time as the Chais' farm, have also kept up to speed with organic agricultural methods. Quanfa, for example, recently developed its own eco-friendly blend of compost that it intends to market to farms around the region, and Green Circle set up its first permaculture plot (permaculture being an agricultural system that is gaining popularity among organic farmers because it mimics natural ecological relationships) just last weekend. It will help regulate water flow due to the way the beds are contoured, and reduce the need for piped irrigation.

Perhaps the clearest indication that going organic is really catching on in the local agriculture industry is the rising number of farms.

While FireFlies' Mr Chai notes that 'there were virtually no organic farms about 10 years ago', the tally has grown to about five today (although no exact figures are available because the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority does not differentiate between organic and non-organic farms). And that's despite the fact that there's no such thing as a cushy urban life if you're an organic farmer.

'If I wanted to make money, I wouldn't be doing this,' half-jokes Green Circle's owner, Evelyn Eng-Lim, who gave up a comfortable job as a chemical analyst to follow her passion.

What are the benefits of supporting the efforts of these local farms? Well, aside from the fact that vegetables tended by Mother Nature are known for their flavour and for being healthier because they are untainted by chemicals, buying local organic produce means that less energy is spent delivering it to the customer.

Notes Mrs Eng-Lim: 'Organic is not just about growing healthy vegetables without pesticides and chemicals; it's also about reducing pollution while farming.'

Meanwhile, within the concrete jungle, a landscape of hotels and restaurants that are sowing the seeds of organic agriculture on their premises has started to sprout.

Earlier this year, Swissotel the Stamford and Fairmont Singapore combined to set up a spice garden within the hotel's shared fifth-floor Sky Garden, where plants such as basil, pandan, rosemary, thyme and bay are grown in organic soil. These are fertilised by decomposed matter from about 600 vegetable-fed white worms imported from Australia.

The spices are used in the hotels' restaurants such as Jaan, explains chef de cuisine Andre Chiang, adding that 'we are now also planting lemon, tangerine, eggplant and tomatoes on trial'. In future, he says, he is 'planning to grow more delicate herbs to go with my Forgotten Vegetables dish'.

Au Jardin Les Amis, too, started a 'test bed' of mustard leaves, papaya, lime and fine herbs this year, while on Monday, Four Seasons Hotel Singapore planted its first vegetable patch. The hotel's initiative 'spearheads the launch of our Green Movement this year', says its director of public relations, Adeline Toh.

She adds: 'When the time comes, we will harvest this produce for use in our kitchens. The chillies, for example, will be used to make XO sauce at Jiang-Nan Chun, the mint leaves will garnish the mojitos at the Bar and Alfresco, and the bananas will be used in our dessert creations.'

Evidently there is no shortage of options offering consumers a healthier choice when it comes to eating greens these days. But considering the fact that organic vegetables sometimes cost nearly three times as much as conventionally-farmed ones (because they require more labour, space and time to grow), the question is: will they make that choice?

The restaurants and hotels, naturally, have a ready-made market for their home-grown produce. But all the farms that BT Weekend spoke to reported that they were struggling to make a profit from the agricultural aspect of their businesses alone (that is, not taking into account sidelines such as compost-retailing and eco-tours), generally because people shy away from spending on such a basic necessity. Those who do buy are mostly organic and vegetarian shops, as well as individuals who are 'really into health', say the farms.

Green Circle's Mrs Eng-Lim acknowledges that the price point can be a crucial deciding factor for consumers. 'But if you can spend money to feed your car petrol, all the more you should do it for your body,' she reckons. Those who want a more economically viable option from the local farms, she suggests, should go for perennial crops such as ginseng leaves which are easier and quicker to grow, and could prove just as delicious 'depending on how you cook them'.

Perhaps more realistically, the key to getting people to turn over a new (pesticide-free) leaf when they go grocery shopping - and realise the responsibility that they have to buy food that has been produced using sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming methods - lies in a gradual learning process, reckons chef Chiang.

'We need to educate diners more on why they should buy healthy food which might be slightly more expensive than normal but hugely more nutritious,' he says. 'That will push the green concept a big step further. I guess it just takes time for the market to grow - maybe eventually we will reach the level of France, where 90 per cent of growing is organic already.'

Whether or not we have the luxury of time, though, is another issue altogether.

Straight from the source

Quanfa Organic 
35 Murai Farmway 
Tel 6793-7693

ONE of the largest organic farms in Singapore at six hectares, Quanfa cultivates about 40 types of fruits and vegetables using its own all-natural, vegetation-based compost system derived from a Japanese technique. All crops are harvested and packaged every morning so that freshness is guaranteed, says farm manager Max Liao, whose parents own the farm.

While Quanfa offers delivery, note that there's a rather hefty minimum order of $100 for the service, so if you're not planning to swaddle yourself in chye sim, stop by the farm's on-site store where you can buy its hand-picked produce along with a range of organic foods such as award-winning cold-pressed olive oil from Dash in Western Australia.

Green Circle Eco-Farm 
41 Neo Tiew Road 
Tel 6861-9286

OWNER of Green Circle Evelyn Eng-Lim says she wishes her customers would eat more plants that are indigenous to the region instead of those that have been transplanted from overseas, which is why her two-hectare farm produces plenty of native crops such as cekur manis (sweet leaf), tapioca, sweet potato, wild spinach and wild bittergourd.

The vegetables are harvested the night before or on the day of delivery itself (Green Circle does not have an on-site store), and to minimise its carbon footprint the farm has a delivery schedule that covers certain areas on different days each week - for example, deliveries to the east coast area are done on Wednesdays, those to Bukit Timah and central areas are on Thursdays and customers in the west receive their orders on Fridays.

The minimum order for delivery is $30.

FireFlies Health Farm 
Lot 75 Lim Chu Kang Lane 2 
Tel 6793-7875

TO MIMIC Mother Nature as much as possible, FireFlies grows its more-than-40 varieties of fruit and vegetables using fermented home-made compost comprising rock dust, beans and seaweed. Chai Nian Kun, whose parents own the three-hectare farm, says many of his customers are China and Taiwan nationals, who chomp up his xiao bai cai, nai bai and kai lan because 'it tastes like what they have at home'.

To sample those flavours, head to the farm's on-site store, which stocks imported organic fruit such as kiwis, grapes, apples, oranges and lemons too. FireFlies also provides a delivery service for orders of $80 and above.

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