Remember the days when people would ask you: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Many of the jobs you would quote are likely out of fashion now, largely because of technology coming in and changing the job market entirely. For example, a survey found that Japanese boys’ top career choice was to be a professional YouTuber.
But in Singapore, there's a surprising trend of young people making career switches to an unusual industry: farming.
The city is a major global financial hub with a competitive education system, so there is no real shortage of corporate jobs. Yet, some still decide that the agriculture industry is better suited to them – despite the fact that only 1% of the city-state's land is reserved for farming.
One such urban farming enterprise in Singapore that has attracted young adults is Edible Garden City (EGC), where 40 young adults are bringing back a taste of the rural life to the concrete jungle. More interestingly, 6 of their 40 full-time farmers have autism. This is just a part of a larger effort by EGC to facilitate programs for autistic individuals and equip them with new skills.
EGC was started by Bjorn Low, with the support of his wife, Crystal Tan. They both left jobs in advertising to travel and farm, before coming back home to Singapore armed with increased appreciation for agriculture. EGC grows plants for notable restaurants as well as sets up edible gardens for hotels, schools and other venues.
Companies like EGC are becoming crucial to the ideal Singapore of the future. With close to six million people at present, and no substantial local food sources, how to feed the nation is becoming an increasingly pressing dilemma for Singapore, especially in a world ridden by food insecurity, population growth and climate change.
At the moment, Singapore imports 90% of the food it consumes, meaning it produces just 10% of its local food supply – far from enough for food security. By 2030, it aims to produce at least 30% of its food needs, but this might not be possible without more farms.
It appears young people are paying attention to the challenge. At EGC, the average age of farmers is 28, a far cry from the average age of farmers in Southeast Asia, which is 50-60 years old. Getting young people in on agriculture is crucial if there is going to be a need for more farmers in the future.
But why exactly would young adults give up the luxuries of daily life in Singapore for a job outdoors, in the hot and humid weather of the island?
Rebecca Neo, a 25-year-old farmer at EGC was attracted to the idea of doing something more practical. Before joining, she graduated with a degree in Life Sciences from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Then she got a part-time job at an aquarium, in a role that was both educational and operational, but that didn’t quite cut it for her. “I wanted to do something more hands-on. I actually wanted to get in touch with the plants and animals,” she told VICE.
Another farmer, 28-year-old Lorraine Choo, was working in the nightlife and hospitality industry before the shift. “I experienced a career crisis when I realised the working hours weren't sustainable and the values weren't in line with mine,” she said.
Lorraine initially joined the hospitality industry. From there she developed an interest in bartending. Wanting to experiment with making drinks using different plants, she attended a gin workshop at EGC. That sparked her curiosity in the medicinal and flavour profiles of plants, which eventually led her to farming.
Oh, there's a farm in Singapore with edible flowers and herbs?, she remembers thinking when she first arrived. “I was intrigued. The farmer took us on a tour and told us about this herb called the Mexican Tarragon, and he said: ‘if you smoke this you will lucid dream,’” she said. “The culture was what I was looking for. It was candid, relaxed and allowed you to learn more about plants in general. I wanted to make my own teas and infusions. I also wanted to do something that would challenge my comfort zone.”
Lorraine also leads the microgreens operations, where most of EGC’s Autistic employees work; she says it has been an incredible learning experience. “We aren’t as different from them as people think,” she said.
But the decision to be a farmer in Singapore doesn’t get taken lightly. When they tell others about their career choice, both Rebecca and Lorraine say the first thing people say is “Oh, there are farms in Singapore?”
“It's shocking to them because they wouldn't even think someone so young would be interested in farming,” Lorraine said.
As more young people start seeking alternative non-financial gains from their careers, such as challenging environments and being in touch with nature, there could possibly be a new resurgence of farmers in youth populations.
But it’s not just the farmers themselves that get attracted to the agriculture environment. Traditional office jobs can be adapted to sustain these new farms as well.
EGC’s Marketing and PR manager Sarah Rodriguez used to work in the government before she decided she wanted a change of scenery. In a densely populated city like Singapore, “it's really easy to get caught up in the rat race,” Sarah said. “I may not earn as much as I used to, but I am happy because I enjoy what I do and where I work. I get fulfilment from so many other things.”
“They say Monday blues only exist if you hate your job,” she added. “It's really true.”
This article was written in partnership with Edible Garden City.