Urban Farming: A Sane Way to Live

By Marcus Dip Silas

October 2021 FEATURE
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Getting them started young!

AFTER SUFFERING THE erosive effects of city life, some professionals have been choosing to leave their careers behind for the rewarding comfort of urban farming. Penang Monthly speaks to three urban farmers, who in their bid to stay sane and healthy, are also encouraging others to do the same.

Pop & Chee Healthy Home Farming

Chee Hoy Yee and Pop, founded Pop & Chee Healthy Home Farming in 2017 (see Penang Monthly, December 2017) on a tiny plot of land at Simpang Ampat. The couple grew an assortment of produce; crunchy long beans, stevia, passion fruit and roselle flowers, which Hoy Yee makes into jam.

But much has changed since Penang Monthly’s last visit five years ago. The home farm has moved to Gelugor on the Island, and now sits on a roomier land space of over 13,000 sq ft, complete with a man-made pond, ducks and laying hens.

Hoy Yee was the former owner of a healthy bakery. But the stress of managing a small business grew intense, driving her to take refuge in a spiritual wellness seminar in Bangkok. What began as a week-long trip turned into a permanent move to a small farming village on the outskirts of the capital city, where she learned about sustenance farming from the villagers. “In the Thai villages, people eat what they farm, direct from the source; this is something we no longer see in Malaysia.”

Hoy Yee and Pop moved their home farm to Gelugor on the Island. The land is roomy enough to rear chickens and ducks.

A huge factor behind gastrointestinal ailments, Hoy Yee believes, is the excessive use of pesticides in the industrial production of crops. It is for this reason that Pop and Chee maintain a “no-pesticide” rule for their home farm. “A healthy farming ecosystem is able to manage itself well. But when humans get involved and disrupts the cycle, that’s when problems emerge.

“But we also stand to benefit from knowing our food source, and the best way to do so is by growing one’s own food.” They believe that for urban farming to catch on, a paradigm shift in thinking among city folk is necessary. “When Pop and I first started our home farm at my mother’s place, she was convinced that it’d be messy and time-consuming, and would incur additional cost for equipment purchase, not to mention problems with unwanted ‘guests’, i.e. pests.

“But realistically speaking, urban farming is about using what you already have and taking small steps towards a healthier way of living. Recycling and reusing are key. When you think about it this way, I’d say it’s a much better alternative than slogging away behind a computer screen.”

Though workshops are cancelled at the moment, to help beginners get started on urban farming, Pop & Chee regularly posts videos on YouTube and Facebook, and also sells farming kits for beginners to grow their own microgreens at home, which are harvestable in seven days. “I believe that many people are already searching for alternative lifestyles. Urban home farming is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream circles.”

Victory Farm @ Rooftop

Gary Law of Victory Farm with his enormous produce.

Gary Law is another young professional who left his decade-long career in finance to become an urban farmer (featured in Penang Monthly, February 2021). Despite a long-harboured interest in clean-eating, Gary was not convinced he could grow his own food from his apartment balcony. “The place was much too snug,” he explains, but that spurred him to do some research.

After what he describes as “countless trials-and-errors and multiple fails”, Gary was finally able to design a vertical growing system that checked all the boxes for growing vegetables in a tight space. He named it Victory Farm, with the initials meaningfully suggesting vertical farming as well.

To maximise space, Gary also explored growing vegetables on rooftops. He also began to supply his pesticide-free produce to market vendors. After he was approached by a customer from East Malaysia keen to start growing his own food at home, Gary decided to develop his prototype into a working product for sale. “It was revolutionary. Our residential models have been able to meet the needs of those living in high-rise apartments.”

Gary and his team soon focused on creating a front-to-end service for the market. But coordinating face-to-face consultations and delivering services to customers have been thrown awry these last couple of years. Gary is not beaten though. “When I first started out, a lot of people thought I was out of my mind. They could not imagine a product that could check the boxes of growing food in confined spaces. Yet, we did just that. You never know what is possible until you try it, and when you try it, you see how simple it was all along!”

HAVVA Agrotech

Before he founded HAVVA Agrotech, Philip Loo, or Uncle Loo as he is affectionately known, operated Loo Urban Farms. And before that, he worked in IT and battled daily with stress and health issues. He longed for a change and for a chance to live a healthier and more natural lifestyle.

So Loo travelled to Taiwan, where he learned about aquaponics, then a new agricultural innovation, from a pioneer. On returning to Malaysia, he and his brother built a commercial, self-sustaining aquaponics farm on 7,000 sq ft of land.

Philip Loo (centre) with his HAVVA Agrotech team.

Loo’s social mission is to innovate effective and sustainable planting systems, and empower others to grow their own fresh produce. He realises that having control of the sourcing chain has made him conscious of what he feeds his body with.

“To that end, discovering and learning about aquaponics greatly helped. But I still saw a problem. Not everyone has land to grow food, and sometimes even the most conscious farms have a bigger carbon footprint than they had intended to.”

Loo’s answer was HAVVA Agrotech, his way of redefining conventional farming. Through HAVVA, Loo and his team have been able to experiment and seek solutions in sustainable aquaponics and vertical farming. These solutions are disseminated through their products and services to both residential and commercial customers alike.

“There is always an alternative to what is considered the ‘only’ way. More people are becoming concerned about the source chain and where their food is coming from; but with urban farming, people can be in control of their food source and they can live a healthier lifestyle.”

Marcus Dip Silas

Marcus is an interculturalist and the author of Founders' Grit, a compilation biography celebrating the accomplishments and achievements of Penang tech and manufacturing entrepreneurs.