Progress report on Singapore’s locavore movement
Piles of scrap metal dot its entrance and just beyond, a cluster of metal sheds sit serenely, speckled orange by rust and dust.
To the first-time visitor, Lian Wah Hang Farm would seem to be more like a sleepy wasteland than an active quail farm – a judgment probably passed so often that farm owner William Ho even pre-empts our thoughts.
“Sorry about the mess,” he says as he drives us into his 2.7-hectare quail farm in Kranji, and which he repeats while leading us into a large quail nursery.
His current state of limbo is not self-willed. Mr Ho has, in fact, close to $300,000 ready to be invested in renovation works.
However, with only 3.5 years left on his existing 20-year lease, and no indication as yet on whether this is likely to be renewed, he’s not sure whether or when to start rolling out his plans.
Mr Ho’s woes are merely one among the handful of concerns that local food producers face, and which limit the supply of home-grown produce here.
Former restaurant owner and chef Cesare Cantarella sold his businesses after 20 years to set up a Southern Italy-inspired dairy farm Cantalatt in Lim Chu Kang last year, but despite ambitious plans to extend his production to kefir, yoghurt and fresh cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta and mascarpone on top of his current fresh milk business, little progress has been made because of licensing limitations.
He adds: “The reason for this, I believe, is bureaucracy, an adjective normally not associated with Singapore, which is known worldwide for being an efficient and well-organised nation.”
It doesn’t help that the date of the announcement of Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Concept Plan 2011 has been extended.
The Concept Plan, which was supposed to be revealed last year, was highly anticipated by the local farming community as it will give a clearer indication of whether the land the farmers are sitting on will continue to be designated for food production.
If he gets the green light, Mr Ho plans to build an onsite slaughterhouse (his quails are slaughtered on a poultry farm in Senoko currently) and spiff up his sheds with modern technology in order to double production to 120,000 eggs a day.
The driving engine behind the farm, however, will be the visitor’s centre he plans to carve out in the front 30 per cent of his plot. He has dreams of a lecture theatre and perhaps a museum showcasing a collection of antiques and farming equipment accumulated from when his father used to run the farm in the ’70s and ’80s.
Back in the 1990s, up to 300 visitors would pack the farm on weekends for free farm tours, but the avian flu kicked in and public access to the farm has been legally restricted ever since.
“It’s the McDonald’s theory: by luring in and educating the younger generation, they’ll bring the message home to their parents,” Mr Ho explains of his plans to revive agro-tourism in Singapore. “If the model takes off as a financially viable one, it will hopefully inspire the younger generation to enter the industry.”
Believing farming to be a sunrise industry rather than a sunset one, he adds: “It’s not just a business, you are doing your country a service in terms of national security.”
To steel our food-importing country against global price fluctuations and food safety scandals, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) aims to get local production levels to 30 per cent of overall consumption for eggs, 15 per cent for fish and 10 per cent for leafy vegetables.
Currently, egg production stands at 23 per cent, 7 per cent for fish and 7 per cent for leafy veggies, and there are a total of 180 farms here producing all three.
To give farmers a financial boost, the AVA set up a $5-million Food Fund in 2009 to help farmers improve their technology and upgrade production capability. The fund was topped up to $20 million last year, with $6 million currently being spent on 15 projects.
Despite common grouses that the quality of local produce is far inferior to imported goods, Mr Ho believes that the made-in-Singapore label is the best insurance a consumer can get.
“The AVA checks up on my farm daily. Where else can you find food at such controlled and high standards?” he laughs. “Buying a Singapore-made product is the best quality assurance you can find.”
But not everything is going as swimmingly as it sounds. Farmers who fall outside the three production categories of fish, eggs and vegetables claim they have less access to financial support.
There is also a limit to how much producers can suppress costs to stay competitive with imports from neighbouring regions like Malaysia.
“Manpower costs are much higher in Singapore, and it takes repeated trials before finding the right type of fish to breed, they don’t just grow overnight,” notes Malcolm Ong of Metropolitan Fisheries, one of Singapore’s largest fish farms.
