I had that freedom you get from being the youngest child, a little more rebellious I guess. At the age of five, I was already outside pruning and taking care of the garden – it became a passion early. I was aware of the impact that people and pollution were having on the environment and told my mother I wanted to be a gardener. She said to me “Don’t be a gardener, be a horticulturist- a scientist who studies plants.” Family and friends made jokes about me being a ‘tree hugger’ and that I would grow up and ‘marry a tree.’ At the age of 15, I was devastated when my grades did not match my desire to follow the scientific path towards horticulture. I turned instead to geography but was not sure where that would take me. It was only in the army and in the thick of the jungle in Brunei at 18 years old, that I realized how helpful geography was for distinguishing places by using terrain, plants and trees.
I worked as a Street landscaper for a couple of years after leaving University. My job required me to become a real tree hugger as I measured the girth of trees by wrapping my arms around them. A passion for social justice and poverty alleviation called so I left Singapore and become a volunteer farmer in the Philippines. This offered me an opportunity to help landscape the country’s first Farm and Social Enterprise University. I lived alongside 60 families of former slum dwellers for nearly a year. Language barriers and a five-month drought made the going tough. With few plants to choose from that would cope with the weather, I was forced to begin landscaping with hardy food crops like sweet potatoes and lemongrass. To my surprise the community and I managed to create landscapes that were not only beautiful but edible and profitable too.
Living with these people who had so much less financially than I taught me that financial capability is just one form of wealth. The wealth of a community who can get past individual need, pool resources and work together is powerful. To see this community and their unshakeable belief, hope and dependence on the land, to recognize their gratitude for whatever small resources that were available and their surety that what they had would somehow take care of them – these ideas and attitudes transformed me and meant that when I travelled back home to Singapore I was determined to bring that thinking with me.
In Singapore many people have an island mentality and that subconsciously comes out as “How do we hold tight to what we have, how do we protect ourselves? How do we stay safe? How do we survive?” I understand that this comes from a traumatic history, but I don’t think this protective mentality needs to continue indefinitely. Coming home from the Philippines, I wondered how I could bring more of that warm community and nature connection together in my homeland, that trust of each other and the land. I wanted to create edible landscapes and help spearhead local urban farming.
Permaculture is learning from nature, the natural systems and patterns, it allows movement and creative process. I turned my home garden into a permaculture farm, a miniature edible forest with 50 different types of edible plants, many herbs and plants that had been lost in the consciousness of Singapore. I began to share knowledge about farming and food with the local community. As people began to see what I was doing and became interested in what they could do in their own gardens, the urban farming project began to grow. I suddenly realized that both my feet were in! People were connecting to what I was doing and I had no choice but to let this work gather momentum and to be true to the trust others were putting in me. Urban farming became my true purpose.
The wonderful power of growing food is that it cuts across social status and education levels and it brings people together in a unique way, it doesn’t matter where you are from or your background. One of the urban farming movements in the U.K uses this tagline ‘If you Eat – you are In!’ and that’s true, this work truly welcomes everyone.
We are all searching for authenticity and connection one to another but it is rare in an urban space that you get people coming together in an authentic way. What we are creating here are groups of people where everyone just wants to eat, they care about the environment, they have fun and build things together.
Why urban farming has taken off here is fairly simple. It fills a natural creative human need. In modern society, and particularly here in Singapore, we learn to study hard, fly low, stay safe, follow the boss and from that we believe all things will be well. The order of the urban space takes away a lot of natural creativity, self-belief and empowerment. People are hungry to use their creative essence and be part of interesting projects that are simple, fun and feel like free expression. Urban farming allows people to rally together to do something more meaningful outside their jobs and other responsibilities.
My dream is to change the way that we grow and consume our food in the urban environment, to transform the food scheme of the urban space. Having more small community farms or privately owned farms connected to others with technology makes sense. At times this has not been an easy task to manage with so many stakeholders to get on board, but that is often where the excitement is! If you can create a way to connect farming communities all over the country, for people to work positively together there is real power in that.
Operating out of the urban space gives us something unique to offer the international conversation about farming. On our island nation, we are limited by space so the old traditions and methods of farming don’t necessarily work. We have had to create a new way of farming but keep a fine balance between how much new technology and science we use alongside that simple connection with the soil. We want to use technology to keep people coming together rather than choosing a robot to plant, water and pick the food for us. That type of farming is a quasi-mining of plants and I want to see people stay connected with being out in nature and with each other.
The extension of my dream is to create an enterprise ecosystem, partnerships that revolve around urban farming. I would love to see businesses that take from our farms, add value and allow people to move into the urban farming movement.
A community has so much to teach each other when we all work to what we are good at. We are not supposed to be perfect at everything and it makes sense to come together and use the gifts we each have, to share what we know. Something I was seeing was that some of the best gardeners I met were often not that excited about cooking, they would produce amazing food, give it all away and then head to the local canteen and eat average meals. Meanwhile some of the great cooks I met were not jumping to get their hands in the soil. I remember talking to one incredible cook who said “I like being in the kitchen, but I don’t want to get out in the sun, I’m allergic to it!” I realized how it made sense to connect the dots and bring everyone together, each doing what they loved so that all could understand the power of food, grown, cooked, delivered and enjoyed by the community.
We are building a school to be called The Centre for Nature Literacy and Enterprise, laying the foundations with the National University of Singapore. This will fill a great hole in our education system. There isn’t any curriculum in Singapore that teaches about agriculture and horticulture, so we want to plug that gap. Humans have a responsibility to be stewards of nature, to remember our natural connection with the earth and learning that must start young.
There are many types of intelligence and connecting to nature is as important as some of the other professions we set in high esteem. I know a lot of people have thought that I was an ‘oddball’ for following the path I have with gardening, but we all have something unique to offer and sometimes that can take you way outside the norm. I think we could all be better at honoring what makes us individually unique as people and celebrate that more. I was walking the other day and overheard a father talking to his son, he said something that deeply touched me. “There are a lot of super heroes in the world who don’t have super powers, they help the poor, the disabled, those who need it.”
Getting hands on with nature and growing food with others is a wonderful way to create warmth, connection and community. It brings me so much happiness to watch groups of people bond over growing and creating food. There are many special moments etched in my mind’s eye, of looking around me to see the genuine warmth and laughter between people who are digging in the soil alongside each other, of watching people forgetting age or status and finding an equal friendship in their shared joy of growing and cultivating natural food together. I have seen how community permaculture offers a great solution for the loneliness that is often felt in city environments. It gives a wonderful opportunity for the rich wisdom of elderly people and the enthusiasm of the young to be celebrated when people of all ages come together in a garden and over a shared meal.
What we are doing here in Singapore can be done everywhere. A fun way to start is if you plan a date 6-8 weeks out for a shared meal with neighbors or friends. Even just two people can create a grown feast together. When each of you grow even just one part of that salad or vegetable dish, it tastes amazing when you have grown it yourself. You find yourself marveling at the colors and textures of your meal, celebrating food and friendship in a whole new way that is authentically human.
This has been an excerpt of Alexius' story, interviewed by Veronica Farmer, author of the new Amazon best seller 'Made Beautiful by Scars- Transformation stories" Book One. Alexius' story will appear in 'Made Beautiful by Nature' due out 2018, a book celebrating the work of important Nature Guardians around our planet. To hear when this book is available sign up to our Story Tribe HERE
To connect with Alexius Yeo further, check out his website www.alexiusyeo.com
Veronica Farmer, Author and Therapist, Brisbane, Australia. Passionate about sharing raw human stories that matter!