BABY STEPS FROM FARM TO PLATE
Pocket Greens helps enthusiasts, and more than a few top chefs, grow their own microgreens and baby vegetables
Pocket Greens helps enthusiasts and chefs grow their own microgreens and baby vegetables
What we learn of Eng Ting Ting’s keen business acumen one rainy morning, we glean more from the short car ride to town she kindly offers, than in the hour we spent at her farm in Bukit Panjang. Her company, Pocket Greens, teaches people how to grow their own greens; this includes selling seeds and vegetable growing kits, as well as conducting workshops, tours and talks. But her other business supplies shipping containers, a venture she dived into 16 years ago from a career in publishing and graphic design. She must have told the story many times over, but it sounded as fresh as day, the way she saw a niche in the container business, seized the day, and made a success of it.
It was the same knack for sniffing out opportunities that got her edible greens business off the ground almost a decade ago. Only this time, it involved something close to her heart. Born to orchid farmers, she always had green fingers and was used to reaping what the family sowed. “Even before the ‘farm-to-table’ concept was introduced, we were eating things we grew ourselves. On my parents’ orchid farm in Lim Chu Kang, we could go into the garden anytime, take durian, sweet potato or tapioca and make a dessert. My parents still live on a commercial orchid farm. My kids are lucky as we stayed there for some time and they got exposed to the natural environment. But we realised that most children in Singapore rarely know where their food comes from.”
That observation, coupled with a visit to the UK where she learnt about plug horticulture, or growing seedlings in trays, led her to start a vegetable growing kit business called Easi Garden in 2009. “People want to grow food but it’s not fully possible because they live in apartments where there might not be enough sunlight or space. Still, we wanted people to learn how to grow something simple so we launched growing kits such as one for growing baby greens, which is almost fool proof.”
Indeed, lightweight, low-maintenance and fast-growing, micro and baby greens (from three to four weeks old onwards) are a good solution for urban farming in this region’s dense, tropical climes. As her vegetable growing kit business grew, school teachers began enquiring if she had a place where they could bring their kids to learn about farming. Enter Pocket Greens Urban Farm and Barn in 2014, Eng’s 100sqm farm at the top of Bukit Panjang Hill, a quiet spot behind Eco Sanctuary condominium, accessible by foot from HDB blocks 210 or 201 on Petir Road. The farm grows micro and baby greens, along with some herbs and edible flowers. Eng says, “We do a lot of education workshops here so we try to have staples the children eat. We grow rice for instance, to show them that it’s possible to grow it here even without a flooded padi field. And we try to grow things like wild strawberries, mulberry, even grapes.”
These are grown more as educational aids, but the heart of productivity on the farm lies within their 70-rack strong vertical farming system for growing micro and baby greens. Anyone can ‘adopt’ a rack for $50 a month, out of which 40% of the takings go towards the North West CDC’s needy students’ fund. Grown in compost from the peat forests of Germany, seeds sourced globally are placed on trays−20 on each four-levelled rack−watered automatically, and pretty much left to grow on their own with natural sunlight. Eng says the advantage of growing microgreens is that their flavours are just as intense when they are young, and maybe even more nutritious than when fully matured. “We give our customers more than 20 over seeds to choose from,” she says. “We actually grow a lot of coloured vegetables such as beet, swiss chard, rocket, wispy red mustard, red amaranth and mizuna, even shiso. Items like kale and shiso are not so productive in this weather, whereas fast-growing ones like radish takes five days to harvest, sunflower seven days, and pea 10 days. The rest take generally two weeks.”
The rack adoption programme has proved popular with people from all walks of life, especially families, who see it as a good way for grandparents and children to bond. Eng says, “When they’re here for the first time, we teach them how to sow and harvest, and dispose of compost that we later recycle. The following week, they can do it themselves. We give them their own access code to access the racks. We even have a lady who comes to grow
wheatgrass and sunflower microgreens for her rabbits.”
LOVED BY RESTAURANTS
Apart from enthusiasts, her racks have found favour with some of the top chefs in town as well. Over 10 establishments in Singapore such as BAM!, Candlenut, Corner House, Seafood Paradise and the ilLido Group of Restaurants and Bars are adopting racks with her. She says some of the earliest ones to approach her were restaurants like Odette, White Rabbit and Whitegrass, who were excited about the concept of using local produce that was freshly harvested.
“We usually start by telling the chefs what’s possible to grow on these racks. They come and taste to see what’s suitable for their dishes. Popular items are micro celery, sunflower shoots, pea shoots−because they are cute, frilly and artistic so the chefs like to use them for their plating−and red amaranth, which are cute and small. It depends on the season as well. In Spring, pea shoots are popular, while in Autumn, it’s redder greens like beets or red amaranth. The chefs come frequently to understand what they can use. We work very closely together.”
Through the years, Eng has even got a good handle on preferences that some of the chefs have. “For example, Whitegrass’ chef Sam likes white things. To go with the restaurant. And he likes really small, delicate, fine things like red amaranth and micro fennel. And chef Jason from Corner House likes interesting colours. We have this red amaranth that turns pinkish when it’s bigger. He likes to grow it bigger when the colour
“WE USUALLY START BY TELLING THE CHEFS WHAT’S POSSIBLE TO GROW ON THESE RACKS. THEY COME AND TASTE TO SEE WHAT’S SUITABLE FOR THEIR DISHES. POPULAR ITEMS ARE MICRO CELERY, SUNFLOWER SHOOTS, PEA SHOOTS AND RED AMARANTH.”
becomes vibrant pink. This means harvesting them later, at 1-2 months versus the usual one to two weeks.”
HERE TO STAY
Though several players with similar interests to Pocket Greens have entered the market since 2009, Eng says this is good for developing an urban farming culture in Singapore. Each provider has their own strengths. In her case, she is grateful that the business is on the uptrend. “Revenue is growing. From day one to now, we have been profitable. But we do have to keep on finding different streams, be they workshops, retail or projects.”
A recent project she found interesting and rewarding was setting up a rooftop edible garden for a new condo in Jurong. Another was launching a Travelling Farm series, bringing the farm to the people by way of seeds, gardening equipment and classes— held in a re-modelled shipping container of course. Rotating in three-month periods between three locations, Bougainvillea Park, Raffles Place and Dhoby Ghaut, the Travelling Farm is next at Bougainvillea Park from September. Apart from these projects, Eng says their plan has always been to have satellite farms in different parts of Singapore, so she is preparing one to be launched soon in the Ang Mo Kio area. “We haven’t figured out the business model yet, but that plot will still be used to grow edibles and give back to society along the way.”
Her plate seems to be full, but with a constant stream of options that can pique the hobbyist’s interest, will farm-to-plate be a passing fad? Eng says, “It starts as a trend, but people may get hooked. Once you start deriving a satisfaction from it, and you pick up a skill, you don’t forget it. And it appeals to different age groups. Parents want to teach their children, so they will want to show a good example. Children cultivate an interest if they learn from a young age. Retirees may want to kill time or start to eat more healthily. And I do see a lot of young people getting interested in growing their own food at events such as NPark’s Gardeners’ Day Out. So I think this interest and curiosity won’t die down. It will continue.” Judging by her track record of making good calls, we tend to think she will be proven right.