And, perhaps an issue most pressing to urban farmers in Singapore: the need to jostle for space among all that built-up concrete.
“It’s not like I’ve got a nice pristine island all to myself, I have to share resources with all these buildings and developments nearby. Also, with more land reclamation, we’ve got less sea to work with,” he adds.
The solution, Mr Ong believes, lies in productivity. He plans to triple the concentration of fish at a second fish farm he plans to set up off the coast of Changi later this year, which will ideally be oxygenated round the clock by solar-powered pumps.
“We have limited space and manpower, so our key goal is to be able to produce much more fish within the same area, while using technology to keep costs down.”
He aims to increase production of his mullet, milkfish and recently introduced breed of saltwater tilapia from its current 600,000kg to 800,000kg in a year. The second farm is targeted to produce 500,000kg of fish within the next four years.
Mr Ong hopes to eventually see supermarkets here, like those in the United States, dedicate a section of shelves to local produce, “but that’s provided all of us (farmers) do our part in producing”.
But for now, a centralised farmers’ market is a first step.
Ivy Singh-Lim, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), which represents 10 farms raising fish, vegetables and animals in Singapore, is hoping to turn a deserted former army barracks in Lim Chu Kang into a farmers’ market, hopefully by the end of the year.
Besides serving as a platform for her neighbouring farmers to showcase their produce, the market will also provide employment to the “structurally unemployed and unemployable”, such as special needs individuals.
“Where are you going to fit the kids who aren’t going to grow up to be bankers and lawyers?” she asks rhetorically. “Craft and cottage industries are present and active in other first world countries. We are ready now to have a platform for such individuals to showcase their talents.”
Citing the Republic’s recent successful bid to host the 27th Commonwealth Agricultural Conference in 2016, she says: “We’ve got the whole world looking at us as the leader and centre of urban agriculture.”
Then, in her signature tough-talking style, she adds: “If I had my way, I’d convert all HDB gardens into edible gardens, and plant edible vegetables in the upcoming Gardens by the Bay.”
Challenge any chef – or anyone really – to whip up a meal using only local produce and you’d probably come up against a wall of cynicism, or at best, a skimpy salad with a couple of hydroponically grown vegetables tossed in.
After all, what else could our highly urbanised and land-scarce country possibly have to offer? Plenty, according to one chef. So impressed with his discoveries out in Singapore’s Lim Chu Kang farmlands was executive chef Stephan Zoisl of modern European restaurant Novus that he padded up his initially planned four-course locavore-themed dinner to six courses, on top of three amuse bouche servings.
The one-off dinner menu, to be served at the restaurant tomorrow to mark Earth Day, includes dishes such as quail egg and chamomile-infused quail tea, sous vide crocodile with cactus, and hibiscus-flavoured tofu – so exotic-sounding, few would believe it’s 90 per cent locally sourced.
“Besides reducing the carbon footprint by using local products, you also get them fresher and at a lower cost compared to having to fly or ship them in from overseas,” says Chef Zoisl. He is among a growing handful of chefs attempting to fit in local produce on their menus wherever they can.
“Chefs are normally the ones leading the way in promoting provenance of food, especially when it comes to locavorism, and I have seen an increase in chef interest over the past few years,” observes Christina Crane, who used to run interest group Locavore.sg and locavore cafe Dapao in Amoy Street. She shut the business a few months ago and moved to Vancouver due to a family illness.
But going down the locavore route is not a bump-free journey. Despite the promise of significant savings, the inconsistent quality of the still-fledgling farming industry here makes it hard for commercial kitchens to support local growers on a larger scale, say most chefs.
Executive chef of Tower Club Frank Kilian shares that local tomatoes, at $3 per kilo, are about a 10th the price of imported tomatoes from Europe, but their quality might not be up to par for high-end restaurants. He adds: “Local fish, for example, is normally delivered in a plastic bag and this is not acceptable for us.”
“As a Western chef, we always hear how great the food is here in Singapore, and it is. But for a sustainable chef, there are unfortunately a lot of obstacles, such as having to pay an extreme amount of money for the same quality as what I get back home,” notes Ryan Sonson, executive chef at The Sentosa Resort.
