SINGAPORE: After Madam Tan Swee Jee’s husband failed to find okra on a recent trip to the market, she revived her interest in farming and began planting again.
The retiree in her 60s had started organic farming a few years ago but grandchildren and other activities left her little time to tend to her garden. As Singapore hunkered down for the “circuit breaker” period, she found time and reason to grow not just okra, but tapioca, papaya, herbs and other vegetables.
“We rely on other (countries) for our food, if they don’t sell to us we have nothing to eat,” she said in Mandarin. “This way, at least I can still have lady’s fingers.”
Farm supply shops and companies that run urban farming workshops told CNA that there has been more interest in home farming since around February or March.
Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Orange on Feb 7 after some locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 were detected, sparking a brief spate of panic buying.
In mid-March, Malaysia imposed a movement control order which raised concerns that food supplies from the country, including vegetables, eggs and fruit, might be affected. Authorities came out swiftly to say that food and essentials from Malaysia will continue to flow during the lockdown.
But Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing has warned that Singapore would have to be ready for disruptions to its supply of food and other essentials as lockdowns in various countries have diminished global production capacities and disrupted global supply chains. About 90 per cent of Singapore’s food currently comes from overseas.
As the pandemic spread around the world and worsened here, Singapore announced on Apr 3 that most work places and schools would close in a circuit breaker period that started from Apr 7, and that people were to leave their homes only for essential activities such as buying food and groceries.
GROWTH IN INTEREST, SALES
Farm 85 Trading, a vegetable farm which also sells seedlings and farm supplies, said that its sales went up by five times right after the circuit breaker was announced, with customers buying a range of items from soil and seedlings to compost.
“Most of the customers we have seen are people who were new to farming or gardening ... Almost all customers were determined to try and grow edibles in their own homes,” said Mr Zach Tan, the farm’s manager.
Mr Kevin Tan, director of Ban Lee Huat Seed said they saw a 50 per cent increase in sales of seeds since the start of the outbreak, along with more interest in Asian leafy greens like bak choy and kang kong.
Urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City has seen an uptick of interest in home gardening, a spokesperson said. Enquiries for their edible landscaping service increased by 40 per cent, but they could not follow up with these requests after circuit breaker measures kicked in.
“Many of those who enquired about garden builds cited COVID-19 as just one amongst a host of reasons why they wanted to have a home garden … Many also added that they now see that food security is an important issue in Singapore,” said the spokesperson.
Two centres that run organic farming courses, Gardens with Purpose and The Living Centre, also said that demand for their courses are at a high.
Ms Joanne Ng, founder of Gardens with Purpose, said that she was slated to have a large class just before the circuit breaker but she had to suspend it as measures restricting gatherings were tightened.
She is now considering selling the vegetables she grows on her 2,000 sq ft farm as she has been getting more queries from consumers.
The National Parks Board’s (NParks) said that as the interest in gardening increases, more people are growing their own microgreens, herbs and other edibles at home.
“Given the amount of time we are spending at home, it is a good opportunity for more people to learn to garden at home,” said Mr Ng Cheow Kheng, group director for Horticulture & Community Gardening at the agency.
GREENHORNS & BEAN SPROUTS
Rock climbing instructor and gardening enthusiast Jack Yam told CNA that substantially more people have been asking to join the Facebook interest group he runs – Urban Farmers (Singapore).
Some have also been posting questions on how to start their own home gardens or farms, which prompted him to post tutorials on the Facebook page for their reference.
“There were quite a number of posts in the group, new members actually saying that hey, I'm totally new. I have no idea of how to start. What are the things that are needed?” he said.
One of them was engineer Ong Chee Lam, who said that he has an interest in growing edibles but has yet to start a proper farm at home. He has begun experimenting with bean sprouts and some herbs.
“The reason why I wanted to start was because of how the COVID-19 situation unfolds, it made us realise that the food security is a real issue so went to read up and see how we can do something in urban Singapore,” he said.
His first haul was 400g of bean sprouts which added some crunch to his mee rebus, and he will continue, he said.
“I suspect the new normal will not be the same ... (I) will definitely continue to research and take action to keep this as a sustainable hobby,” he added.
Meanwhile, some experienced growers CNA spoke to are growing more edibles rather than ornamental plants.
