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How Bollywood Veggies Champions Sustainable Farming for a Better Future

With less than 1% of Singapore's land used for agriculture, progressive farming collectives like Bollywood Veggies might just be the countryside we need for the future.

2020-06-02 12:40:47 2020-06-02 12:41:15

Bollywood Veggies was never meant to be just a farm.

The brainchild of Ivy Singh-Lim and husband Lim Ho Seng first manifested in 2000. The couple had initially made plans to settle down in Perth, Australia, but the passing of a dear friend led them to re-evaluate their retirement plans. On the way back to Singapore, Ivy chanced upon news of the GreenCircle Eco-Farm. Her interest piqued, she proceeded to explore food production and farming.

“My best friend told me, ‘Ivy, you can’t make money.’ I just looked at her and smiled. ‘Money is only paper, sweetheart. You can’t smoke it; you can’t steam it; and you can’t screw it. You can only smell it. We don’t need more money. We need a beautiful place to live in until we age and die.’”

The best place for that, in Ivy’s mind, was Singapore. She came from a lineage of landowners and has never lived a life of want. Both she and her husband valued their home and relationships here over material wealth. In September 2000, the couple successfully tendered for a 20-year lease on 10 acres of land in the Kranji countryside. Bollywood Veggies was thus born.

The face of Bollywood Veggies, Ivy-Singh Lim
The face of Bollywood Veggies, Ivy-Singh Lim

The name can be slightly misleading. Bollywood Veggies is not a film house for Indian movies, nor is it simply about vegetables. Its name pays homage to Ivy’s half-Indian heritage. Life on the farm is meant to reflect the boisterous dancing in Bollywood tradition.

Being in the Kranji countryside, the farm is safe from the burgeoning expansion of Singapore’s urban real estate. As a result, Bollywood Veggies is a beautiful plot of land capable of spiriting the wistful dreamer away to another place, to where Ivy calls “paradise” – a paradise that she has physically crafted for her beloved country.

10 acres of land is nothing to scoff at, but do not be daunted if you are planning to pay a visit to the farm. The public farm space is smaller and less intimidating. Ivy lives on the premises, in a villa with her husband and a pack of rescued dogs, right in the heart of her paradise. The remainder of the land is divided into 12 plots for farming purposes, an office building and the eponymous bistro, circa 2004, that serves delectable farm-to-table recipes: Poison Ivy.

Maximising land use for farming and education purposes
Maximising land use for farming and education purposes

The Gentle Warrior

Ivy is a strong proponent of the value-added business, and Bollywood Veggies is modelled in that light, having expanded over the years to become a successful farming enterprise that incorporates educational and agri-tourism activities.

“Is a vineyard a farm?” Ivy questions. When we nod in affirmation, she continues, “Vineyards are farms too. They cultivate and harvest grapes for wine.” To her, the choice of crop is secondary; it is the hard work of the farmers who nurture their produce and pick out the cream of their crop for processing that is important. That, she says, is the value-adding process.

In an age where modern mechanisation and high-tech farming are phasing out the tradition of land farming, Ivy’s emphasis on value, and not profitability, is a breath of fresh air. “What’s going to happen to the people who are not able to keep up with the new technologies? The less fortunate will be unable to find jobs, and fall further behind society,” she says bluntly.

The outspoken activist believes that it is the duty of the more fortunate to help the less so, and Bollywood Veggies is her way of giving back. Through open opportunities and education on the humble methods of traditional farming, Ivy hopes to empower others and nurture future generations – to teach them the importance of honest, hard work, and to cultivate a sense of community and appreciation for the symbiotic relationship we have with Mother Nature.

The signature Nasi Lemak Platter at Poison Ivy Bistro
The signature Nasi Lemak Platter at Poison Ivy Bistro

Not Your Typical Land Farm

Bollywood Veggies is not your typical land farm. Here is a different business model, quite unlike that of large commercial farms or traditional family-run businesses that retail wholesale to supermarkets. Bollywood Veggies sells some of its produce directly on the farm, while the rest go towards ingredients for Poison Ivy’s menu and domestic sustenance for the family.

Education is also an important arm in their business, explains Manda Foo, who is Ivy’s right-hand woman. As founder of Bollywood Adventures (the education and events wing of Bollywood Veggies), Manda’s primary focus is to conduct educational experiences for visitors, which run the gamut from students to corporate groups to tourists.

