It initially began as an experiment to cut down on carbon footprint. Leisa Tyler and husband Ewout Kemner, co-founders of Weeds and More, wanted to supply restaurants and hotels in Singapore with European vegetables grown in Malaysia rather than those flown in from thousands of kilometres away.
Not only did Tyler, a former food journalist, have no farming experience, she admits that she had “no idea what I was doing”. But her basic premise was right: there’s no valid reason why these vegetables could not thrive closer to home.
Weeds and More’s philosophy is simple, Tyler says. “Why do we need to support farmers in France, Holland and Spain? Why not support farmers in Malaysia?”
Most European produce in Singapore is flown in from Italy, France, Holland or Spain. It’s often harvested months in advance and travels for even longer to reach its destination.
The pair teamed up with Malaysian organic farmer Fung Chee Siang, Singaporean restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, and chefs Anthony Yeoh and Dave Pynt.
They conducted nearly two years of research before they found an environment suitable for their project. The Malaysian lowlands were out of the question due to the hot and humid weather and while the Indonesian highlands were tempting, it would still have entailed flying produce to their clients. Instead they settled on buying produce from the Cameron Highlands, which had the temperate climate, proximity to Singapore and road links that they needed.
Weeds and More works with farms that are certified organic by the Malaysian government. Farmers are put through strict audits and have to do soil tests and other organic practices to maintain their certification.
Eight years on, their farms grow over 60 varieties of European fruits, vegetables, garnishes and herbs. The range of produce includes heirloom beans, purple kohlrabi, watermelon radishes, Lebanese cucumber and apple sorrel.
Changing mindsets and models
Having found a near-perfect environment for growing European vegetables, the team now had to introduce farmers to a new way of working.
In the Cameron Highlands, market forces typically determine the price of vegetables. That exposes farmers to all sorts of fluctuation and risks.
Prices may be attractive when the farmer starts to plant a crop – say, 80 sen (S$0.26) a kilogram for cucumbers. Six weeks later the price may have come down to 20 sen (S$0.06) but farmers don’t have much choice but to accept it.
Weeds and More operates differently. It links farmers with buyers, but also gives farmers a guaranteed price. The two parties sign a contract that stipulates the farmer will supply the specified quantity of a particular vegetable. The contract ensures that the farmer doesn’t lose out if the price falls. They also know the price before they put a seed into the ground, so they can create a budget with confidence.
But is it a win-win arrangement for major hoteliers and fine dining restaurants?
The fact that Weeds and More now supplies more than a dozen branded establishments, including the Hyatt and W Hotels Worldwide, suggests that it is.
What Weeds and More offers is not only cost-effective produce, but also traceability and freshness, Tyler says.
“We give them a tastier product and a fresher product. A product that comes from Europe or even Australia – say, a radish – has been harvested seven to 10 days prior to arriving at the restaurant.”
In contrast, produce from a Weeds and More farm is in the kitchen less than 24 hours after being pulled out of the ground, Tyler says.
Tyler says the disconnect between where produce was grown and where it was being served was her biggest pet peeve working as a food journalist in Singapore for two decades.
Chefs would order from a piece of paper, not knowing where the vegetable came from or how they had been sown.
She recalls a restaurateur friend ordering carrots from Europe that when they arrived could already be bent. “Fresh carrots cannot bend, they will snap!” The poor quality was probably due to the fact that the carrots had been out of the ground for three months to make the journey to Singapore, she explains.
Growing a market
While the initial plan was to supply restaurants and hotels in Singapore, Tyler says they soon found demand from Malaysia, where Weeds and More partners with fine dining restaurant Nadodi, luxury hotel The Datai Langkawi and chef Darren Chin, owner of DC Restaurant.
Working with international chains is more difficult because they have lots of “red tape”, says Tyler, from compliance issues to health and safety needs. But she says navigating the additional hurdles is worthwhile.
“I think it is a really big thing [if hotel groups buy from us] and I feel almost obliged to that we have to do it. They are sticking their necks out and wanting to make a change,” she says.
“We can facilitate that change and we have a duty of care to assist. And of course, it’s good business.”
Sometimes, a business can be all about a simple connection. Tyler remembers co-founder Loh’s words to her when they first started this collective.
“He said, ‘You know, it’s just a matter of joining the dots. It’s a matter of getting the product from the farmers to the market that needs it.’”
When the founders first visited the highlands, they met farmers who were growing rocket and fennel bulbs but had no market to sell them to.
“It is about bridging the gap of understanding between the farm and restaurant, making sure the farmers are producing what the restaurant wants,” she says. “And that the restaurant understands what a farm is, and what it needs in order to thrive.”