From The Straits Times    |
Green Circle Eco Farm

With national plans to transform about 390ha of Lim Chu Kang into an agri-tech food cluster – aimed at boosting Singapore’s food production – underway, long-standing vegetable farms such as Fire Flies Health Farm and Farm 85 Trading have either closed or moved from the area last year. Green Circle Eco Farm, a food forest and organic farm owned by former chemist and self-taught farmer Evelyn Eng-Lim, was not spared from the redevelopment either.

The farm was a flourishing verdant oasis of edible vegetation grown on painstakingly cultivated soil enriched with compost made from landscape, mung bean, soya bean and kitchen waste. This topsoil, measuring about 15cm in depth, took about 20 years to create, and was a labour of love for 78-year-old Evelyn and her husband, Lim Tian Soo.

“I look upon farming as building an ecosystem of mainly edible plants and living beings in nature such as insects and microbes. The more complex the system is, the more stable it is,” she says.

This is what Evelyn refers to as a food forest, and Green Circle Eco-Farm was one that was brimming with 120 plant varieties. Some examples include figs, wild watercress, moringa and asystasia. It mimics a native forest with multiple interlocking layers of edibles – root crops below ground, edible shrubs, and short and tall trees – hence requiring less weeding and watering.

Combined with the area’s nutrient-rich top soil, this is what Evelyn describes as a “closed-loop system”. Add to all this the carbon nitrogen presence and microbial activity that accompany natural decomposition of insects and plants, and it makes for a very rich and intricate biodiversity – almost impossible to replicate in another location.

Green Circle Eco-Farm used organic methods to grow both local and seasonal produce.

Green Circle Eco-Farm functioned not only as an organic producer of local varieties (its clients include home-grown plant-based meal delivery service The Breakfast Club), but was also the site of educational tours. In June 2022, Evelyn launched a viral social media campaign to save her food forest. Online news outlets, as well as young environmental influencers like Woo Qiyun (@theweirdandthewild), shared her plight on their platforms.

Despite her efforts, which included multiple appeals to the government, she was unable to save the area from redevelopment. Although this was a huge setback for her, the plucky farmer is not going quietly into the night. She is working on a rewilding project with associate professor Hwang Yun Hye from the Department of Architecture at National University of Singapore (NUS).

She says: “It aims to change the ecological landscape by working with people like myself to grow food forests – this helps change the narrative that ‘you can’t grow anything in Singapore’. By growing our own edibles, we know better where our food comes from and how it’s processed.”

It’s one way that veteran farmers such as Evelyn can pass on their knowledge of the land and, perhaps, inspire a new generation of agricultural stewards. Here, she shares why organic farming is still important in Singapore.

Like Green Circle Eco-Farm, Farm 85 Trading is one of the long-standing local farms that had to vacate their premises due to the redevelopment of parts of Lim Chu Kang.

What has the past year been like, and what have you kept yourself busy with?

We moved out of Green Circle Eco-Farm officially in October 2022. Between then and December, it was a lot of work to unpack and redistribute all we had gathered and salvaged when closing down the farm, and a lot of those elements went to laying the foundation, such as establishing the soil system for the rewilding project with Prof Hwang.

This year, I’ve been keeping myself busy with building a food forest in the five-foot-way outside my home. My neighbour received National Parks Board’s (NParks) approval to plant fruits, vegetables, and
trees in this area of land, and it’s been greeted with plenty of positivity and curiosity by those living in my estate.

In this food forest, I’m growing turmeric and other local kampung greens, like Brazilian spinach, wild watercress, and gotu kola (pennywort) – to name a few. I’ve also become sort of an unofficial guide for my neighbours who are interested in growing crops in their own gardens, and I’m happy to help them out whenever I have pockets of time to spare.

Tell us more about the rewilding project with NUS.

It’s going well. We first started planting with them in September 2022, so it’s been almost eight months. So far, we’ve grown banana, papaya, green cover crops, herbaceous crops like lemon balm, shiso (aka perilla), and more. We’re basically trying to create different height levels of vegetation.

With the rewilding project, we used the top soil and compost from Green Circle Eco-Farm to plant a diversity of edibles, and hopefully this will lead to an increase of non-plant diversity both above and below ground as well. My role is to help the student volunteers and guide them when it comes to farming, maintenance, harvesting, and so on. We’re even trying to grow things we were not able to back at the farm, such as sessile joyweed – a red-hued plant known for its medicinal properties

Green Circiel Eco Farm
What was unique about Green Circle Eco Farm was its top soil – enriched with compost made from landscape, mung bean, soya bean and kitchen waste – that took 20 years to cultivate.

Is there anything else you are working on right now?

I have been working with Nanyang Girls’ High School, teaching the students what they need to know about planting, and giving talks on growing crops. What I do goes beyond simply telling them how to water their plants. It’s important for me to go into great detail about how to truly take care of the greens they grow, and cover topics from how the weather affects their efforts, to what they must look out for when observing what they’re growing.

In the long run, this is something I hope to be doing more of, working with more schools and organisations to share my knowledge and spread the word on the importance of food forests and farming.

What do you hope to impart to future generations of Singaporeans?

I hope that through my efforts, more people value the importance of consuming locally grown crops, especially vegetables. More importantly, I hope people understand where their food comes from and how it’s all processed.

All of this is crucial in a sustainable sense, but it’s also good for your health to rely on more natural sources for your sustenance. When it comes to your diet, taking a more vegetable-forward route is not such a bad thing!

PHOTOGRAPHY Lawrence Teo
ART DIRECTION Adeline Eng