A Small Organic Farm Contemplates COVID-19 and Food Security

This is written by my friends at FOLO Farm in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, as a response to an SCMP news article on food security during the COVID-19 lockdown.

𝘏𝘌𝘈𝘋𝘓𝘐𝘕𝘌: “𝘊𝘰𝘳𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘷𝘪𝘳𝘶𝘴: 𝘧𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘴𝘦𝘤𝘶𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘈𝘴𝘪𝘢’𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵 𝘣𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘵-𝘊𝘰𝘷𝘪𝘥 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥”

FOLO

Offering a response to this news as a small organic farm community in JB.

We don’t have to be afraid if, from this pandemic experience, we can all support each other to wake up and act decisively to regain our food sovereignty.

5 years ago, before we started FOLO farm, we would have been more worried, maybe even paralyzed, by such news. This worry would have then colored and informed our actions: Throwing in a few more bags of rice in the supermarket, visiting the instant noodle and canned food aisles again, temporarily suspending our knowledge of how bad processed food can be… Following the herd. Continue reading

On Permaculture

I first wrote this article for “The Sauce” magazine by Foodscape Pages.

I don’t remember when I first came upon permaculture. Perhaps there was never an exact moment, like the conception of a human. Perhaps the point when the sperm entered the egg was in 2011, when I took up a five square meter allotment plot at an organic farm in Hong Kong. I was working weekdays and come weekend, would jump on my white Vespa for the one-hour ride to my tiny garden in the mountains bordering China. I was clueless about farming then, but Nature was forgiving enough to spare me among the weeds some choy sum, French beans, and one strawberry. The point when the baby popped out was when I spent my 2013 Christmas and New Year holidays at the foothills of Genting Highlands, building a bamboo hut and digging canals to irrigate a paddy field as part of a permaculture course. Since then, it has been a bit of an obsession, practicing at the farms in the day and reading the same in the evenings.

Yet, five years since its birth, I still stumble whenever someone asks me, ‘What is permaculture?’ The answer varies, always. This difficulty is not unique to me; ask most permaculturalists and you might get responses ranging from well-memorized standard definitions to a blank-eyed ‘hmm’. The difficulty lies in the all-embracing scope of permaculture and what permaculture means personally to each practitioner. Try asking a loving elderly couple ‘What is love?’ and you’ll get an idea. On top of that, we try to customize the answer to the enquirer. A budding gardener and a corporate executive might go home with different answers after a conversation about permaculture with me. To be honest, I don’t think I would get better at answering even with another five years of practice. But I take consolation in the first verse of the classic Chinese text Tao Te Ching: ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’. Continue reading

Farewell, My One Year Old Garden

Farewell my garden. You are unlike any of the gardens I have shaped. In terms of money, barely any was spent on you. You were made of waste, scavenged together. You ignited from three bags of composted food waste – a friend’s contribution. Plants grew from seeds of eaten fruits. Plant cuttings taken fondly from families, friends and around the neighbourhood. The fertility came from our kitchen scraps, dried leaves the landscapers swept up, logs from pruned roadside trees, and pee. Even water, none of it came straight from the tap. Aside from rain, I spoiled you with flavoured water: mop water, shower water, rice water. Don’t feel upset, I did splurge on you once; I burst a pipe while digging in a garden for heliconia rhizomes, and had to pay for a plumber.

In terms of time, I was in no rush. There was no client, no remuneration, and no deadlines. As such, you were nurtured more than manufactured. I realized my zeal for gardening one day, when I came home to tend to you after a full day of paid gardening work, while my toddler waits impatiently by the gate in her blue swimming suit.

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Before it all. Yellowing grass with bald patches.


So, thank you my garden, for being a small haven I could escape to, whenever living in this sprawling, car-centered city became unbearable and frustrating. You shielded me from the nakedness of modern ‘open living’, and I could live freely at home with windows wide open. Continue reading

Chinese Leafy Greens, Polytunnels, and Killer Floods

I have often been asked why I don’t grow much Chinese leafy greens. Those commonly seen in the market like chye sim/choy sum, kai lan, xiao bai chai, Chinese cabbage, etc. After all, growing up in a Chinese family, these are the vegetables frequently seen on my family’s dining table. Food is a big part of our identity, heritage and culture. What we eat during childhood is usually entrenched deeply in us. It is familiar ground we draw comfort from. So why do I choose not to grow these vegetables?

Truth be told, it’s something I have done before. I still remember planting and harvesting chye sim, Japanese kai lan, Chinese cabbage, and xiao bai chai from a  rooftop garden at a school over 3 years ago. It’s always nice growing what you ate growing up as a child, proudly bringing the harvest home for your mum to cook them in the same way.

 

Peeking into supermarkets around Singapore and Malaysia, one can be led to think that these Chinese greens grow perfectly well here. You see chye sim, bak choy, kai lan, radishes arranged in neat rows with labels stating they are grown locally. Walking around commercial vegetable farms, you see acres of them planted neatly on straight mounds. A sea of uniform green covered with thick juicy leaves. Try Googling “malaysia vegetable farm” or “singapore vegetable farm” and you’ll know what I mean. Images are powerful, and that was the type of farm I was striving for when I started farming.

