A ferocious morning sun beats down on the Sky Sprouts rooftop garden in Bukit Timah, a lush, upscale residential area deep in central Singapore. Farmer Benjamin Ang enters his greenhouse, followed by his beloved Shetland sheepdog Natsuki. He reaches down to pluck a beefsteak tomato and offers it up to us. One bite yields tart, juicy goodness.
“In our culture, meat is always considered to be superior, but every plant has its own strength and story,” says the 34-year-old founder of specialty fruit and vegetable producer Natsuki’s Garden. “My hope is that my produce can inspire emotions… nourish the soul as much as the body.”
Armed with a degree in horticultural sciences, Farmer Ben – as he’s known – has also worked at Singapore’s National Parks Board for six years and has experience as a horticulture consultant. It’s no surprise that he has gained something of a reputation locally and internationally as an innovator in urban sustainable farming.
An avid tinkerer, he codes his own electronic controls. He also uses 3D modelling and printing to make custom components for his cutting-edge farming equipment. Realising that most traditional horticultural structures are designed for temperate climates, he created an innovative V-shaped roof for his garden’s greenhouses, which allows hot air to escape quickly and maintains ideal temperatures in Singapore’s tropical heat.
Natsuki’s Garden produces heirloom and speciality herbs and vegetables that are hard to source at a high quality in Singapore – such as cherry and beefsteak tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, aubergines, Japanese turnips, beetroots, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and Japanese mountain yams. These are sold to the public on site and also to local private chefs and omakase restaurants, such as Province and Kausmo.
Making farming fun, cool and accessible
In 2019, Singapore announced its “30 by 30” goal to meet 30 percent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030, up from less than 10 per cent today. With lack of farmland in the city-state and a huge reliance on imported food, there is an urgency to grow for more self-sufficiency, through modern techniques such as vertical farming, hydroponics and aeroponics.
This has inspired a community movement, with rooftop gardens, community farms and vertical green spaces popping up around Singapore. One of these is City Sprouts, the social enterprise behind Sky Sprouts – where Farmer Ben has his rooftop garden – which transforms under-utilised urban locations into green, vibrant, inclusive spaces.
Its first urban farm was created in an old secondary school in the residential Redhill district in central Singapore. After Sky Sprouts, a third farm, Life Sprouts, was created at Punggol East in May 2023.
“City Sprouts is all about bringing the farm closer to people in the city, especially for those who live in high-rise apartments,” says the organisation’s co-founder Simone Lim.
City Sprouts spreads its message – and produce – with farmers’ markets, farm-to-table dinners, film screenings and wellness activities for green-conscious visitors and residents. It has a network of 70 community farmers, agritech startups and agripreneurs.
Harnessing technology for sustainable fish farming
In the rolling countryside around Sungei Tengah where few tourists venture, fish such as barramundi, Queensland groupers, dragon tiger groupers, red snappers and vannamei shrimps are being produced at one of Singapore’s few land-based fish farms, Atlas Aquaculture.
Husband-and-wife team Kane Mcguinn from Australia and Singaporean Victoria Yoong typify Singapore’s new generation of sustainable food producers. Curious, energetic and creative, the couple met during the building of the SEA Aquarium – Yoong was part of the project management team while Mcguinn was the design consultant. Food security had become a hot topic during the pandemic, and the pair believed they could make a difference.
Many of Singapore’s sea-based farms along the coast are at the mercy of the environment, algae bloom, oil spills due to vessel collisions and low dissolved oxygen levels in water. Some land-based farms truck in sea water, which is costly and polluted. They felt compelled to build and engineer an entirely different and self-sufficient system.
“Traditional farming is so far in the past,” says Mcguinn, “so even making small tweaks can be a really big change.” Atlas is looking to revolutionise fish farming by exploring new, more sustainable materials, and experimenting with nanobubble technology to reduce harmful chemical use. A closed-loop system recycles and reuses 100 per cent of water used at the farm.
The same attributes that start-ups and big tech firms like Amazon and Google are looking for, we’re looking for as well
Yoong says this high-tech approach is the future: “Farming isn’t just about menial labour. You need to be open-minded, flexible, have some understanding of math, science, technology… the same attributes that start-ups and big tech firms like Amazon and Google are looking for, we’re looking for as well.”
And they’re finding this talent locally. The farm operations team has four young farmers and two interns with backgrounds in animal studies, pharmaceutical science, building and construction.
