Leaving behind their bustling city lifestyles for a farm in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Michael and Ivy Simon speak to Priya Kulasaagaran about what it really takes to have a sustainable life
Walking around the lush greenery of Homegrown Farms Semenyih, one might feel a sudden desire to leave the city and get back to nature. Situated in the Broga valley, cradled by the Broga Hills, the farm is the brainchild of Michael and Ivy Simon, a pair of media professionals who decided to uproot from the suburban jungle to a more idyllic existence by the countryside. Watching their four children happily frolicking about the vegetable beds, the couple share that their journey began with a newfound focus on the kind of food they were feeding their family.
“We really started thinking about the way we ate when we had kids,” says Ivy. “When you’re pregnant, you start reading about what can harm your baby. So you pay attention to what you buy, and you want to know where it comes from. We decided then, hey, let’s try growing these things ourselves.” Michael chimes in jokingly: “Also the grocery bill was too high!”
The couple started small, with their backyard in their old home in Kuala Lumpur; growing local favourites such as long beans, spinach, brinjal and ladies fingers. Now, the farm is abundant with all sorts of produce such as figs, cucumber, okra, bitter gourd, red Russian kale, lettuce, radish, bulb carrots, sweet potatoes, mizuna, asparagus and celery.
Michael is eager to share his experiments at growing other things as well. “I’ve been cultivating lowland strawberries; the fruits are smaller, but they’re full of flavour. We’ve put in about 60 fruit trees – like coconuts, a variety of mangoes, durian, rambutan – and we’ll see the results in about two years,” he says. If that isn’t enough, the family also rears chickens and tilapia fish, the latter being part of an aquaponic system for vine vegetables.
A trained television producer, Michael credits the establishment of the farm to an unlikely source – YouTube. “I learnt all this through the internet and books from Amazon,” he says simply. “There is so much online, and people are really generous about sharing their knowledge. I didn’t study agriculture or even go for a course. Which is why I say, if I can do it, anyone can.”
This has made Michael want to pass on what he knows to the next generation, starting with his children’s school mates. Aside from opening up the farm for school visits, he has also recently set up an aquaponics system in his children’s international school in Mantin, Negeri Sembilan. “It’s a closed loop; the fish fertilise the vegetables, the vegetables filter the water, and the water goes to the fish. With traditional farming, the water just seeps into the ground. So we’re teaching them to not just conserve water, but also how to garden in a different way,” he explains.
“Young people are not taught about food production, which is a shame,” says Michael. They need to know how things work, and how what we do affects the environment.” Ivy adds that the hope from efforts like this is that the children will “go back and tell their parents, and this will make the parents start to think about how they can start changing their habits as well”.
A full lifestyle change
With all the work it takes to manage a farm, it is surprising then that Michael and Ivy still find time to run their production house, Homegrown Productions, based in Damansara. “It is about finding a balance, and we do have two gardeners here to help us at the farm,” says Michael. As he elaborates on life at the farm and tinkering around with growing techniques, it is clear that passion is the main driver in helping find that balance.
At the moment, one of Michael’s pet projects is figuring out a container farming system that can fit into small spaces, such as apartment balconies. “It’s basically using the principle of vertical farming – growing ‘up’ instead of on the ground. The idea is that the system can help a family of two or three grow their own vegetables for home consumption,” says Michael.
For Ivy, growing her own food opened her eyes to the quality of produce available in mass markets. “It took us three months to grow cauliflowers here! They were tasty, but it was intense work. Now when I see all those huge cauliflowers in the market, I don’t buy them anymore, because I know it’s impossible to grow something like that here; there are definitely a lot of artificial enhancers involved,” she says. By contrast, the farm sticks to using pesticide-free alternatives to keep pests at bay, such as neem oil.
Speaking to Michael and Ivy, it becomes clear that living a sustainable lifestyle isn’t just about picking up organic groceries – it is a full-time commitment.
“We don’t buy groceries based on what we want to cook; we cook with what we have,” explains Ivy. “For example, I only bake when there are excess eggs, and I think that’s how we’re meant to eat – baked goods should be treats, not something you eat all the time. Otherwise, we have a very simple diet, consisting of mainly vegetables, chicken and fish.” She adds that even their extended families have got into the act. “When we visit people these days, we bring them fresh vegetables as gifts – and they do appreciate it!” she says.
Although their children have adapted quite well to the home-grown diet, Ivy says that she does have the ultimate trump card when coaxing them to clean their plates. “We are mindful of not wasting anything, because they know how hard their dad has worked at growing the food,” she says with a laugh. “And you know, your value system really changes from living this way, you feel a sense of gratefulness for living in Malaysia; we can grow food any time in this country.”
This change in mindset extends to the clients on the farm’s subscription list as well. “It is a commitment; like, if we have a glut of brinjals for the season, we will be eating brinjals every day,” says Michael. “But that’s where you learn to be creative, and work with what you have. Ivy made a great brinjal lasagne once that was amazing. Some of our customers have come up with really unique recipes, and we’re thinking of filming these in maybe two minute segments to share with others.”
By the community, for the community
Homegrown Farms Semenyih also has a service where it provides subscribers with a 4kg bag of fresh vegetables every week. With around 30 active subscribers at the moment, Ivy drops off the produce at four locations; Bangsar, Damansara and Mantin and a new one in Ampang. As a subscriber, one can expect a ‘surprise’ mix of freshly harvested organic vegetables, depending on what is in season, in a simple cloth bag sans packaging of any sort.
The philosophy that drives this community supported agriculture, or CSA, where consumers to buy local, seasonal produce directly from a farmer in their community.
“We didn’t really set out to do CSA; it started with other parents at our children’s school wanting to purchase our produce,” explains Ivy. So I’d collect whatever we had at the time, put them into bags, and leave them at the guardhouse (at the school). Now it’s grown to a subscription list, where customers pay a monthly fee. But we only grow for the demand we have, not more than necessary, and whatever we earn goes back into the farm.”
The couple is firm about keeping things manageable, instead of growing produce for a mass commercial market. Ivy says that in this sense, even the business growth aspect of the farm is ‘organic’. “We don’t chase subscribers, but I do think the demand for our vegetables outweighs supply at the moment. We just grow according to our pace; what we like growing, and what we can grow efficiently. Even our drop-off points are along our daily routes, such as the children’s school or our office areas – so that reduces transportation costs and effects on the environment,” she says.
She adds that there is a huge market of people who are into “organic, mindful, and zero waste living”. “People want to eat what farmers are growing for themselves. When you think about it, it’s terrifying that a large proportion of our vegetables are imported. What is the large scale effect of that?” she adds.
Michael meanwhile points out the communal solidarity of living in a farming area such as Broga. “We have a good relationship with the other farmers here, and we all tend to buy from each other. Plus, there is a knowledge bank here about farming, and people are willing to help you out if you need it,” he says.
At the end of the day, what matters to Michael and Ivy is do their part at reducing the harmful health and environmental effects of mass food production – in their own way, and on their own terms.
“There is a whole generation of us who have been eating pesticide-filled food since infancy; and the rise of diseases can be partly due to the whole pattern of eating and living,” says Ivy. “So we really felt that we have to change our kids’ future so that their generation will be different. It starts with what you eat and how you live. When you grow and eat your own food, it does something to the way you think about your whole life.”