I Was An Urban Farmer For a Day (In Dempsey!)

Singapore
By:: 
Jeanne Tai

I was an urban farmer for a day in Dempsey and it was so tough, says JEANNE TAI who got her hands dirty at Open Farm Community, Singapore's newest, most ambitious urban farm.

Edible Gardens City manages the urban farm at Dempsey Road

Spearheaded by lifestyle group Spa Esprit (the folks behind Common Man Roasters and Open Door Policy), Open Farm Community is a 35,000sq ft complex that consists of a restaurant and an urban farm managed by Edible Garden City (EGC). Founded in 2012, EGC is a social enterprise that champions the “Grow Your Own Food” movement – a salient issue in import-dependent Singapore. EGC helps clients to build environmentally sustainable food gardens. It believes that spaces like this can help reconnect people to nature, and foster a sense of community. 

Maintaining the farm is backbreaking work

It's a battlezone here at the farm. Not the kind with drones and missiles. But it's war with the elements nonetheless. Weeds sprout. Aphids attack. Soil erodes. Squirrels plunder – yes, brazen bands of squirrels have been known to steal into the farm and munch on the peas. Yet I admire how the folks at EGC take maurauding critters in their stride. “It's part of permaculture. You have to accept that some of your crops will be eaten or damaged,” one farmer tells me sagely. The team uses natural means to mitigate damage. Seedlings are moved into nurseries, away from prying paws. Rocks are wedged into sandy patches to prevent erosion. Weeds are yanked out before they flower.

Why does this farm matter? It's in line with EGC's mission to conserve natural resources and to connect cityslickers with the land.

Open Farming Community's Restaurant uses produce on the urban farm managed by Edible Garden City

Not only does the farm supply veggies and herbs to the adjoining restaurant, but diners can also visit and volunteer here, and get a better understanding of where their food comes from. I roll up my sleeves and get to work:

 0930: My poor choice of footwear – Vans – give me away the moment I arrive. All the 'real' farmers here don Crocs. “Real or fake, both also can,” quips Jeanette, one of the farmers I work with today. I'm also lacking gloves. Jeanette tells me to get some from the shed. I feel a swell of pride, slipping a pair on like a seasoned expert. That’s until Jeanette gently tells me, “You've got your gloves on the wrong way.”   

Tools of the trade.

 1000: While sowing wild rocket. I come face-to-face with my first adversary... a garden snail. These gastropods guzzle vegetables and are often killed on the spot, or (more mercifully) banished to the other side of the road. This one isn't so lucky.

 Snails are seen as pests

  “We may feed it to our pet lizard,” says Jeanette before dumping the snail into an empty flower pot. Poor guy.

Snails are “out”, but other creatures are “in”. For instance, the plot I'm working on teems with crawlies – farmer slang for earthworms, caterpillars and other wriggly invertebrates – a sign that the soil is healthy, Jeanette points out. Lizards are welcome because they eat pests, and bees and butterflies pollinate plants. The team is even trying to install a beehive onsite!

  1100: It's mulching time. This is where you cover the soil around a plant with organic materials (bark, leaves, etc) to prevent moisture loss and soil erosion. I’m struck by the farm's “Waste Not” policy. If a crop can't be eaten, sold or otherwise used, it can be mulched. Today we use squash plants that failed to flower as mulch materials. Recycling at its finest!

  1330: Has it only been four hours? I'm wilting like a shrivelled lallang plant. My thighs burn from all the squatting, and there's an actual burn on the back of my neck – why did I forget to bring sunblock? Luckily there is an upside. Whenever I get peckish, I can simply pluck a lady's finger or a starfruit straight from the plants around me. It's a novelty for someone who usually gets her veggies in styrofoam trays. It would be nice to swap my office for this outdoor pantry. And many have. Several ECG farmers are former media, IT or finance professionals including founder Bjorn Low.  

Co-founder Bjorn Low briefs a fellow farmer.

Co-founder Bjorn Low (right) briefs a fellow farmer.

1345: It's lunchtime. 

 Will we makan under the trees with the fruits of our harvest?

Nope. Adam Road Food Centre.  

1400: When transplanting some rosemary into the earth, I also nearly end up burying the pot it comes in. This attracts strange stares. I sign up for watering duty thinking it sounds easy. Little do I know. When fiddling with the hose, I accidently disconnect the nozzle and almost shoot a violent gush of water at another farmer. I have to remember to douse “thirsty” crops like papaya and tomato, and avoid rosemary which shouldn't be overwatered – unfortunately, the crops are planted side-by-side, so I do a lot of yogi-like arm contortions to avoid the right spots. Just when I'm done, the skies open up and rain falls... ah well...  

Rows of wild rocket at Open Farming Community

1500: Weeding beckons. I duck-walk through rows of crops and viciously yank out handfuls of weeds. My face pours with sweat as I wrestle with the more stubborn ones. I must look a sorry sight because at least one farmer walks up to hesitantly ask if I'm okay. After an hour, I call it a day.

I'm streaked with mud and sweat, but I also feel accomplished. I've gained a newfound appreciation for the farmers, and just how much work goes into putting food on the table – I won't be pushing aside my salad greens from now on. Donald, one of EGC's farmers, tells me to come back in three months when the plants have grown taller. “Look at that Red Russian Kale over there,” he says. “The insects love it, but it's still standing, still fighting. That one is a fighter man,” he gushes. Watching the team toil tenaciously under the sun, I think the same could be said for them.

Open Farm Community is at 130E Minden Road.

Edible Garden City organises free community gardening workshops. Follow their Facebook page for updates.                           

 

 If you want to find more about socially conscious living in Asia, check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.

 

                                                               

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