After navigating bureaucratic red tape, struggling for funding and fighting misconceptions about the superiority of wild-caught versus farmed fish, Mcguinn and Yoong are finding success. They currently supply their fish to popular seafood restaurant Jumbo Seafood and premium lifestyle destination Resorts World Sentosa. Visitors can also sample Atlas’ catch at restaurants by the Les Amis group, which runs some of Singapore’s most coveted eateries including their eponymous three-Michelin starred restaurant.
A multisensorial experience at a rooftop bee farm
The future of food security is in large part dependent on the fate of bees, whose populations are dwindling due to the use of harmful agricultural chemicals, climate change and habitat loss. Educating people about the importance of bees is the inspiration behind The Sundowner – Nature Experience Space, a rooftop farm created by seasoned entrepreneur and urban farmer Clarence Chua.
Perched above a conserved shophouse in the charming eastern neighbourhood of Siglap, the space is filled with the fragrance of sage, rosemary, laksa leaves and Thai basil. Here, Chua offers rooftop farming, pizza-making, cocktail appreciation and terrarium-making workshops, but the real stars here are the bees.
Guests can don protective suits to observe the hives of Asian honey bees, red dwarf honeybees and stingless bees and learn all about them – how they fan their wings to cool down the temperature within their hives and huddle together for warmth, and how their favourite plants are calliandra and coral vine. Then everyone gets to participate in a honey-tasting session to appreciate the tastes, textures and colours of honey from all around the world.
Worldly and articulate, Chua’s goal is to educate the public about these insects’ invaluable role in pollinating the world’s food crops. “We want to show urban dwellers that everything is connected in nature: when healthy plants get pollinated by bees, they bear healthy and nutritious fruits and flowers for us to eat.”
Inter-generational evolution in farming
There’s room for traditional farmers in Singapore’s food production revolution too, such as second-generation farmer Toh Ying Ying. She was born the same year in which her father, Alan Toh, founded his farm. While other children made sandcastles at the beach, Toh and her younger brother Zheng Jie were building soil castles in the fields.
The patriarch’s passion for vegetables has helped their business, Yili Farm at Lim Chu Kang in the northern reaches of Singapore, become one of Singapore’s leading local vegetable producers. Yili supplies major supermarket chains like FairPrice and Sheng Siong, and also sells through online platforms like Amazon Fresh and Redmart.
In 2019 Alan Toh was told the lease on his land wouldn’t be renewed, so the rest of the family decided to pitch in, learning everything from germination, harvesting and packing to liaising with distributors and suppliers. “We have a lot of deep feelings about the farm,” explains the younger Toh.
Now, they’re moving to a new, bigger site at Neo Tiew. With this move, they’ll be exploring greater sustainability measures too, such as a mix of growing in soil, indoor farming and hydroponics. They also plan to open the farm to the public for weekend markets and educational tours.
Fostering new careers in farming
Encouraging a new generation of Singaporeans to become involved in modern farming is a major inspiration for Natsuki Garden’s Benjamin Ang. He educates fellow producers, such as Artisan Green – an indoor farm in Kallang, where Ang works as head of horticulture – but also the public, about the complexity involved in farming in Singapore.
With high-tech farming still in its infancy, Singapore lacks access to many technologies that other food-producing nations have, so solutions need to be built from the ground up, he says. “Growing vegetables is easy. Growing vegetables in a way that is economically viable, in a country with sky-high labour costs – that’s extremely difficult.”
As schools encourage and explore new career paths in this field, City Sprouts is doing its part to help sow seeds of interest in the younger generation. Most recently, the team helped judge a “farm-a-thon”, where local students across Singapore proposed solutions for the country’s food security challenges.
Aquaculturists Yoong and Mcguinn, too, hope to spread the word about their innovative approach: “We want to show everything: the bad, the good, the ugly. We need to take active steps for future generations to understand more about the food they eat,” says Yoong.
For Toh, the message is much simpler: nothing beats the taste of your own vegetables. “They just taste sweeter!”
Where to have a taste of local farm produce
Les Amis – Three-Michelin-starred French haute cuisine helmed by Chef Sebastien Lepinoy.
Jumbo Seafood – Award-winning seafood restaurant that’s beloved by locals for its chilli crab.
Province – Newly opened eight-seater serving contemporary Southeast Asian cuisine, nestled in the trendy Joo Chiat neighbourhood. Province prides itself on limiting each dish to five ingredients.
Kausmo – Sustainability-minded 16-seater dining concept that prioritises reducing food waste.
Experience Singapore’s farms
City Sprouts – A food and social hub in suburban southern Singapore which organises activities such as farm tours, farm-to-table lunches as well as other activities such as rooftop yoga.
The Sundowner – A charming rooftop garden on the eastside of Singapore that offers urban farming experiences alongside other fun activities such as cocktail-mixing and pizza-making.
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