Life Interview with Bjorn Low: Urban farming gave life goal to co-founder of Edible Garden City

Venessa Lee Straits Times 3 Oct 16;

Mr Bjorn Low, 35, has not always been resolute when it comes to his career and studies.

The co-founder of Edible Garden City, an urban farming social enterprise, admits he can be "easily swayed". Before he took the unusual step to champion growing one's own food in land-scarce Singapore, his major life choices were uncontroversial.

He followed in the footsteps of his then-girlfriend, now his wife, Ms Crystal Tan, 36, when she suggested that he try advertising for his first job.

After seven years in that industry, they took a sabbatical to go travelling, also on the strength of her persuasiveness. The couple, who met through a mutual friend when they were both about 23, left their digital marketing jobs at the same advertising firm in London when they were in their late 20s.

Earlier in Mr Low's life, the influence of family members played a role in his decision to take business degrees - a bachelor's degree in commerce, focusing on marketing, at Curtin University in Perth, in part because he thought he could help his businessman father; and a master's degree in business administration from Australia's Southern Cross University, on his uncle's advice.

But when it came to farming in urban jungle Singapore, which imports more than 90 per cent of its food, Mr Low is determined to pursue his vision despite its challenges. "We're sharing the ideology of a movement building a sustainable urban farming industry in Singapore," he says.

After leaving advertising in Britain, he and his wife, who now have two sons - Dylan, four, and Fred, 1½ - spent about four years working on organic farms in places such as Spain, Scotland and Japan.

On their return to Singapore, he started Edible Gardens in 2012 with former landscape designer Robert Pearce, who has since become less active in the business. Mr Low changed the outfit's name to Edible Garden City about two years later, but its goals for improving local sustainability in food production are unchanged.

Tall and lanky, he has an easy- going manner that belies an ambitious streak. His big-picture plans include reviving interest in local vegetables that Singaporeans used to eat, but which have fallen out of favour - leafy greens such as mani cai and ulam raja.

As we wander around his 7,000 sq ft space in HortPark, which is called Nong (farming in Chinese) and is used for retail and educational workshops, he plucks leaves from his garden for me to sample: icy-breathed peppermint, tangy red-leafed hibiscus.

He works with restaurants to substitute locally grown herbs for those used in Western dishes such as wood sorrel, and grows spearmint for their mojito cocktails.

Four years ago, with a capital sum of $12,000, he began designing and maintaining vegetable and herb gardens at restaurants such as Artichoke in Middle Road and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italian outlet in VivoCity.

Edible Garden City also makes use of under-utilised spaces in Singapore, where the land used for agriculture makes up less than 1 per cent of the total land area.

Mr Low and his team have built similar gardens on the rooftops of buildings such as Wheelock Place and Raffles City, as well as in schools such as Pathlight, which teaches high-functioning autistic children, and Montfort Secondary.

From its early days with five staff, Edible Garden City has 12 today. And last year, it generated $700,000 in revenue, with a net profit of $100,000.

Mr Low's interest in agriculture did not start in Singapore, but in London, where he and Ms Tan were posted by their advertising firm.

While he was enjoying champagne brunches, business-class travel and classy hotels, the dark London winters gave him a different perspective. The winter blues "made us reflect on what we wanted in life", he recalls.

He had become interested in gardening in the apartment he shared with Ms Tan in the lively Camden area and started thinking about growing his own food.

The advertising job was stressful and Ms Tan persuaded him to leave it and go travelling on their savings.

They discovered the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms international volunteer network and, for the next four years or so, worked on organic farms, mostly in Europe. With board and food provided, they spent little, mostly on occasional outlays such as "instant noodle fixes".

This simple life so appealed to Mr Low that he took up a diploma in biodynamic agriculture in Britain.

He was influenced by the late British ecological writer John Seymour, who advocated living as close to nature as possible and being able to produce enough food on one acre (0.4ha) of land for a family of four.

"I always hope to have just one plot of land and live simply," he says of the dream he shares with his wife.

But, he adds, he has no plans of owning landed property here in the near future. It is too expensive, he says. The couple and their sons live with Mr Low's parents at their condominium in Marine Parade.

Although he thought of buying a small farm in Wales, an area where he worked for a while, the pull of home was strong for him. "I thought a lot about Singapore. I had the luxury of experiencing this way of living, I thought it could be brought back to Singapore in a way that was suitable," he says.

Although Ms Tan, now a project manager at a creative agency, supported him in returning to Singapore, it was a conflicted choice. "He's leading the movement here in exchange for our own family's dream of having that for ourselves, having a life that's closer to nature," she says.

Their sons spend time outdoors daily and, during school holidays, often go to work with Mr Low, catching worms and feeding snails to chickens in the gardens he works in.

Mr Low is part of a growing urban farming scene. With factors such as global price and supply fluctuations, "local production plays an important complementary role in ensuring Singapore's food supply resilience", says an Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) spokesman. The AVA has a $63-million Agriculture Productivity Fund to help local farmers.

However, the challenges are considerable for Mr Low, the only child of a father who ran a business selling electronic goods such as television sets and air-conditioning units and a housewife mother.

His family members asked him why he took up farming when he had business qualifications. Once drawing a monthly salary of about $10,000 in his ad man's job in London, he paid himself a salary of $1,500 for the first year after starting Edible Gardens. The figure has since increased to $2,500.

And parents of his trainees have baulked at the "messy" and hot farming conditions.

Things improved when, in 2014, Mr Low met Ms Cynthia Chua, founder and chief executive officer of the Spa Esprit Group, whose diverse beauty and food and beverage businesses include Strip, which provides grooming services, and Open Farm Community, a farm-to- table restaurant.

Mr Low's name came up when Ms Chua was looking for local farmers to work with a French chef who wanted to grow his own produce.

"Bjorn showed me what I thought was not possible," says Ms Chua, citing how his ideas include farming in air-conditioned surroundings.

"He is forward-thinking, with his heart in the right place. He wants to help the community too. Growing one's own food is possible. I can interpret (his vision), I can excite the public about it," she says. "I think he is a pioneer."

Her group invested $250,000 in Edible Garden City and Mr Low estimates that about 40 per cent of his business is the outcome of this collaboration with Ms Chua.

Mr Low has been working on producing beauty products, such as anti-bacterial creams using calendula flowers grown by Edible Garden City, which will be used in some Spa Esprit businesses by the end of the year.

Also by year-end, he plans to move to his business' new 86,100 sq ft headquarters in Queenstown.

With a recent $200,000 grant by the Singapore Centre For Social Enterprise, Edible Garden City hopes to hire 20 beneficiaries from vulnerable groups in two years. It already employs three adults with autism, who work part-time on indoor farming premises at the Enabling Village, a community space in Redhill for persons with disabilities.

He is thinking of a "new type of community centre", which can bring commercially viable urban farms into communities, where they can produce food as well as engage groups such as people with disabilities and the elderly in the enterprise.

Mr Low, who felt he was "going through the motions" when he studied for his master's degree, finds satisfaction in working with his hands, though he does not like to eat the produce he grows.

He says: "With nature, you fall into the cycle of life. It takes time to grow something. You feel connected to it."

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