Paying More For Locally Grown Veggies Can Be A Good Thing

This eight-part series delves into life in farms in Singapore — yes, farming exists here; no, it's not all kampongs and kelongs — and the new generation of farmers who are making farming hip. No straw hats involved.

Praise Phuan, 38, runs urban farm Packet Greens out of office industrial units in Boon Lay which are nestled among manufacturing offices and interior design firms. About 20 to 30kg of vegetables such as lettuce, curly kale and herbs are yielded daily from a space the size of two HDB flats. The farm-fresh greens are sold to F&B outlets and hotels, while retail consumers can buy a la carte or vegetables subscription boxes online. The sales & marketing director of Packet Greens graduated from a Building and Real Estate polytechnic course, but rather than join the family business (which focused on solar energy panels manufacturing before it branched out into urban farming in 2014) immediately, she first earned her stripes in the corporate world, dipping her toes in real estate before moving on to admin and secretarial roles in firms like Procter & Gamble. “I really enjoyed my job. I thought I was going to retire there,” muses Praise, who joined the family business after her dad passed away in 2015. “When my parents first bought this system from Taiwan, they were told that they could only grow Taiwanese xiao bai cai, but we’ve since experimented with about 60 varieties. That was really proof of the concept of ‘give us the space and we can grow all sorts of things indoors’,” she says.

What was your idea of vegetable farming, prior to your career switch?

Before our family got into the agriculture industry, [I thought vegetable farming] was done outdoors in the sun, with all the straw hats and ploughing. (Laughs) I used to think vegetables were just plants. But I was so wrong. I was overwhelmed when I first joined the company and saw how my mum was growing, harvesting and taking care of the vegetables. Harvesting the veggies feels a bit like a mother seeing her son graduating or at her son’s passing out parade in the army.

How did the family get into the business?

The company was exploring how LED lights, which was what my dad used to be an expert in, could be used for other things. My dad and brother wanted to venture into agriculture, but my mum initially didn’t want to ’cos she was afraid of worms and pests. After they went to Taiwan to learn the ropes, she finally agreed as indoor farming [with our system] eliminates pests and she’s very comfortable with this. Now, she cares for the vegetables in our veggie rooms and often experiments with new plants to grow.

What misconceptions do people have about veg farming?

People usually can’t believe that there are indoor farms in Singapore. But land is scarce in Singapore, so that’s the way to go. We have a lot of unused industrial space so it really makes sense. And using technology will transform the agriculture map of Singapore. When my friends find out that I’m a farmer, they’re like, “Huh? You’re a farmer?” I’ll tell them, “I’m not just a farmer — I’m a new-age farmer.” (Laughs)

What do you say to people who don’t get why they should pay more for veggies grown locally?

We are able to distribute directly from the farm to your table. It’s very fresh. We even deliver lettuce with roots intact, and it helps the produce to stay as fresh as it can be. I’ll tell [sceptics] that they have to taste the veggies themselves. It’s just like if you’ve never tasted chilli, you’ll never know how spicy it is. Similarly, once you taste freshness, you’ll know the difference.

How much veggies do you eat?

I don’t have it for breakfast, but my mum cooks lunch here at the office and farm every afternoon and there are vegetable dishes. It’s the same on weekends when I go back to my mum’s place for dinner. We’re definitely eating more vegetables than ever since venturing into this business!

Is it an occupational hazard to check out veggie dishes first when you dine out?

When I’m at a supermarket, I’ll [check] what’s on sale, but I won’t buy. When I go to restaurants and [eat] vegetables, it feels like there’s no taste. Once you’re already exposed to the flavour of intense freshness, you have your expectations.

What are your hopes for the farming sector in Singapore?

As the availability of land space is uncertain, urban farming or indoor farming is the way to go. If you really develop the technology, [the sky is the limit]. We’re trying to bring farming to the next level — from traditional farming outdoors under the sun to where it’s even possible to grow indoors and use an app to track how your veggies are growing. I think that’s the future that Singapore can look forward to.

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