BABY STEPS FROM FARM TO PLATE

Pocket Greens helps en­thu­si­asts, and more than a few top chefs, grow their own mi­cro­greens and baby veg­eta­bles

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHAR­LENE CHOW

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.

SENS­ING OP­POR­TU­NITY

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.”

VER­TI­CALLY (UN)CHAL­LENGED

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.

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