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Straits Times, 21 Jan 05
Selling S'pore's farm charms
By Tan Hui Yee
THE taxi was crawling along the quiet road fringed by tall lallang on either side and the cabby seemed a little nervous.
Not many passengers, after all, ask to be taken to this neck of the woods, where traffic is scarce and direction signs scarcer. Bus services are non-existent and shops are rare. Here, in the heart of an 858-ha area near the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve - and about 16 times the size of the Botanic Gardens - there are farms growing fruit, vegetables and decorative plants, or rearing fish.
This is Singapore's countryside, in case you did not know it existed. Nine farms and a pottery have banded together to attract more visitors to experience the rustic charm in their north-western corner of the island. Day-trippers have already been making their way there. Overnight farmstays may be coming up next.
The farmers registered the Kranji Countryside Association this week and want to raise the profile of their area as a recreational and educational venue. According to the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority, there are 114 farms there, fewer than half the 277 farms in Singapore.
Earlier this month, farmers got the go-ahead from the authorities to open shops, education centres and restaurants on their premises, as well as to take in staying guests. There is a limit on the proportion of each farm that can be used for visitor facilities, and farmers who go ahead will be charged higher rent by the Singapore Land Authority.
The newly-set up countryside association is headed by Mrs Ivy Singh-Lim, 55, Singapore's colourful netball chief and an owner of organic fruit and vegetable farm, Bollywood Veggies. She has been telling people for some time now that there's no reason to leave Singapore for a countryside holiday. The new group will be selling that message harder. It also hopes to preserve the Kranji countryside. Farmland is leased out on 20-year terms, with no guarantee the land will not be redeveloped when leases expire. Mrs Singh-Lim said: 'We can build our flats higher, but you need the countryside in order to breathe.'
The association is planning quarterly events to raise awareness of the countryside and attract visitors, starting with a five-day carnival this month. From 9am to 6.30pm, from today to Sunday, and again next weekend, free shuttle services will take visitors from Boon Lay and Kranji MRT stations to the Sungei Buloh bird sanctuary as well as nine farms and a pottery in the area. Visitors can tour the farms and buy produce directly from the farmers.
They can meet diehard farmers like Mr Teo Khai Seng, 45, who sold his three-room flat in Lim Chu Kang seven years ago to expand his fish-rearing business on a 4-ha farm in Neo Tiew Road. He and his family now live on their Khai Seng Fish Farm, which supplies fish to restaurants. Or fourth-generation farmers like Mr Kenny Eng, 30, whose family-run landscaping company, Nyee Phoe Group, boasts a 2.2-ha country-style nursery which provided the backdrop for a wedding ceremony and a private performance by string quartet, T'ang Quartet.
Over at Bollywood Veggies, you can pick up bananas and tomatoes or shoot a few hoops at the two netball posts. Its Poison Ivy bistro serves curries, snacks and cakes, with Mrs Singh-Lim and her husband, former FairPrice chief executive Lim Ho Seng, serving guests themselves. At goat-milk producer, Hay Dairies, in Lim Chu Kang Lane 4, $2 will get you a pack of hay to feed the kids, and $5 will get you an instant photo with them.
Visitors who want to shop can choose anything from $7-per-kg toman at Khai Seng Fish Farm to baby kailan and butterhead lettuce going for about $1-$2 a packet at the Aero-Green Technology vegetable farm in Neo Tiew Crescent.
At Nyee Phoe, plump mandarin orange plants are going for $38 to $168. Nyee Phoe's Mr Eng, who is the countryside association secretary, feels the area has great potential as an alternative recreational area and a venue for workshops, weddings and other functions. 'There is excitement here,' he said.
Some farms like Bollywood Veggies are doing their own promotions to raise their profile. Mrs Singh-Lim has drawn up a tantalising farm tour for couples on Feb 5 with a 'steamy sex diet' talk to raise the heat. While farmers have so far seen more visitors mainly during weekends, they believe more people will come if they only knew what the area offered.
The president of the Nature Society, nominated Member of Parliament Geh Min, points out that families can spend an entire day there exploring Sungei Buloh reserve before hopping over to the farms for a look-see. 'It's high time that Singapore stopped thinking of itself as just a city, and rural areas got more attention,' she said. Even the chairman of the government parliamentary committee for National Development and Environment, Dr Amy Khor, said: 'Until I visited the farms last year, I did not realise how different that area was from the rest of Singapore.'
For now, the farmers are ready for a crowd this weekend and next. More than 8,000 people descended upon them over two days last October when a similar carnival was held. Nearby Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve gets about 100,000 visitors every year.
While Singaporeans might be tempted to visit the countryside at home, some travel agents were not sure if the idea would appeal to tourists. Mr Alex Yip, director of business development at travel company Vacation Singapore, felt most tourists would be keener on attractions like Sentosa, the Night Safari and Jurong BirdPark. But he admitted he had never visited the farms himself, and thought that with the right investment and coordination between the farmers, the Singapore countryside idea could well grow into a new attraction. Dairy owner John Hay, 50, a former pig farmer in Punggol, is optimistic. 'We do have a countryside. It's just that many people do not know it. They only know Orchard Road.'
Farms at Kranji: factsheet for visitors
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