“In Singapore, farm land should not be used just for primary production; it’s too valuable for that,” opines Manda. “It needs to be more than a farm. That’s why we started the bistro and the education wing. While we are doing primary production of food, there are so many ways to add value to that primary product: to become a wonderful farm-to-table meal or to use the landscape to become an educational space.”

In any given month, Bollywood Veggies receives between 10,000 to 15,000 visitors. A little over half of that number comprises students and teachers from the many local schools. Weekdays on the farm are skewed towards organised groups who come for tours and learning journeys, while weekends see more of the dining crowd. Bollywood Veggies also receives regular visits from customers who have taken a liking to the place and food. For a farm located in the far countryside of the island, having people drop by just for the restaurant or a walk-in visit speaks volumes about its success.

The founder of Bollywood Adventures, and Ivy's right-hand woman, Manda Foo
The founder of Bollywood Adventures, and Ivy’s right-hand woman, Manda Foo

The Nurtured Warrior

Manda herself is a living testimony to Ivy’s conviction in nurturing the future. In fact, her journey with Bollywood Veggies started a little under 10 years ago when she was still a fledgling student. She had read about Ivy, the farm and the newly-opened Poison Ivy bistro in the papers, and being the keen student that she was, made her first trip down to the Kranji countryside – a trip that was to alter the course of her life.

Bollywood Veggies at that time was “very much a secret”, recalls Manda, and “it was nice [to be there].” For the next few years, she read journalism and international relations in Boston, USA. During her summer and winter breaks back home, she would regularly visit the little-known Bollywood Veggies with her friends. It was during this period that she got to know Ivy.

In 2009, the intrepid teenager graduated. She visited the farm again and acknowledged her attachment to the place. Meeting Ivy for what she remembers to be the fourth time, she enquired on potential job openings and the rest, in Manda’s words, “is history”.

Manda’s role at Bollywood Veggies has changed substantially over the years. She started out exclusively as Ivy’s scribe. Back then, Ivy was the president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), so Manda followed her to all the meetings and attended to her emails (Ivy famously proclaimed she has never operated a computer in her life). Manda also went on to support operations on the farm and volunteered in the KCA.

One-and-a-half years later, Manda was hired as executive secretary of the KCA and organising secretary for a large commonwealth agricultural conference. For five years beginning in 2012, she could not do much at the farm. Finally in 2017, she decided to settle down with a rooted job. And the soil at Bollywood Veggies, where it all started, was her fertile ground.

Looking back, Manda says, “My encounter with Ivy and my subsequent work with her shaped what I did all of my twenties, which is an unusual career path for someone with my qualifications. However, I felt very comfortable and confident that this journey was meant to be mine because it was full of deep and multi-faceted learning experiences, revelation about the way our country works, and best of all, full of adventure.”

Much has happened in the past three years since Manda settled down at Bollywood Veggies. Through a period of restructuring, she went from being chief executive of Bollywood Veggies to founder of Bollywood Adventures. This paradigm shift has helped Manda “grow legs” for the business, looking beyond the constraints of their 10-acre space.

“Having a business isn’t always about earning money,” says Manda. More importantly, she believes that they have achieved their goal, and that is to craft a space for learning, a paradise for escape. The 15,000 visitors they get per month is testament to the achievement. So what’s next for Bollywood Veggies? Manda hopes to start satellite Bollywood Veggies in other ASEAN countries – farm-based enterprises where local communities (especially women) are employed and paid a fair wage for the production of locally-made, conscionable products.

Sustainable farming for a better future
Sustainable farming for a better future

Rooted in History

The challenges that Ivy, Manda and other small-holder farmers face as a community are not easy. Singapore used to be an agricultural powerhouse back in the 1960s, but economic policies saw a break with tradition and loss of agricultural expertise of that generation. In the face of urbanisation, it has become yet more imperative today to address the fundamentals of the trade before going high-tech. As Manda asserts, “Agriculture is a trade, a profession. It is not just about machines. It is an entire ecosystem.” She is not against avant-garde urban farming practices, but cautions that a balance needs to be observed. There is still much to learn from traditional land farming, she says, for an organic countryside environment cultivates respect for life, diversity, and the essential work that farmers do.

The land at the Kranji countryside is soaked with the life of Singapore’s ancestry, as far back as the Orang Laut. Without doubt, the land is precious to Ivy and Manda, as it should be for generations of Singaporeans. Precious memories have been forged in the relationship between the gentle and the nurtured warriors, and Manda laughs when she tells us jokingly that Ivy intends to become a Buddha in her lotus pond one day.

“It is not just rows and rows of production. The landscape tells a story. It tells a story of food in Singapore.” – Manda