Ms Mandisa Jacquelin Toh said that her family was working towards self-sufficiency when it comes to vegetables and fruit.
“It's truly a right direction when we are hit by COVID-19 and the circuit breaker period … we don't have to risk ourselves going to wet market and supermarket unnecessarily,” she said.
The IT professional, who is in her 40s, said she has set up a rotating system which allows her to harvest some produce every day from her rooftop garden, which she said is a third the size of a football field.
The list of edible plants she grows rivals a supermarket’s selection, including long beans, figs, mulberries, herbs, corn, tomatoes, chilli, lime, okra and bittergourd. She even has muskmelons, watermelons, guava, custard apples, starfruit, kedongdong, mangoes and cempedek.
“We regretted not starting even earlier when COVID-19 started,” said the long-time gardener, who started seriously growing edibles about 10 months ago.
Mr Yam, who grows his plants along the corridor and common spaces outside his Housing Board flat, also made the switch months earlier and said he was glad he did. Now, vegetables including xiao bai cai, kalian and kale make up 80 per cent of his urban garden.
“Because of my space constraints, it’s not fully sustainable, but at least it supplements the food that we are eating,” he said. “Seeing the sudden surge in interest, I'm actually quite excited and happy about it.”
But he found that many people who wanted to start their home gardens or farms were “caught off-guard” and once the circuit breaker started, it was hard for them to get supplies. This was why he also put up a tutorial on growing bean sprouts, and he has seen quite a few people posting their attempts online.
“Green beans are easy to get hold off, and then within three to four days you can get the harvest. As a parent, you could occupy your kids with this particular activity, yet at the same time grow something that your family can eat,” he said.
NParks has also put up a series of tutorials on home gardening on social media, including DIY gardening videos, information on plants that can be easily grown at home and simple recipes for produce from home gardens.
Some simple plants to start with are microgreens, Brazilian spinach, Indian borage and herbs like mints and basils, Mr Ng suggested.
Beyond sustenance, the home farmers said that caring for their plants has been good exercise and a source of joy in an anxious time for many.
Halfway house The Helping Hand happened to start their urban farm this month, and tending to the vegetables has replaced some of the carpentry and furniture delivery activities residents did before the circuit breaker period.
An underused grass patch at the home now has 20 raised vegetable beds that is providing both food and therapy of sorts.
“It teaches our residents some very important skills and values, which helps us in some ways as emotional regulator. It teaches them patience, and also introduces the green concept,” CEO Mervyn Lim told CNA.
READ: The Big Read: Singapore has been buttressing its food security for decades. Now, people realise why
For now, the vegetables will be cooked and consumed by the residents but they will look into turning the farm into a social enterprise, and may even open a café, he added.
Resident Toh Chiang Hee, who is in his early 60s, told CNA that seeing the plants grow has given him a lot of joy.
“I talk to the seedlings and tell them to grow bigger and taller,” he said in Mandarin.
These shoots of growing interest come as Singapore aims to produce 30 per cent of its food supply locally by 2030. A new S$30 million grant was announced in April for the agri-food industry to help commercial farms speed up the production of commonly consumed food like eggs, vegetables and fish.
And the spurt of enthusiasm for home farming springs from a gradual burgeoning of interest in recent years, said both Ms Ng of Gardens with Purpose and Ms Faith Foo from The Living Centre.
READ: COVID-19 pandemic highlights importance of strengthening Singapore's food security, say experts
“We have been advocating for urban farming through a wide range of urban farming courses since the establishment of our centre the last five years, and thus have also seen a progressive trend of people interested in urban farming,” said Ms Foo, who has moved all their courses online for the circuit breaker period.
Ms Ng said that she has noticed more young people and families sign up for her organic farming courses before the COVID-19 outbreak and hopes that schools can be next. Before this, many Singaporeans still felt that it was easier to import vegetables from other countries, and the toil for “a few vegetables” was not worth it, she added.
“Toxic chemicals are everywhere, be it food or the environment, so I started to prepare this 10 years ago … now the time is right, Singaporeans didn’t expect the food supply chain can be disrupted,” she said. “I didn’t see COVID-19 coming but I knew there would be a demand for clean food.”