"There are more people to feed than there is space for us to farm traditionally”
Meet our new partner, friend and founder of Urban Tiller Jolene. Jolene started Urban Tiller in July 2020 after the peak of COVID-19 and now works with more than 15 local farmers in Singapore to bring the freshest produce that can be delivered within 8 hours of harvesting. Susan and Jolene had a great chat while they were visiting a hydroponic farm Enfarm in Ang Mo Kio where they are growing delicious kale. Read our blog to learn about how Jolene started her Urban Tiller journey as a young entrepreneur, her passion to deliver fresh produce, support farmers in Singapore and healthy living.
Can you tell us about Urban Tillers? The who, what, when, why and hows?
Urban Tiller Singapore came to be around July 2020, when Jolene Lum, CEO and Founder was thinking about a new business model around the buzz of Agtech and Urban Farming. After the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns, the phenomenon of panic buying focused the limelight on where our food really comes from. The idea had culminated after a long exploration in Singapore’s farming history and landscape, and with hope the opportunity to cultivate a new part of it. Urban Tiller approaches this problem from the perspective of freshness- where we believe you should be able to get on-demand ultra fresh produce delivered within 8 hours of harvest which fulfils both nutritional needs and complements our lifestyle of convenience and demand for choice. Having removed the middlemen, we are able to keep our prices significantly competitive.With some research, the Urban Tiller team found that leafy greens can lose up to 90% of their nutrient value within 24 hours of harvest (baby spinach being the prime example). Given the emergence of farms in our island city, our natural instinct is to provide access to the most nutritious crops, with freshness that can be delivered on demand.
Singapore is blessed with sun and rain. Surely it's easy to grow fresh produce here?
As of 1987, there were more than 2000 farms in Singapore engaged in various kinds of agriculture, producing crops from fruits and vegetables to eggs, fish, mushrooms, pork, and poultry. Even then, our farms were small. Each farm had an average of 1 acre, and concerns of hygiene and health were paramount as we proceeded rapidly towards urbanisation. Farming nowadays, naturally, has become a far more organized and intensive process. Our nation-building narratives apply to our agricultural landscape with keywords that remind us of land scarcity, talent and manpower shortages, and the need for technology to automate and reduce the costs of farming. In 2021, we see between 20-45 active urban farms who have moved agriculture into indoor spaces, controlled-environment polyhouses in the Lim Chu Kang area, and even car park rooftops. The “30 by 30” goal reminds us that we continue to import more than 90% of our food sources, illustrating how we have become habituated to an incredibly international and cosmopolitan food culture.
What is being produced in Singapore?
Most activity in agricultural farms in Singapore can be described as olericulture- the smaller subsection of agriculture that focuses on non-woody, edible plants. Given the need to maximise our land spaces and resources, technology has optimized the density of crops by using various growing methods, one of the most popular being hydroponic farming. The most common crops in hydroponic set-ups are those with shallow roots, giving us most of our leafy greens and herbs that we find in many farms here.
Urban Farming then holds a whole host of other challenges and opportunities, from scaling and ensuring a consistent supply of high-quality crops while keeping costs low.
What are the challenges farmers are facing?
The transition to indoor and controlled-environment growing practices has very tangible sustainability wins. Using well-designed vertical and hydroponic systems, we can save up to 90% of water compared to conventional outdoor soil-based agriculture, which makes a dent when we consider that Asia must grow enough food for 250 million more people by the year 2030. Beyond saving water, controlled-environment farming reduces the likelihood of pests and diseases and allowing us to grow pesticide and chemical-free produce that is cleaner and more consistent,
The discussion of technological advancements in farming practices cannot be isolated from its economics. Singaporeans enjoy an influx of low-cost vegetables from our neighbouring countries like Malaysia, China, Thailand, and more- and have done so for decades. Wet markets and supermarkets have not been the best places for us to understand where our produce comes from, and seeing something locally produced might have been more of an exception to the norm on store shelves. Increased cost of production especially at the early stages of a new urban farm can be high and remain high- and food security has to interrogate if there will be paying customers for produce grown here, and only for that reason.
The survival of local farms, tied to local consumer demand for local produce, emerges alongside the conversation of increased food production on the path to food security. Do Singaporeans care about food being produced here? Is that reason enough to share in the cost of our farmers to grow food here? This is perhaps the largest challenge for the viability and survivability of farms here.
Do you work with farms that only choose to use organic farming practices? Why?
The term 'organic' applied to soil farmers who do not use chemicals and often their land had to be left alone for years to prove that the soil is clean before they get certified as 'organic'. In hydroponic farms, the term is far more vague, where using 'bionutrients' which are fully organic is the holy grail, which might cost a lot more. I currently work with most farms that, through their set-ups, can reduce up to 90% of water use in agriculture and do not use pesticides because of their controlled-environment farming setup. We hope to be able to supply consumers with the cleanest produce with minimum chemical addition aside from nutrients needed for the plants.
What do you think about the future of traditional farming(soil) vs urban farming and hydroponics and aquaponics?
We are sitting on a food crisis and there are more people to feed than there is space for us to farm traditionally. While this is a difficult problem to grapple with, hydroponic and aquaponic farming is the most efficient way of growing food and it has technologically advanced by leaps and bounds over the past 10 years. In this way, it is the best way to balance both the environmental impact as well as producing enough volumes to feed us!
During the pandemic in 2020, Singapore announced it would be 30% food self sustainable by 2030. What are your thoughts on this?
Today, we have just over 200 farms in Singapore producing a smaller range of products with a greater focus on leafy greens, eggs, and fish- the same focus areas that the “30 by 30” goal establishes as our core food pillars. I think this is great, but I am personally also interested in the buckets of food not in our core pillars and how we can encourage a hybrid farming model to ensure that we are also producing staples in our diet like carbohydrates, fruiting crops, and this will all require much more innovation and research to do sustainably and at price points that are acceptable to the public.
From your experience, how has the appreciation of "farm to table" and quality ingredients changed the way we eat?
Unfortunately, the prices of farm-to-table produce might still be higher than what we can find in stores imported from our neighbouring countries. For those of us who have access to farm-fresh produce, it has definitely meant a more nutritional and connected way to eat, and I hope that this can continue and achieve price parity in the near term so that everyone gets a chance to try this out!
What's your all time favourite ingredient to use in the kitchen? What's your favourite meal for breakfast?
My favourite ingredient is probably kale, because it is so versatile and nutritious at the same time. For breakfast, I'd most likely choose an easy scrambled egg with some fresh greens and toast!
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