Stay Outdoors To Get Fit(ter), He Says

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.

Bjorn Low, 36, founder of Edible Garden City, runs urban farms at spots such as Marina Bay Sands and farm-to-table restaurant Open Farm Community (OFC). His crops are supplied to 31 local joints like Tippling Club, OFC and others under the Spa Esprit Group stable of restaurants. The father-of-two recently expanded his farming operations to include a 8,000 sqm land plot called Citizen Farm in Queenstown, where pudgy pet chickens roam freely. There’s also enough herbs, mushrooms and veggies grown to feed 500 people a day. The $800,000 business (“We are targeting to hit $1.3 mil this year,” says Bjorn) currently has a 30-strong team working on the farms.

You gave up a cushy ad job to go into farming. That’s a pretty daring move.

I was doing account servicing in an ad agency in Singapore for five years and transferred to London in 2010. After two years, I realised that the corporate thing wasn’t very meaningful for me. I’m just helping big companies make money. There was a lot of media attention back then in London about moving back to the countryside and picking up farming, so I got interested in that. Being able to grow your own food is an essential skill in life. You never know when you might need to fend for yourself. My wife, who used to be a project manager in an advertising agency, also left her job to help me.

What was it like transitioning from a comfy office job to working outdoors?

It was difficult. I grew up in Singapore and city life was fast, but when I was in the English countryside I kept thinking about life back home. It’s mind over matter lah. You get used to sweating after a while.

What’s a typical workday like for you?

I’m managing the business side of things, so I spend a lot of time in front of the computer looking at spreadsheets. Although my agenda is to promote a farming movement, we still have to turn a profit. I consider myself more of a businessman than farmer since I don’t do much farming now, but I still water the crops and plant as much as I can. That’s the fun part before I have to go back to my spreadsheets! We also [have fun on the job by organising] events with drinking involved. We had an event on National Day with [local Filipino roast pig eatery] Iskina Cebu — they roasted a whole pig on our farm.

Did spending time outdoors do wonders for your looks and health?

When I was working in an office, I was definitely less skinny and tanned. You get fitter and more sunburnt when you work on a farm ’cos there is a lot of physical work (laughs). But I’m still the same person inside.

You spent a year at an agriculture college in the UK learning the ropes. What was that like?

Part of the course involved a stint at a farm milking cows. They got very angsty when [I] didn’t milk them on time ’cos their udders got very full and painful. They showed their displeasure by kicking or whipping with their tails! But I put myself in the uncomfortable position of working with animals ’cos we don’t really get to experience that in Singapore. But I’m more into the biology of gardens. I’ve a seedling tattoo [on my forearm] to represent new growth, then another one ’cos my seedling needs to grow, and then a bee ’cos if there are flowers, we need bees [to pollinate them] lah (laughs).

What do you order at a cai png stall?

I usually order all veggie dishes like okra and brinjal ’cos they are cheaper, though it’s not necessarily healthier ’cos of the way the dishes were cooked (laughs). There is no hack for [getting more bang out of your order], maybe only if you establish a relationship with the cai png auntie! It’s the same with farming. The industry is so small, so we try to help one another out. We’re partnering a friend who does beekeeping to support his work.

Do you tell people to eat their veggies?

No. If you want to be a purist, you’d stress yourself out. At first, I was a very strong advocate of eating veggies, but after a while I stopped doing that ’cos I sounded like a broken record.

What are your hopes for the local farming industry?

Our goal and vision is to use all infrastructure available for farming so that in times of need, we can scale up our operations for consumption. [Singapore has] beautiful landscapes, so we are trying to figure out the logistics of growing food in these spaces.

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