27-year-old Justine Ong-Farmer and her 31-year-old husband Scott Farmer both had well-paying jobs in Singapore. Ong, who is the youngest of four children, was born and bred in Singapore, and comes from a large Peranakan family. She was brought up in a very lively and colourful home, and around strong matriarchs.
On the other hand, Scott is originally from the UK and grew up in the English countryside, before he moved to Singapore in 2015 for work.
However, they both were at their respective jobs for over three years when they decided to call it quits last year. Soon after that, they started their own small urban agriculture business right in their own front yard, which they aptly named it after their surname – The Farmers.
I caught up with Justine to ask about their interest in agriculture as well as their journey into urban farming in Singapore.
How did the idea to start The Farmers come about?
Scott and I had been at our respective jobs for just over three year when we decided that we wanted some change. I was working in the fast fashion and struggling to connect with the values of the industry, so I couldn’t see myself there long term. Also, we’d just gotten engaged and wanted to explore the possibility of living and working overseas for a couple of years.
In February 2018, we left our jobs and went travelling around Europe, USA and South America for nine month, and this is when the magic started for us. Initially we didn’t know that we would get into urban agriculture, but the trip gave us an opportunity to seek out what we were interested in and try out different ways and paces of living.
Why did you’ll decide to venture into urban farming?
Travelling around the globe made us realise that locally grown produce tastes extremely good, and it’s loaded with nutrients and more gentle on our planet too. Besides that, people around the world eat food seasonally, unlike us in Singapore where we get strawberries and pumpkins all year round. On top of that, while visiting different countries, we stayed in a lot of homestay and found that almost everyone maintained a little garden – some grew berries and lettuce in garden beds, other had small pots of herbs in their kitchen.
As such, once we returned home in November, we realised three things – there’s a problem with our current food system, being outdoor made us feel really good, and we wanted to live simply.
And that’s how The Farmers came about – us trying to address these three issues.
What are the challenges faced in starting up this business?
The first and most obvious problem that we faced was land scarcity. We’re really fortunate to be living with my parents who have a home garden, which we’re able to make use of. But even then, it’s not nearly enough space. We actually kind of just claimed the empty patch of grass next to a public footpath. I’m not sure I should be so public about this fact because I don’t know if it is actually allowed, but I guess its fine for now because NParks did come around and didn’t tell us to stop.
Besides that, I guess another challenge is just lack of experience. Scott grew up with a vegetable garden home but he wasn’t particularly active in his family’s vegetable garden growing up. Likewise with me, we’ve always had a garden at home but I was a real city kid – hanging out in shopping malls and watching movies.
Your thoughts on farming and sustainable living in Singapore?
I think because agriculture wasn’t our priority for a while and there wasn’t a lot of investment going into that space, today we’re feeling the effects of that – a gap in knowledge and labour. To be honest, it’s kind of a pity because a lot of wisdom and old traditions and practices don’t get handed down to the younger generations and end up being forgotten.
When it comes to sustainable living, I don’t think Singapore is doing its best. We’re a very consumerist society, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it has obviously played a huge role in getting our economy to where it is today. However, when the government is encouraging people to just buy, it kind of makes it difficult to be sustainable at the same time.
Nevertheless, I think we’re getting there as going green is a trend now. If that is not all, plenty of businesses are trying to be more environmentally-friendly because consumers are starting to ask a lot of questions.
The Farmers now conducts workshops to educate people on urban farming. Tell us more about it?
What we’re trying to do with the workshop is to tell the story of food, simply put. In Singapore, where we import o much of our food, I feel like we’ve become disconnected from out food. We’ve forgotten that there’s really long story behind a simple plate of food. The ingredients had to be grown, then trucked, shipped or flown over vast distance before we can get hold of them.
Furthermore, with a myriad of delicious, affordable and convenient options available, I think the thought process when deciding what to eat is very focused on the individual. Scott and I are guilty of this! We only ask ourselves and each other what we feel like eating, what is convenient and fast as well as how much we want to spend.
However, in order to make better food choices for ourselves and our planet, we should be thinking beyond ourselves and consider instead on how our food is grown, where it is grown, who is growing it, so on and so forth.
Therefore, we designed the workshop to encourage people to ask these questions and reflect on it a bit more. During the workshop, we also try to take the participants through the full journey of our food where we show them how we grow crops from seeds, we get them to pick some herbs, and they’ll use their harvest to prepare a meal.
What are your future plans?
We’re still testing the waters and trying to see which model works best for us – whether it is education, workshops, productions, catering or events. Eventually, we think it would be nice to be able to have our own space so that we can scale up what we’re currently doing. But we’ll be in this space for sure, and we’re really looking forward to seeing more people get involved and working together to make it better.