Going Green

A tour of Kin Yan Agrotech, Singapore’s largest organic wheatgrass farm, leads us to find fresh pea shoots, pink mushrooms and even pumpkins

By Weets Goh | 26 March, 2018 | #featurefriday, Food, Ingredients
2018-03-26 18:06:44 2018-09-28 21:08:53
Kin Yan Agrotech
Kin Yan Agrotech

We are standing by a nearly-empty road, blasted by sunlight and humidity so thick you can cut it with a knife. Trees line the street, with fisheries, nurseries and farms flanking us on all sides. It feels almost un-Singaporean, bucolic even, if not for the fact that an industrial estate lies just 10 minutes away. We’re at Kin Yan Agrotech, a 2.86 ha farm situated within Lim Chu Kang Agrotechnology Park. They mainly produce wheatgrass, pea shoots, and mushrooms. There is also a smattering of other crops growing on the land, including aloe vera, edible cactus and various edible flora. Showing me the lay of the land are Lam Wee Wah and Andy Lim, the general and area managers of the farm.

Kin Yan Agrotech first started over 20 years ago in 1997, when a group of the original owners decided to grow organic wheatgrass as they believed in the plant’s nutritional and restorative properties. However, the farm didn’t do as well as they envisioned, and was bought over by the Hockhua Group 11 years ago.

“To be honest, despite the fact that their organic growing methods were very good, the farm wasn’t making money as the marketing for the product wasn’t there. Coincidentally at that same time, we [Hockhua Group] were looking for a source of wheatgrass, and we have always believed in getting produce directly from the origin,” shares Lam. It’s no coincidence perhaps, that the farm’s name in Chinese, 金源, literally translates as “golden source”.

Waste not, Want not

Everything on the farm is organically grown with patience and care—no chemical fertilisers are used. Instead, Kin Yan produces their own organic compost with all the biological waste from the farm: leftover wheatgrass, pea shoot clippings, and greens that aren’t fit to be sold. The compost is activated with an enzyme starter that they cultivate themselves using a mother enzyme imported from Japan, grown on a medium of decomposing mushrooms. Lam lifts the lid off a barrel of the stuff for me to take a whiff, but not before warning me that “it’s going to smell bad”.

The unmistakable, aldehyde stench of rotting plant matter emanates from the opened barrels, but it’s liquid gold. The enzymes are a precursor to the much sought-after compost that Kin Yan produces. “We’ve had this compost tested by AVA (Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore), and the results were very good. Even after doubling the price [of the compost], many people still want to buy it from us. Demand has gotten so high that we can’t sell it to everyone, or we wouldn’t have enough to use for ourselves,” Lam notes.

The sheds where the compost is stored
The sheds where the compost is stored

Out back, the farm waste sits in huge piles, composting under the cover of a large tarp. Lam shares that they usually have about 20 tonnes on hand, although there were only about three when we were there. To loosen up the compost and provide structure, peat moss or coco peat (made from coconut husks) is sometimes added to the compost.

It’s purely on this compost that all the plants on the farm are grown. Lam shows us the grow houses where the wheatgrass and pea shoots thrive on racks, just out of direct sunlight. To grow them, the seeds are first soaked in water for anywhere between six to eight hours until they sprout, afterwhich they are transferred to trays of the compost to grow.

Growing on a purely compost substrate
Growing wheatgrass on a purely compost substrate

At Kin Yan, both the wheatgrass and pea shoots take about seven days to reach the desired length before they are hand-harvested. Working with nothing but a pair of scissors, the farmers rapidly trim the plants an inch or two above the soil, removing neat fistfuls of even-lengthed greens that are then ready to be packed and sold wholesale to supermarkets around the island. While pea shoots are consumed as-is, the wheatgrass is used to manufacture a wide range of by-products, including fresh wheatgrass juice, wheatgrass herbal jelly, and wheatgrass powder made from the dehydrated and ground-up plants.

Up till then, my only encounters with the green stuff were the cans of “wheatgrass juice” found in supermarkets, which tastes pleasant, although suspiciously, like pandan. Freshly-juiced wheatgrass is a whole different monster—Lim hands me a small sample of the juice. The first sip feels like being punched in the palate by a lawnmower, followed by an almost herbal, liquorice-like sweetness at the end. Lim admits that it’s not the most pleasant drink in the world, adding that it’s best mixed with other fruit juices.

Wheatgrass touts a wide range of benefits, containing 17 different amino acids, vitamins A, C, E and B, as well as large amounts of chlorophyll
Wheatgrass touts a wide range of benefits, containing 17 different amino acids, vitamins A, C, E and B, as well as large amounts of chlorophyll

“We let the guests try it in small amounts, partly also because the wheatgrass juice might have laxative effects on certain people—that’s the detoxifying effect working. That’s why we try not to let people that come on tour buses try the wheatgrass either, in case they’ve got a long bus journey ahead without any toilet stops,” he adds with a laugh. Bowel-clearing benefits aside, wheatgrass touts a wide range of benefits, containing 17 different amino acids, vitamins A, C, E and B, as well as large amounts of chlorophyll. The lattermost is the pigment that gives photosynthesizing plants their green colour, and is known to provide protection from carcinogens while helping with the body’s production of blood.

Green is Good

Leaving the wheatgrass grow areas, Lam explains to me that their lease is slated to end after three years, in 2020, when the AVA will review the renewal of their lease. Unlike the 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang that have to move due to the planned expansion of military grounds, the land Kin Yan sits on remains unaffected. Their main issue is getting approval for renewal of their lease, an approval that is hinged on unclear guidelines from the AVA for crop production. Lam explains that “they [AVA] want us to grow more leafy green vegetables as they place a strong emphasis on food security.”