The native Californian also laments Singapore’s lack of farmers’ markets, like Borough Market in London, Nelson Market in New Zealand or San Francisco’s Ferry Building market, to link up producers with consumers.
“In Singapore, you call someone up on the phone and you pick your ingredients off a black and white list. You barely get in touch with fresh produce,” agrees Bjorn Shen, chef-owner of Artichoke restaurant. The Singaporean used to personally select his beef and fresh cheeses in Australia’s wine country when he worked as a sous chef in Brisbane.
The locavore movement works in countries like Australia and the US, he surmises, because most people grow up in suburban or rural farming areas and then move to the city, so they can identify with the cause. “But it is not a mentality natural to local diners to want or appreciate this,” he says. “Singaporeans look for cheap, tasty, and filling.”
“People don’t consider food miles or see an issue with a large carbon footprint in this area since they feel that we import at least 98.5 per cent of our food anyway,” Olivia Choong, co-founder of environmental group Green Drinks Singapore, further explains.
And while there is a growing body of well-travelled locals who appreciate the idea of eating local, few are ready to pay for it – an attitude that dampens the commercial viability of locavorism. It doesn’t help that trendy buzzwords like organic, fairtrade or hormone-free are applied liberally to many things these days, or sometimes even exploited by profit-seekers to nudge up prices.
“I’ve got food bloggers saying that I mention local mushrooms in my menu as an excuse to charge people $5 more,” adds an agitated Mr Shen. In fact, local eggs cost him five cents more per egg than their Malaysian counterparts, but he absorbs the additional monthly overheads.
Likening the locavore movement to the organic trend, Mr Sonson adds that “customers may also not be willing to pay premium prices when there is a plethora of cheaper dining options like food courts and hawker centres available”.
Then, there are the niggling logistical issues for restaurants who want to source directly from producers. Few farmers provide direct delivery and some don’t work with intermediary distributors, says Mr Zoisl, so he has to drive out there to pick up supplies himself, which chalks up significant time and labour costs when done over an extended period.
The smaller farmers also do not have as efficient logistics and finance systems as larger suppliers, so they cannot offer credit lines and will only take payments on a cash-on-demand basis, points out Pamplemousse’s chef-owner Adrian Ling.
Mr Ling fronts local ingredients in his East-West creations, such as churning out fresh cheese from goat’s milk bought from Hays farm in Lim Chu Kang, and serving it with beetroot, pickled jambu air, and laksa leaf meringue, or turning fresh milk from local far m Cantalatt into ice cream that is paired with gula melaka butterscotch and kueh lapis.
Despite these attempts, however, Mr Ling does not foresee local farms providing a full spectrum of ingredients to sustain a varied and complete diet of an average Singaporean anytime soon, “as basic things such as salt, oil, certain meats, rice and flour are not produced here”.
He adds: “However, if the term locavore is to be applied regionally, meaning to source from the region of South-east Asia, I think it is highly possible.”
The climate as well as high property prices further deter many farmers from growing space-intensive crops like melons which are a dime a dozen on neighbouring Malaysian farms.
“You have to concentrate on what is easy to grow and then you have to do it in mass,” says Mr Zoisl. But this also has its downsides, adds Mr Shen. “Whatever is grown or raised in Singapore is not very special.”
Commercially successful farmers largely produce to meet bulk orders from supermarkets. “I have yet to find many artisanal growers who can provide more heirloom vegetables like striped cucumbers, albino squash and other natural wild stuff,” he says. “Supermarkets are only looking for perfection and symmetry, but the ugliest tomatoes are usually the nicest ones.”
Mr Shen is currently working to launch a vegetable sharing programme where homegrowers, and institutions such as schools and old folks homes, can sell the products they grow to his restaurant, and hopes to link up with other locavore chefs to collaborate as part of a collective.
“It is ironic that tourists love to go to ‘local’ seafood restaurants to feast on Canadian geoduck, Sri Lankan crab, Alaskan crab, Scottish bamboo clams – ingredients probably flown a further distance than the tourists themselves,” quips Pamplemousse’s Mr Ling.