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Working as an urban farmer in Singapore

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You can reap what you sow with urban farming.

I wasn't looking forward to getting my hands dirty with soil for this story. After being tasked to work as an urban farmer for a few hours, I was expecting to plant a few seeds and pluck some herbs before heading home.

But I came home with a few skills to use on the plants I have growing at home. (Yes, they're still alive to date.) I also realised urban farming requires plenty of hard work, especially if you want your crops to grow well.

Located at Jalan Penjara, the 8,000 square metre area that used to be a prison is home to Citizen Farm. The urban farm grows microgreens, mushrooms and edible flowers, amongst other crops.

Despite being a relatively young farm, Citizen Farm already supplies to 40 local restaurants and about 30 regular customers.

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The one-year-old farm also harvests insects to use in their crops.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/LIYANA GHAZALI

As I walked into the farm, I was taken aback by the diverse team. I half expected the farmers to be old grandpas or at the very least, geeky-looking guys, due to the technology involved with urban farming.

The farm's employees, aged between 22 to 40, also has a handful of youths working as full-time farmers.

I wondered why most of the young farmers left their presumably stable jobs to pursue a career in farming.

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Citizen Farm has a team of farmers from all walks of life.
PHOTO CREDIT: CITIZEN FARM'S FACEBOOK 

Co-founder Darren Ho, 29, shared that he left his banking job because he realised Singapore's food system is not as sustainable as people think.

He said: "Food and nature go hand in hand and it's a delicate system that needs to be supported.

"When we waste food, we're devaluing one part of the system and the balance will be thrown off. So, I started farming full-time to support the system."

Are there any requirements to being an urban farmer?

Darren said: "You just need to have a good heart and an open mind to farm. You can start by coming down to volunteer. If you don't like it, that's fine too. But you have to give it a shot first."

Watch me be an urban farmer for a day!

For the first task, I was tasked to harvest and pack 15 boxes of microgreens, each weighing 35g.

I was all prepared to sweat it out under the mid-morning sun. But I was asked to work indoors instead.

"The reason our crops are grown indoors is simple – so that we can control the temperatures. It's really important since most of our crops aren't native to Singapore," explained Darren.

The only way I could get dirty was if someone literally threw dirt at me.

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Citizen Farm supplies microgreens to about 40 local restaurants in Singapore.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/LIYANA GHAZALI 

Harvesting microgreens, such as purple basil and sugar snap peas, involves bunching a handful together and cutting them off close to the root. 

It sounds like a simple task, but I was working too slowly as opposed to Sidney Chua, head of greens. The former logistics manager assured me that it was better to be slow and steady when handling microgreens. 

He explained: "Microgreens are small and they're quite costly too. We can’t afford to damage any when we're harvesting and packing. It affects the lead time as well."

No pressure, I guess.

Despite its higher costs, Citizen Farm believes in growing microgreens and leafy greens such as kale, instead of Asian greens like kailan, as other farms are already growing them.

"We approached it from a business point of view. Instead of competing with other local farmers we're making ourselves present by supplying what others can't," added Darren.

Next, I was tasked to prune some of the farm's mint plants. This time, I had to work outdoors.

I was confused when Sandy Chen, head of gardens, handed me a pair of pliers and told me to just "go for it". What was that supposed to mean?

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Sandy (left) showing me how to use the pliers properly.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/LIYANA GHAZALI

I was hesitant to cut away stalks of the mint plants, despite Sandy instructing me to do so.

Sandy, who has no experience working on a farm before joining Citizen Farm, said encouragingly: "People are usually scared to cut away too much of their plants but they always grow back stronger and even more beautiful.

"Just don't let your plant end up looking naked."

What does Citizen Farm want to achieve in the future? 

"We want to change the stigma surrounding being a farmer and turn passion into purpose. Urban farming isn't an industry yet, but we're at the start of it. We need people for it to go anywhere," said Darren.

Darren also shared his plans to grow Citizen Farm over the next 10 years. 

"We want to have a presence in every major city in the world, and highly intensified urban areas like Tokyo, New York, and closer to home, Kuala Lumpur.

"Singapore is a great model to prove that urban farming works. We check all the boxes for being a city, and our farm is growing. For now, it all starts here at Jalan Penjara," said Darren confidently.

BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDITS: YOUTH.SG/LIYANA GHAZALI