Despite the early morning showers on 29 August 2010, the weather turned out fine at Green Circle Eco-Farm where a hardy group of children and adults had gathered at 9 am. Farm co-owner Evelyn Eng-Lim was our informative guide who took pleasure in introducing us to the virtues of organic farming and permaculture in her green patch at Neo Tiew Road.
Evelyn began by sharing with us how she first came to start a farm some 11 years ago. As a nature conservationist and full-time NSS volunteer then, she had always been attracted to the idea of organic farming. The final push came when she learnt that the government had recently permitted farmers to stay on their farms, something that she and her husband Tian Soo really wanted. After tendering successfully, the first stage was to make lots of compost to condition and fertilise the soil. The compost took three months to mature. The second stage was to start planting. To do this, they had to clear the existing vegetation (mainly elephant grass as tall as a man), stage by stage and only for immediate use so as not to expose the soil to weathering. Digging the hard clayey soil to make (vegetable) beds was a tough job that needed skill. Miraculously, an eccentric guy in his early 50s showed up to help them. Within a couple of weeks, the elephant grass had disappeared, and beds with compost mixed in were ready for farming. Knowing nothing about growing fresh produce on a large scale, the couple engaged an organic farmer consultant from across the Causeway and soon their first crops were sown.
Running a farm is a strenuous affair, having to engage foreign workers, supervise volunteers, manage the daily operations and finances, deal with the occasional inconsiderate neighbour, and of course grow vegetables successfully. By living so close to the earth, Evelyn had little insights now and then to make farm life interesting and rewarding. For example, it dawned on her that the green leafy vegetables that we consume (eg. kalian and xiao baicai) do not grow that well in our hot clime, being originally from cooler South China. As such, cool and light rainy weather (which does happen intermittently in Singapore) is best for growing these crops. She stopped buying expensive wood to construct support for her climbers when she realised that the wood she needed was staring her right in the face in the form of the woody stem of the elephant grass that still grew on unused farm plots. Wild pigs from the nearby Poyan forest often raided her farm. From reacting angrily initially, she has since decided to ‘let it be’ as the thought crossed her mind that it was us humans who were encroaching on their territory. Her neighbour trapped one such wild boar which we said “hello” to.
Organic farming involves going au naturale by not using artificial chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers. Instead, the soil is enriched with compost and mulch; while weeds are sparingly dug out. Evelyn showed us how compost is created by piling up unwanted vegetation in a huge heap where it can decompose aerobically into a nutrient-rich powder. Mulching is simply putting a layer of leaves and grass around growing plants to suppress weeds and for nutrients to be returned back to the earth. In contrast, synthetic fertiliser, which is nothing but pure chemicals, invariably kill off soil life like earthworms and dung beetles, in the name of providing “nutrients” to crops. Evelyn spoke passionately about how insects are “little farmers” that help pollinate her plants. She also practices permaculture which involves growing a wide variety of crops and rotating their plots so that their varying requirements do not deplete the soil easily. Also, pests and diseases have limited effect, since different plants react differently to specific attacks. As such, wholesale crop failure (typical of monocultures) is prevented. This translates to Evelyn’s customers, whom she home deliver fresh produce to, learning to eat whatever her farm grows.
Some were surprised to see that lady’s finger grew pointing upwards at the sky.
We saw all manner of fruits and vegetables sprouting merrily in Green Circle: from dangling egg plants to luscious sponge gourds (the source of loofah), twisty bushes of dragon fruit plant, multi-purpose neem plants and scores more. The trip ended with participants eagerly buying up the farm’s organic produce such as angled beans, lady’s finger and banana with skin so thin that it can be eaten. Evelyn generously donated the monies collected back to the Education Group’s funds.