The urban farming pioneer who wants to feed the city’s soul

The urban farming pioneer who wants to feed the city’s soul

Bjorn Low made the work of growing food in urban spaces ‘sexy’, but his other mission is to help city-dwellers reconnect with life. His story on Game Changers.

Bjorn Low and his wife, Crystal Tan.

SINGAPORE: For four years after giving up his corporate job which was making him miserable, Bjorn Low spend a happy four years working on organic farms in far-flung places such as Scotland, Spain and Japan.

But when he returned to Singapore to start up a farm here, he hit a costly roadblock – he could ill-afford the land he needed. “I wasn’t shocked but surprised,” he said.

“To buy 10 acres of land (about the size of 10 football fields) in the middle of Wales with a river running through, with a farm house, cost less than a HDB flat in Singapore then.”

How could one farm without land? While looking around Singapore, the many green spaces in the midst of urban development triggered an epiphany – why not make use of the many under-utilised spaces to grow food?

That’s when the mission of turning Singapore into an “edible garden city” – which eventually became the name of his enterprise – took shape.

WATCH: Bjorn Low's journey (2:55)

His story is featured Monday’s (Mar 6) episode of Game Changers, a five-part series about local entrepreneurs who shake up the way things are done.

GETTING CHEFS TO CHOOSE LOCAL

Inspired by what he called a “global movement” of chefs wanting to connect with local farmers, Mr Low started out setting up edible herb gardens - initially using something as simple as stacked wooden boxes - and was soon approached by various hotels and restaurants.

But to grow his business, he needed international chefs and bartenders here to demand locally-grown herbs too.

Convincing them proved to be a challenge. A lot of the chefs are very used to using Western herbs but they don’t grow very well in our climate,” said Mr Low.

“You need to spend millions of dollars to set up that infrastructure. Using a lot more local herbs and vegetables allows us scale up our operations much faster with lower infrastructure costs.”

Wheelock rooftop farm, set up by Edible Gardens

The rooftop garden at Wheelock Place, which supplies Spa Esprit's Tippling Club restaurant.

An opportunity arose when Spa Esprit Group’s CEO Ms Cynthia Chua approached Mr Low, 36, and together with French chef Benjamin Darnaud – a believer in growing one’s own vegetables – they started Open Farm Community, a restaurant set in an urban farm on Minden Road.

“Urban farming in Singapore was previously unheard of,” said Ms Chua. “But now there is a momentum, there is a rhythm, and it was started because of people who are passionate about it like Bjorn.”

As Mr Low’s business partner, she helped put Edible Garden City on the radar of dining establishments such as the Tippling Club and Jamie’s Italian, encouraging them to use herbs grown in Singapore like cinnamon basil and white pea flowers.

Open Farm Community, a restaurant set in an urban farm on Minden Road

Open Farm Community on Minden Road

FOOD FOR THE SOUL

But for Mr Low, the success of Edible Garden City goes beyond being a movement for locally-grown ingredients, to something almost existential in nature.

He described how working on overseas farms had helped his wife, Crystal, and him to escape the accumulated stress of working in the advertising industry.

“Working on the farm made me realise that actually, there is more to life than material wealth,” said Mr Low. “Being in touch with nature, and growing (my) own food, was able to fill up the void in my soul.”

He noted how “being able to nurture something to life” has been observed to help people out of depression. He added: “I’ve a history of depression in my family, so there’s multi-layered motivation for me to continue to do this - not just myself but for everyone in the community.”

Bjorn Low

His simple and wholesome outlook on life turned out to be contagious.

His employee, Mr Christopher Leow, 29, never thought that he could be a farmer in Singapore until he stumbled upon Mr Low at one of his talks.

“He made farming attractive to young people. He made it very sexy,” said Mr Leow, who used to manage a mobile coffee business. He is now one of 22 employees at Edible Garden City, which had started out with a staff of just three in 2012.

MUSHROOMING SUCCESS

The company’s revenue has since quadrupled to S$800,000 annually in the last four years, a point of success which has helped bury Mr Low’s family’s initial doubts.

“They realised that it’s become a career for me and a business that’s sustainable,” said Mr Low.

Edible Garden City now operates from an 8,000-sqm plot of land in Queenstown. Calling the place “home”, Mr Low said that with the security of a nine-year lease, his team can now “go full steam ahead with experiments” to show how under-used spaces can produce food and add to the aesthetics of the area.

The company is also working with the Spa Esprit group to create skincare and beauty products out of organic herbs. Calendula flowers with their anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties, for instance, can be made into creams, soaps and tea, said Mr Low.

“We have to innovate and add value to the crops we are growing so that we can make it a more sustainable industry,” he said.


One project will see Edible Garden City training and employing adults with Down Syndrome to grow mushrooms out of coffee and food waste, as part of their exploration into “closed-loop” farming.

“Essentially, we’re able to deal with the food waste problem in the city itself, and not having to cart it to a landfill,” explained Mr Low. He hopes this model can be scaled into other sites and even abroad - creating employment for slum-dwellers like those in Bangkok and Jakarta.

“It’s really important for me that it takes off, because I feel that, inherently, we can help urbanites reconnect with nature,” said Mr Low. “Gardening and horticulture has a way to let people understand what life is about.”

Catch the second episode of Game Changers, a five-part series about entrepreneurs who believe it’s reinvent or die, on March 6, 8pm SG/HK.

Source: CNA/yv

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