SINGAPORE — In land-scarce Singapore, farming seems like a remote concept and not a job for most urbanites. This isn’t the case for Johnson Yeong, the 53-year-old founder of The Food Gardens, a social enterprise dedicated to growing vegetables and donating them to charities. Previously a sales manager at a marketing company, Yeong gave up a career in sales five years ago to commit to farming full-time, and incorporated The Food Garden in 2020. However, financial difficulties have forced the company to pivot and sell their vegetables to farmers’ markets to raise funds for a bigger plot of land.
Here’s his story.
“This entire journey actually started because my wife and I were looking for a bigger space beyond our balcony to plant herbs and small plants.
We eventually started using a plot of land owned by Willing Hearts, a charity that operates a soup kitchen that we both regularly volunteered at. I realised that instead of growing fanciful plants in the garden, we could do our part for society and help by growing and donating vegetables.
I eventually left my job to focus on farming. I realised that if we want to supply food to organisations, we need to be reliable and deliver on time, so I decided to commit full-time.
It hasn’t been easy because it’s actually really hard to grow vegetables. Beyond the physical labour, a lot of knowledge is also needed. I went to the Lim Chu Kang farm and also attended courses to learn as much as I could about farming, but it’s still a daily struggle with factors like pests and the weather. I’ve worked at many start-ups in the past, and I can say for certain that farming is harder than working at any start-up.
Currently, I’m renting land from Green Valley farm because Willing Hearts has moved out of their premises and their new location does not have a garden we can use for farming. I have approached the Ministry of Social and Family Development to ask if we could rent land from them, but their rental rate is too expensive for us right now. So now we’re focusing on selling our vegetables weekly at a farmers’ market to raise funds to eventually rent a plot of land from the government. We aim for a plot about the size of a football field, which is more than twice the amount of land we have now.
I’m not sure how long I’ll personally be continuing farming since there’s also a physical limitation to it. Beyond my own commitment to farming, however, I hope for The Food Gardens to be a movement so more people can join and bring the group to the next level.
In the future, I hope to work more directly with beneficiaries rather than going through charities and organisations so we can reach out to more people.
I think the biggest risk I initially faced was a financial one. Thankfully, finances are taken care of at home, partly because my wife is still working. However, it’s one thing to not have income coming in, but I was also using my savings to fund the farm. Furthermore, a lot of my peers are moving ahead in their careers and buying things like a nicer car and a fancier house. I used to be hurt when I compared myself to them, but now I can’t even be bothered to think about it. Ever since I started farming, my priorities have changed, and I think it taught me how to value the simpler things in life.
If you ask me if I regret anything, I think right now I’m a bit more socially detached from my peers because I can’t afford to do the things they’re doing now, both financially and in terms of the time I have. I work the whole day in the sun, and by the end of the day, I’m too tired to socialise anymore.
But I can say for certain that I am a happier person and more appreciative of simpler things. It’s a humbling experience once you do the job that people may laugh or sneeze at. I’m an urbanite, so when I started farming, I was completely lost because I had no idea what to do. The learning curve was tremendous — I was worse than a kindergartener. In fact, I would say going to university was easier than doing this.
For anyone thinking of starting a social enterprise, I would say be committed to what you want to do. Stay true to the direction you’re headed in and be morally upright – don’t focus too much on the monetary aspect. If you’re doing the right thing, help will come.”
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