Purple sweet potato leaves growing on the farm
Purple sweet potato leaves growing on the farm

He shows me their current efforts to begin production of leafy green vegetables, where they’re growing watercress, choy sum, as well as different species of potato leaves, including yellow and purple-leafed varietals, all on pure compost. “AVA even sent horticultural scientists over to help with these new crops, but their methods include using chicken manure, fertilisers and pesticides. These unfortunately aren’t suitable for our farming methods,” Lam laments. Besides setting aside extra portions of farm land for these new crops, Kin Yan Agrotech also faces the challenge of the slow turnover rate of leafy vegetables. Lam explains that their primary produce—pea shoots and wheatgrass—takes only about seven days to grow before they’re ready to be harvested. On the other hand, leafy vegetables take anywhere from 28 to 32 days to fully mature. To actively prevent pests from attacking the crops for an entire month, using their current organic farming methods would be an uphill task.

For now, Kin Yan’s working with a compromise: the vegetables are allowed to mature for 21 days before being harvested, which results in smaller-sized produce. Lam shares that due to the limited output and large amount of effort taken to grow them, it wouldn’t make fiscal sense to sell these vegetables on the mass market at normal prices. Thankfully, they have no shortage of buyers for these organically-grown vegetables. Most purchases come from visitors to the farm, some of whom even drive down personally to do their grocery shopping. “We get people driving all the way down here [Neo Tiew Crescent] looking for good things. I think Singaporeans are getting more affluent now, and they know what they want and are willing to pay a bit more for quality and food safety.”

(Left) Rows of aloe vera line the roads around the farm land. (Right) The organic pumpkin that they grow on the side.
(Left) Rows of aloe vera line the roads around the farm land. (Right) The organic pumpkin that they grow on the side.

This newly-realised demand for organic vegetables has no doubt contributed to the increase in the numbers. They’ve grown from producing 100 kg a year to the same amount per month, although it’s still a long way from the AVA’s minimum production levels for farms, which requires an output of at least 130 tonnes per hectare, per year for leafy vegetables. As Kin Yan Agrotech produces a wide array of edible flora in addition to the leafy greens, the exact numbers they have to hit is unclear. “We’ve been increasing our production of vegetables, but there are no clear guidelines on how many percent of leafy vegetables against our current crops that we need to grow, or the tonnage that we need to cover in order for AVA to renew our lease,” shares Lam.

Mushrooming Production

Golden cup mushrooms emerging from a spawn bag
Golden cup mushrooms emerging from a spawn bag

To increase productivity, they’ve also been toying with the idea of growing their other main product, mushrooms, under the shade of the racks of wheatgrass and pea shoots. For now, these dank-dwelling fungi grow in separate rooms which are out-of-bounds to visitors, as the fungi are especially sensitive to bacteria. There, you’ll find pink oyster mushrooms that come in a stunning shade of coral, black cloud-ear fungus, and golden cup all growing from spawn bags filled with nothing but bran, sawdust and spores. While wheatgrass and pea shoots are the main output from the farm, it’s these fresh mushrooms that attract the most attention, mainly due to their eye-catching appearances and culinary appeal. Pan-fried, the pink oyster mushrooms taste and feel almost like seafood, with its mild, umami earthiness and pleasantly chewy texture. These mushrooms are used by many restaurants around the island, including ShangriLa Hotel Singapore, Din Tai Fung, some TungLok group restaurants, and Middle Eastern dudestronomy joint Artichoke.

We convene in the cool relief of the farm’s office/ grocery shop/cafe, where groups of visitors end their farm tours with a cool drink or desserts made with the produce from the farm. There are aloe vera jellies made in the attached kitchenette, and wheatgrass ice cream that’s churned by a well-known premium ice cream manufacturer. Besides the desserts and drinks, they also offer a whole range of health and food products made using produce from Kin Yan Agrotech: nutritional supplements with wheatgrass powder and various grains, aloe vera gel, and even noodles made with mushroom and wheatgrass.

Lim, who runs all of the day-to-day operations at the farm, conducts said tours personally, where he brings everyone from students and tourists, to office dwellers around the farm. During the tour, visitors learn about the organic growing methods used on the farm, and get the chance for some hands-on growing with a mini wheatgrass or mushroom growing kit. “We like to educate the public about farming in Singapore, to show them all the effort that goes into growing their food, while sharing about the organic methods that we use—recycling our waste, and not using any chemical fertilisers or pesticides,” says Lim.

Leaving the farm, we spot plenty of other produce that’s being grown, most of which aren’t produced in amounts large enough to be sold in the supermarkets, and are instead snapped up by farm visitors: wintermelon, passionfruit, and even pumpkins out front. “Someone took one of the few pumpkins that we had. The farm is free for visitors to roam, and there’s no gate, so people come in sometimes in the night to take the fruits and vegetables”, shares Lim. The remaining pumpkin? It’s a luscious shade of dark green, plump, and shiny. I’m not advocating this behaviour—but sometimes, a thief in the night knows where the good stuff is.

Kin Yan Agrotech. 220 Neo Tiew Crescent, Singapore 718830. Tel: +65 6794 8368

Before writing about food, Weets wrote about music, and is still waiting patiently for the day he spontaneously develops synaesthesia so he can reconcile the two.