Farmtastic Living

03 August 2016

A new wave of urban farming is sweeping the Klang Valley. Here’s a look at some of the farms and entities that are making it happen.

The compound of a nondescript bungalow in Bukit Gasing, Petaling Jaya, is teeming with life: an edible garden where one can eat leaves plucked straight from the plant; a coop where chickens are occasionally released to roam.

This is where local social enterprise Eats, Shoots & Roots have set up their operations. Bukit Gasing is far from the rural setting that comes to mind when one thinks of growing crops, but this is exactly what Eats, Shoots & Roots is all about: getting urbanites to start growing their own produce by offering the right education and the right garden supplies to make planting their first seed easier.

“I think the general view is that old people do gardening, so we’re trying to make the hobby a younger thing, make it more exciting and sexy,” explains Beatrice Yong, who’s the strategy director at Eats, Shoots & Roots. One of their products is the Seed Box, a themed gardening kit containing seeds, peat pellets and everything else to help you get started. Eats, Shoots & Roots also hosts gardening workshops and semi-regular events like Sayurday, in which they invite a chef to come over and create unique dishes using items from their garden.

The concept of urban farming or urban agriculture traditionally refers to the practice of growing or producing food and distributing it in a densely populated town, but a more recent definition makes it synonymous with sustainable practices, organic farming and closing the gap between farmers and consumers who see it as the solution for people growing more concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s being handled.

While the idea of either growing your own produce or buying them direct from farmers is a practice that has yet to spread to every household in the Klang Valley, over the years we have seen several local entities like Eats, Shoots and Roots trying to make organic farming and growing your own produce more accessible for urbanites.

Beatrice believes our urban farming movement has definitely picked up, albeit at its own pace. “It’s still slow growing but interest has certainly increased in terms of people wanting to grow their own food. You find a lot more people wanting to visit farms to find out where their food comes from.”

This interest in knowing where your food comes from has also allowed for some local farms to thrive on a community-supported agriculture (CSA) structure. A direct-to-consumer program whereby the public deals directly with the farmer, CSAs operate on a subscription basis through which the consumer pays in advance for a share of the farm’s produce for a certain amount of time. This way, the farmers are free to grow crops within their means and according to season, while the subscribers can rest easy knowing that their money goes direct to the farmer. Some of the more notable CSAs operating nearby include ar-Raudhah, LadyBird Organic Farm and Terra Farm, which all grow organic crops.

With organic farming being the way forward, farms like Kebun Kaki Bukit take it to the next level by being a sort of demo farm for education on natural faming, including the practice of zero waste and using recycled materials. Located 60km north of Kuala Lumpur near a small fishing village in Kuala Selangor, Kebun Kaki Bukit is currently run by its co-founder David Mak and a team of passionate volunteers. A look at their Facebook page paints a picture of a community of diverse individuals working together on the farm’s projects and tasks, whether it’s making planter boxes out of old paint containers, setting up an aquaponics system using recycled materials, or even building a mudhouse. However, David is quick to point out that there is no “typical day” on the farm. “Many projects run depending on the urgency, requests from buyers and availability of funds. It ranges from making compost, watering plants, planting, air layering, engineering works, natural construction, harvesting fruits and vegetables, and off-site installation of aquaponics systems.”  

While Kebun Kaki Bukit does sell its produce on site direct to consumers, there are currently no plans to supply to places closer to town, as David’s main focus for the farm is on research and development and not so much on marketing. Kebun Kaki Bukit does however organise workshops on natural building and conducts farm tours to teach visitors (ranging from adults to school children) how to use natural ingredients to make foliar spray, compost and natural fertiliser, but upon request. “Only when people seek us do we accommodate,” says David, adding that the farm has also done pizza-making sessions using their cob oven, during which visitors can harvest the farm’s produce to be used as pizza toppings.

These green efforts are all well and good to instil organic and sustainable practices in our local urban farming movement, but the next step is trying to get the public interested in growing their own produce and practicing more environmentally friendly methods. Eats, Shoots & Roots does a fine job at making growing your own edible plants a cool thing to do, but one of the common reasons stopping some of us from wanting to grow anything at home is time – we’re just too busy to look after a plant.

Awareness and education campaigns aside, this is where aquaponics comes in as a saving grace: it’s said to be the best hands-off method of growing your plants at home, especially for the busy urbanite who can’t really commit the time to managing a soil-based plant. Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising aquatic animals like fish) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment, so both fish and plant grow together.

One local enterprise championing the usage of aquaponics systems at home is Poptani, who believe that every home should have a farm.

“Aquaponics is the best way to farm because it’s a method that uses very, very little resources. Fish food water is the best water for plants because it’s super rich in nutrients. The water feeds the plants and the plants help filter out the bacteria and other stuff the fish doesn’t eat. The water will get filtered down back to the fish, and the fish gets good, clean oxygenated water,” explains co-founder Shaikh Shahnaz Karim, who started Poptani in 2014 with his friends Sidek Kamiso and Yasmin Rasyid, who’s also the president of EcoKnights (a local non-profit NGO inspiring sustainable living).

An aquaponics system is easy for busy working professionals to take up because it functions on a closed loop system in which everything is continuously recycled; there’s no watering required and all you have to do is feed the fish and harvest your plant when it’s ready. If you’re going away for a few days, Shahnaz recommends simply using an auto-feeder and to keep the aquaponics unit shaded so it’s not exposed to rain and too much sun.

Part of Poptani’s efforts in getting people to start growing their own food at home is by offering smaller beginners’ units which look like your regular fish bowl with a plant growing out of it.

“Our beginners’ units are almost fool-proof. The only thing you need to do is add water, fish and just put some seeds in it and it will grow. Herbs would be a great start, and after herbs, some upgrade to leafy vegetables like lettuce and rocket,” says Shahnaz, adding that you can fill these small units with either guppies or betta fish (fighting fish). Poptani also offers bigger units the size of large aquariums which can keep edible fish like tilapia. These units are available via the Poptani website.

With more and more local farms and entities promoting the practice of growing your own food in sustainable ways, the future of urban farming and gardening is a bright one – given the right kind of public education and awareness, that is. Communication is key, because the act of eating straight from our garden should come as natural to us as leaves to a tree.

“I think right now urban folks just need to start [farming] anyway. Whatever method that you feel like starting on, start on it,” concludes Shahnaz. “A lot of us haven’t even tried, so we need to promote just trying it out first. It’s not that difficult – the difficulty comes from the mind.”

By Syarifah Syazana

Photos of Kebun Kaki Bukit and Poptani courtesy of respective organisation



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