Text: Foo Jie Ying | Art direction: Don Tan | Photos: Mohamed Fadly
At the tender age of 26, Mr Kwek Zhi Heng (MAE/Class of 2020) is already living his dream – to be an urban farmer.
"As a child, I used to daydream about living a simple but meaningful life as a farmer. They work hard to grow the food that ends up on our plates; it’s where food originates. That, to me, is a very noble cause,” says the farm manager at Commonwealth Greens, an indoor hydroponics farm.
In 2019, this “simplistic childish thinking” that took root in his childhood years sprouted. The aerospace engineering graduate, then in his final year, applied for an internship at the urban farming technology company that owns Commonwealth Greens.
Commonwealth Greens produces lettuce, sorrel and chard.
Now, the farm manager works with a team of 12 farmers to sow seeds, harvest crops, and process and package vegetables for sale. The company provides vegetables to retailers in Singapore through their flagship brand, Just Produce.
Zhi Heng also makes sure that the farm runs smoothly.
“We are a young company, it’s very dynamic. Things happen and change very quickly. What I do with my team here is to address the challenges that crop up and manage the ground processes so that the farm operates efficiently,” says Zhi Heng.
Vegetables are grown vertically on 2.4m pillars at Commonwealth Greens where Kwek Zhi Heng is the farm manager.
Technology has taken away the bulk of the manual labour that comes with traditional farming. At Commonwealth Greens, vegetables are grown vertically on 2.4-metre-tall pillars and it uses a smart urban farming system – such as sensors, Internet of Things technologies and data analytics – to improve farm management processes to produce tastier greens such as lettuce, sorrel, and chard.
But even in a highly controlled environment, the unexpected can still happen.
“Sometimes, the crops may not grow the way we expect them to under fixed parameters, perhaps due to changes in plant morphology (the physical form and external structure of plants). We are in the midst of a lot of research and development, so it can take quite a bit of trial and error before we get things right and consistent,” he explains.
Zhi Heng concedes that he had to read up a lot to be familiar with plant growth cycles and the like – essential knowledge in his line of work.
His background in aerospace engineering may seem quite far off from what this job requires, but he says: "What my degree has helped me, though, is equipping me with problem solving skills and critical thinking.”
You don’t need to have a green thumb to dip your toe into indoor urban farming, but passion makes excellent fertiliser for the job, Zhi Heng is quick to point out.
“It’s very satisfying to see efforts of your hard work blossom. But you sure need to have the heart to contribute to our local food source, because the work here gets down and dirty, literally. If your passion runs dry, such tasks will really feel like a chore,” he says.
“My parents initially thought I signed up to plant seeds and water crops. But when I explained to them what I really do at the farm, they were generally supportive and saw the job in a positive light.”
Read more about a new crop of farmers growing in the city:
This article first appeared in the first issue of U, the NTU alumni magazine.