The founders of Green Nature Eco Farm, Tian Jian Jie (田建杰) and Colleen Wu Ying (邬瑛) were previously in the construction line when they decided to make a mid-life career switch into the green wall landscaping business, and subsequently vegetable farming. Find out why as they shared their story with us. Farm manager, Fan Rui Qian, also showed us what goes on behind the scenes at the farm.
Tian Jian Jie, whose parents were farmers, is from Hebei, China. He migrated to Singapore in 1995 when the Beijing construction company he was working for expanded its operations to Singapore. In 2007, when the company ended its business in Singapore, he stayed behind and set up his own construction firm. However, as the local construction industry became increasingly competitive, Tian Jian Jie felt that he needed to explore new areas for opportunities to diversify and grow his business. Colleen Wu, who had a similar career background in construction as Tian Jian Jie, shared the same sentiments and both were in search of a new career path at the time. They were both interested in greenery and sustainability – Tian Jian Jie was interested in vegetable farming, while Colleen was interested in green wall landscaping and horticulture. Hence, the two of them went into the green wall landscaping businesses under their firm, Consis Engineering. They have enjoyed great success in their green wall business, and have received multiple awards for their work, including the Skyrise Greenery Award (Excellence) by the National Parks Board, and most notably, the Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Vertical Garden at Ocean Financial Centre (Raffles Place) featuring a green wall which spans approximately 23,000 square feet, or the equivalent of approximately eight tennis courts.
As for their farming business, the duo formed Green Nature Ecological Technology Pte Ltd (绿然生态科技有限公司), also known as Green Nature Eco Farm, in 2008. With the help and expertise of experienced local organic vegetable and mushroom farmers, the farm initially grew sprouts and mushrooms for sale. However, they have since shifted their focus to specialise solely on farming sprouts. Mushroom cultivation did not turn out to be commercially viable due to the rising costs of production, including costs of raw materials, labour and utilities.
About the Farm
Green Nature Eco Farm is an organic sprouts farm located at Lim Chu Kang Agrotechnology Park. The founders decided to use organic farming methods free from chemical pesticides and fertilisers, as health conscious Singaporeans demand for healthier food options. With background in the construction industry, the founders used their expertise to build the farm up from scratch themselves. The farm grows its crops vertically using racks due to the limited land space. The 0.30 ha farm contains a single 0.08 ha greenhouse for sprout farming, while the remaining space serves as a nursery for its green wall business. The green wall nursery is unique in Singapore and vertical farming has allowed it to grow up to 40,000 plants at a time, compared to the 10,000 that typical nurseries can produce by growing plants horizontally. There are about 8 farm workers in total, with 3 of them assigned to sprouts production. There is one greenhouse for vegetable sprout production. The farm produces between 50 – 100 kg of sprouts a day. With the limitation of land space, the farm utilise high-tech strategies to make up for the lack of space and labour.
Organic Sprouts Farming @ Green Nature Eco Farm
No chemical fertilisers, pesticides or hormones are used at the farm. Crops are grown organically using compost, which the farm is now able to produce by itself in sufficient quantities. Farm manager, Fan Rui Qian, took us behind the scenes to reveal how the farm has managed to run a clean, healthy and environmentally sustainable operation, as well as a profitable business on a commercial-scale, despite its small land area.
He explained, “When the farm first began operations, it bought organic fertiliser that was produced from compost made from fallen leaves and tree branches collected from parks, which were broken down into smaller pieces using a leaf shredder/wood chipper machine. They were then mixed with soil, before beneficial Okara is added. Okara or Soy Pulp is a pulp consisting of insoluble parts of the soybean which remains after pureed soybeans are filtered in the production of soy milk and tofu. After 6 months or so, the compost will be ready, and is mixed with soil and sawdust. The resulting mixture serves as the culture media in which the crops were grown in. While some farms add chemical fertilisers and pesticides to their growing media or to their water for irrigation, our farm’s entire cultivation process (including composting, irrigation etc.) does not contain any synthetic chemical supplements.”
There is minimum wastage on the farm. Once the crops are harvested, the leftover culture media mixture, waste plant matter, as well as unsold crops, will be collected for composting. By collecting all their wastes for composting, the farm has managed to accumulate enough organic fertiliser over time for it to be self-reliant and no longer need to rely on external suppliers for organic fertiliser. Such a system is not only sustainable but also helps the farm to save costs. The farm also uses its compost in its green wall nursery for plant cultivation.
It takes at least 4 months before the organic fertiliser is ready to be used for cultivation of a new batch of crops. The compost is checked for moisture and smell when the composting process is completed. If there’s moisture or an unpleasant smell from the compost pile, it will be left to dry under the sun. Occasionally, the fermentation process may not have gone as well as expected due to fluctuations in humidity and temperature, such as during the rainy seasons, which will slow down the fermentation process.
Seeds are soaked in water between 4-8 hours to speed up the germination process. Next, they are sowed onto the culture media (compost + soil) either by hand or using an automatic seeder machine.
Cultivation in greenhouse
The sowed seed trays are placed on multi-tiered racks in a well shaded greenhouse, as cultivation of sprouts doesn’t require much sunlight. The greenhouse contains lights that are turned on at night and on dark rainy days. The farm relies on automation and high-tech systems to minimise labour requirements. It has an automated irrigation sprinkler system that waters the crops at intervals. On hot days, the crops are watered every 2 hours. When the temperature is too high, the water mist system will be activated via temperature sensors to cool down the greenhouse. It takes approximately a week for the sprouts to be ready for harvest.
A total of 10 varieties of vegetable sprouts are cultivated. They include wheatgrass, sunflower, radish, wasabi,alfalfa, black bean, buckwheat, toon, pine-willow, and pea sprouts. The decision to cultivate sprouts as the crop choice for Green Nature Eco Farm was due to the issues of farming in Singapore. Shortage of land, high land rent, utilities, and high cost of labour, meant that planting crops with long growth cycles is not commercially viable for the relatively small farm. It has turned out to be a very smart business decision for the farm.
The farm’s products can be purchased from Cold Storage, Sheng Siong, Giant, and NTUC. Local organic grocery store, eat Organic, also carries the farm’s products. Selected restaurants and hotels that use the farm’s products include Cedele and Resort World Sentosa. Public customers can also purchase directly from the farm. For large orders, such as for catering to large events, a week’s advance notice is required.
Green Nature Eco Farm is a unique farm that has adapted well to the limitations and obstacles it faced. It has coped with high land prices, shortage of farm land, high labour costs, and environmental issues by using automation and high-tech methods.
However, the major challenge they face is that the market is still small. Co-founder, Colleen Wu explained that customer perception in Singapore of locally produced vegetable crops is generally still behind. Most people just buy the cheapest. Most people don’t understand where their food comes from and how it is being produced, especially those that are imported. The farm hope to do farm tours and educational school projects in the future to help raise awareness and educate people on local food production.
The farm has big plans and ambitions for the future. It hopes to be able to negotiate for an expansion of its farm. It aims to do its part to create an environment for organic food in Singapore. It will invest in R&D to bring in innovative technologies to Singapore in a commercially and environmentally sustainable manner.
Check out the photos for a sneak peek into some of the ongoing trial projects at the farm. With its strong management team and willingness to experiment with new technologies, Green Nature Eco Farm will be an exciting farm with great potential for the future.
Check out Green Nature Eco Farm’s Profile page for its contact information.