“Can I really grow enough vegetables at home for daily consumption? Will I need to buy expensive planter boxes for that?”
We caught up with Balan at one such session to see how this 20-year sales and biz dev veteran became an urban farming guru.
Do It For Her
Back then, urban farming was never on Balan’s mind. In fact, he admitted that he never had any luck with plants before.
This all changed with the birth of his daughter 7 years ago, coupled with a disturbing video he found on how banned chemicals were being used on vegetables.
“I started micro-farming mainly to grow healthy vegetables for my family. I have 3 kids now, and they seldom say no to a plate of stir-fried Kai Lan,” said Balan, whose farm now provides 70% of the vegetables his family consumes.
Accomplishing this wasn’t easy, as he started with almost zero knowledge in gardening, relying on just gardening websites and books.
But theory can only go so far.
His first year was filled with costly failures, involving buying all the wrong materials, soil, seeds, organic pesticides, and fertiliser.
He told us stories on how he would excitedly buy plants from nurseries with the aim of starting a small garden, but they would all die within a week or two.
“I was going on for almost a year without even realising that the expensive potting soil that I bought was too acidic. Organic pesticides were not effective—destroying the vegetables within days,” he admitted.
But he persevered. Now the narrow tarmac lane behind his house has been transformed into a thriving micro-farm filled with rows of leafy greens and plump, fruiting vegetables.
Fifteen Minutes Farmer
Balan started The Urban Farmer in mid-2019 thanks to encouragement from his wife.
It was she who convinced him that he was doing the right thing, and that he should share his experiences with others who want to eat healthily.
To this end, Balan designed an easy-to-understand learning methodology which he teaches at The Urban Farmer’s FMF sessions.
There are two main challenges that urban farmers need to tackle: how to maintain soil health and fertility when using a planter box or pot, and how to organically control pest and diseases. After answering these two challenges, farming becomes easy and sustainable.Balan Nadarajan, Founder of The Urban Farmer
Leveraging on his experiences (especially his failures), these sessions focus on a variety of topics like:
- Sustaining healthy soil with an ecosystem of beneficial microorganisms
- Setting up a farm with limited space
- Building your own DIY planter boxes/air pruning pots (using plastic laundry boxes, bottles, and even IKEA shoe organisers)
- Increasing the harvest and life cycle of fruiting plants using said air pruning pots
- How to grow herbs successfully
- How to trick plants to produce more
The fee of RM150 (early bird) to RM200 per person will also get you a micro-green starter kit including seeds, organic fertiliser, grow trays, peat moss, and a 500ml water sprayer.
This is based on his most recent session and may be subject to change.
He also provides learning materials, short videos and his own self-authored e-book as references.
“Not only that, I encourage participants to share their developments through Facebook/WhatsApp. Most of my participants are actively keeping in touch with me, which is great news,” he said.
These sessions would usually last 3 hours or so, which made us wonder why it was called ‘Fifteen Minutes Farmer.’
“I spend only 15 to 20 minutes a day tending to my farm on weekdays and a couple of hours on weekends, and that’s how FMF came about,” he revealed.
To date, he has trained around 300 participants in both closed and public sessions, the former of which he wants to do more of on a monthly basis.
Why Buy When You Can Grow
I still needed a bit more convincing. Was having your own farm really worth all this effort?
“It’s a continuous supply of home-grown vegetables that are safe and nutritious,” Balan reasoned.
Why munch on potato chips while watching your favourite show when you can snip some lettuce and microgreens, throw them in a bowl, add some sauce for taste and enjoy the crunchiness?Balan Nadarajan, Founder of The Urban Farmer
Plus, he said that microgreens, in particular, contain up to 40 times the nutrients (like polyphenols) compared to an adult green from the same species.
You don’t need a lot of space either; in our session, he showed us how we can set this all up in an area roughly the size of a car porch.
In terms of safety, Balan reminded us that banned pesticides are still being rampantly used by farmers.
He also highlighted the overuse of nitrogen in conventional farming that makes your store-bought vegetables look more luscious while being hazardous to your health.
Then there’s the cost, as he explained that 1kg of conventionally grown Bayam Muda is being sold at RM15, using chemical fertiliser and pesticides.
“But if you grow it yourself, it is organic, and you can sell it yourself for RM25,” he jokingly said.
Reaping What He Sows
If all goes well, Balan’s next plan is to set up an eco-farm outside the city as a retreat for families to try out farming and living in the countryside, an experience he feels that today’s young generation lacks.
He is also looking into setting up an e-commerce platform for urban/micro farmers, where Malaysians can sell and buy organically-grown produce.
Speaking of selling, keep an eye out for 2 products that Balan aims to make accessible and affordable for everyone:
- All-purpose pure organic fertiliser with beneficial microorganisms, probiotics, and growth promotants
- Organic foliar fertiliser for fruiting vegetables
“I want to keep promoting organic farming to as many people as possible. I strongly believe there are many people out there who want to grow their own vegetables, they just need guidance,” he concluded.
- You can read more about agriculture here.
Featured Image Credit: The Urban Farmer