Turning marginalised spaces into community Fa.R.Ms in the heartlands

INTRODUCTION

You probably already know that Singapore has a flourishing, high-tech farming scene, which is part of our 30 by 30 goal to build up our agri-food industry’s capability and capacity to produce 30% of our nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030. But households can have the capability to grow their own food too! We spoke to John and Sow Yun of Farmily, who have a vision to decentralise the farms into many small satellite Fa.R.Ms in the heartlands, so that all of us can play our part to grow our own food right at the doorstep of your home.

Sow Yun (left) and John, are from different backgrounds — Sow Yun has a background in architecture, while John is a former commercial farmer.

NOT JUST A FARM, BUT A Fa.R.M

We visited their farm at Kebun Baru Community Club (CC) early one Saturday morning as Farmily volunteers harvested fresh vegetables such as kangkong, spinach, and even kale. The first thing that strikes us is that the farm takes up a thin strip of land on the outskirts of the CC — certainly not where you’d usually find a farm. Despite that, the land is well-used — the space is neatly lined with rows of raised beds and plant pots.

To help fund their start-up costs in turning this under-used plot of land into a community urban garden, Farmily applied for the SG Eco Fund, which supports projects that advance environmental sustainability and involve the community. Several months later, with hard work and help from their volunteers, this thin strip of land transformed into a thriving urban Fa.R.M.

Here, a Fa.R.M is an acronym. ‘Fa’ stands for farming, ‘R’ stands for relationship and community engagement, and ‘M’ stands for modern technology and marginalised spaces in the heartlands. All these aspects come together as a whole to build sustainable communities through communal farming in the heartlands.

Another interesting thing that we noticed when we visited the Fa.R.M is that there are no fences there at all. “We want to encourage everybody to just walk in and participate,” explains Sow Yun. Farmily aims to make farming more accessible to everyone, and this is a philosophy they’ve taken to heart.

“Many people want to build a community garden, but don’t know how to do it and where to start,” Sow Yun adds. “We hope to spread the message to say that, hey, we’re here to help build sustainable communities, one garden at a time.”

The raised beds were specially designed by John to make it easier for their volunteers — many of whom are elderly — to check on, and eventually harvest, the vegetables. The design also makes it easier for wheelchair users to take part too!

TAPPING ON TECH

Like many farms in Singapore, Farmily taps on smart technology to streamline its processes and maximise resource efficiency. Sensors regulate the Fa.R.M’s auto-irrigation systems, and ensure the crops only use as much water as needed, conserving water resources. Energy for the auto-irrigation system also comes from the energy stored from their solar panels.

A volunteer reconditions the soil after a vegetable harvest.

John, who has 10 years of experience as a commercial farmer, knows how backbreaking the farm work can be, which is why he wants to tap on technology to simplify the process for the farm’s volunteers. Since many of them have full-time jobs and commitments outside of the farm, this allows them to spend more time bonding.

“When [volunteers] come together, they have maybe 2–3 days out of a week to spend… so I want to leverage technology to help make gardening more enjoyable for them.”

Farmily’s germinator, which they use to grow baby seedlings in a more controlled, protected environment, with auto-irrigation. It’s solar-powered too!

KEEPING IT IN THE FARMILY

Farmily can trace its roots partially back to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid questions of food security in the early days of the pandemic, coupled with everyone being isolated at home, Sow Yun says the seed for people to learn about accessible farming was planted. “Not only is growing your own food a way to manage your own food security, it can also help improve your mental well-being,” she adds. Growing your own food is also a good way to reduce your own carbon footprint — there’s very little emissions associated with that lettuce you’ve farmed in your backyard compared to one that is shipped from overseas!

While the farm at Kebun Baru CC is a start, it’s by no means the end goal. A key part of Farmily’s strategy also comes in engaging the community through social media (on Facebook and Instagram), holding online and physical workshops on gardening and composting. Residents are encouraged to contribute fruit and vegetable scraps, which will be turned into compost and used in the community Fa.R.Ms. With food waste being one of our biggest waste streams (in 2019, Singaporeans generated around 744 million kg of food waste!), this is a good demonstration on how we can achieve circularity in our food waste loop!

John and Sow Yun hope to see this model replicated throughout Singapore with satellite community Fa.R.Ms in every corner of the heartlands, making it more accessible for people across Singapore to contribute their fruit and vegetable scraps to community Fa.R.Ms near their homes.

Those who attended Farmily’s Zoom sessions on composting learnt tips and tricks of composting through the hands-on activity of making a miniature composter made out of a recycled PET bottle.

This approach seems to be paying off so far — Sow Yun proudly shares that one of their volunteers recently applied for their own SG Eco Fund grant to bring the same community Fa.R.M concept to their condominium in Sembawang.

PARTING WORDS

At its core, growing your own food is a noble venture, and Farmily is keen to bring the love of farming to more people. We asked John and Sow Yun what farming means to them.

John: “Farming is about giving to the community. We hope this farm can nurture a person’s heart.”

Sow Yun had a slightly different view:

“For me, it’s building bonds. We see a heart-warming bond amongst the gardeners, which is very beautiful.”

If you, too, have an idea that promotes environmental sustainability and involves the community, you can apply for an SG Eco Fund grant to bring that idea to life! The third grant call is now open — apply now till 31st August 2022 here.

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