(Originally published on AVA Facebook)
While their peers are looking to land cushy jobs in offices, the Toh siblings are confident the 9-to-5 lifestyle is not for them.
“At the farm, we face different challenges every day and that keeps us on our toes!”
Having helped out at the farm since they were kids, the siblings appreciate the perks of growing up on a farm in land scarce Singapore.
Zhengjie said, “I’ve learnt not to take food for granted. It’s not easy to grow vegetables. They are like babies – we need to put in time and effort for them to grow well.
A Dynamic Partnership
Both Yingying and Zhengjie have ‘assigned’ roles at the farm – Yingying is in charge of the administrative and marketing portion while Zhengjie helps with farm operations.
“It’s a stereotype. Our parents have this thinking that girls should do paperwork while boys should do the hands-on stuff. But we don’t agree, lah.”
In order to learn the ropes quickly, the siblings try their hand at everything – from germination to harvesting, from packing to liaising with distributors and suppliers.
“Farming is both a calling and a responsibility. It’s important for Singapore to reduce our reliance on food imports and one way to do it is to support local produce!”
Crafting an ‘Insta-Worthy’ Brand
If you’ve been to a farmers’ market in Singapore, you may have seen Yili’s nicely decorated booth, complete with baskets, tablecloth, and mini chalkboards.
“At our first farmers’ market, we only had a plastic sheet covering the table and our vegetables were laid out randomly.”
Realising the importance of an ‘insta-worthy’ brand to appeal to young customers, Ying Ying took pains to refresh Yili’s image.
This includes producing trendy ‘Support Your Local Farmer’ T-shirts as Yili’s uniform and getting their friends to help out at the farmers’ markets.
“If you spot a booth manned by several young people, you’ve found us!” Yingying enthused.
Going Full Automation
Fluctuating weather is one of the biggest challenges faced by local vegetable farms and it is no different for Yili Farm.
Zhengjie said, “Sometimes we have too little or too much rain. Technology has helped to mitigate these challenges. For example, the roof curtain rolls down at the click of a button when the rain gets too heavy, preventing rainwater from damaging the vegetables.”
Yili Farm was awarded three land parcels for vegetable farming in a land tender exercise last year and it’s preparing to move to its new 6-hectare plot of land soon.
There are plans to build greenhouses installed with fully automated roofing and irrigation systems, as well as sensors that can monitor crop and temperature conditions.
“We will also be exploring soil-less planting, which will yield cleaner crops,” Yingying said.
Strength to Strength
Yili is Chinese for strength and standing tall. Indeed, Yili Farm has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 1996.
Zhengjie recalls, “When we first started out, I remember following our dad in a small lorry to deliver vegetables to mini-marts. No task was too trivial or small for him.”
Today, Yili Farm has a big, cold truck for delivery of vegetables to over 30 supermarket outlets in Singapore. They are also in discussions to supply to an online retailer.
When the farm moves to its new plot of land, it also plans to open up the farm to the public for weekend markets and educational tours.