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Conventional image of a vegetable farm (Source: AVA)

But somehow, along the way of my farming journey, I stopped growing these vegetables. Here’s why… Continue reading

To Slash A Papaya Tree

Have you ever seen slashes on a papaya tree? Shallow knife wounds not intended to chop her down but merely to bleed her. The farmer said this tree in particular has not fruited, unlike her peers planted at the same time.

“She’s too complacent,” he said. “Got to make her work harder.”

But what if she’s not ready? She might want to grow deeper roots first in case of a future drought, or bigger leaves first to harvest more sunlight for tastier fruits, or dedicate energy to her health first before fruiting. She might want to reach for the stars first before having kids.

“No, she’s taking up prime real estate and has to pay for it.” Continue reading

A False Sense of Food Security in High-tech Farming

Earlier this month, AVA announced that 10 parcels of vegetable farming land in Kranji will be awarded to 8 companies. These are all high-tech farming companies that use “productive  and  innovative  farming  systems, such  as  greenhouses  with  automation  and smart controls;  multi-tier  hydroponic systems  using  LED  lights  and  data  analytics  to  optimise  growing  conditions;  and multi-storey farms that use automated soilless cultivation system and robotics”.

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Source: AVA website

On AVA’s website, the first thing listed under “What We Do” is ensuring food supply resilience. To me, food resilience and security is about meeting our entire population’s minimal nutritional needs with safe food during all situations. There are 3 reasons why I think leasing our agricultural land to these high-tech farms do not contribute to that.

1) Poor Calories

Calorie is key for food resilience. One can survive somewhat miserably on a pure rice diet. Change it to a pure chye sim diet and it’s a different story. These high-tech farms are definitely not growing rice. How about farming high-calorie vegetables that are full of carbohydrates to fill your stomach, like tapioca or sweet potato? After all, these were the kinds of food our grandparents and parents survived on during the Japanese occupation when there wasn’t enough to eat. Well, these companies are only allowed to grow leafy vegetables. Not root vegetables or even fruiting vegetables like long bean and eggplant. Continue reading

Becoming A Forest

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The forest beside the lawn

On a pleasant Sunday morning, I observed some interesting happenings along the edge of a forest at Lower Pierce Reservoir where I jog to or play football occasionally. There were some patches of upturned soil on the otherwise flat and trimmed lawn. It was somewhat thrilling because I felt like a detective at a crime scene, gathering clues to figure out what happened. Even better, I also felt like a hunter tracking a prey by reading signs left behind to foretell what might happen in the future. Here’s the story of what I think happened…

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The crime scene: upturned soil and an unknown fruit

Continue reading

Made in Singapore – The Story of Three Veggies

Over the weekend, I gave a talk at a conference in downtown Singapore. The conference is called FutureME and showcases emerging ideas, innovation and trends shaping our future. There were a few speakers addressing urban farming and local food. I guess that people in Singapore are becoming more concerned about food issues.

My talk was probably the shortest. It is a story of three locally grown vegetables. It is a response to the many high-tech growing systems that I am starting to see more of only recently. Hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, indoor growing, soil-less growing, etc. Continue reading

Till Death Do Us Part

A relative of mine passed away recently. We were all saddened by her death, though I could not help but think about certain things during the funeral. I thought about how modern cultures deal with death and how that reflects their relationship with nature.

In most civilizations…

When we die, we chop down a big tree to make a big coffin. Other than the life of the tree, we are taking away lives that the tree is supporting. The birds with their nests gone, the squirrels that eat the fruits, the caterpillars that chew the leaves, the fallen leaves that feed the earthworms. In Chinese customs, the coffin is given much importance. For wealthy families, the coffins can be very big and made of quality wood. They require many bearers to carry. That is probably one of the many contributing causes to the lack of forests in southern China even during the 1900s (read F H King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries). Upon seeing the photo below, my mother told me that her grandmother had a coffin of that size during the 1980s in Singapore. Big trees were still abundant then, I guess.

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Funeral procession in Beijing, 1900. Source: Wikipedia

Continue reading

Book Review: David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

71CQMQ7BjaLI recently came across Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability written by David Holmgren at the library. To be honest it wasn’t a book on the top of my must-read list. When one talks about permaculture books, there will be more well-known ones like Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (a.k.a the permaculture bible) or Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden. It just happened that I was going to be spending three weeks back in the military as part of mandatory national service and that means lots of spare time to read.

The Author

Lets start with the author. Some of you might have heard of David Holmgren because he was the co-orginator of the permaculture concept together with Bill Mollison. Mollison was actually Holmgren’s professor at that time. The first time they introduced the permaculture concept to the public was in Permaculture One in 1978. At that time Holmgren was only 23 years old. Talk about precociousness!

Holmgren did not co-author the other permaculture books that Mollison published thereafter. He was also less prominent in public with teaching and spreading permaculture than Mollison. So what has he been up to? It was 24 years between 1978 when he published Permaculture One and 2002 when this book was published. Apparently Holmgren has been spending all this time testing and refining his theories on different sites in Australia. I was very interested in seeing what this guy has to say after all these years. Continue reading