How Covid turned national baseball player into a farmer

29 Jan 2021

By Justin Kor 

In a nondescript factory building deep within the mechanical bowels of the Eunos Industrial Estate, a room is literally coming to life.

Here, the smell of fresh basil permeates the air in a space slightly smaller than a 2-room flat. The therapeutic trickling of water is a welcome respite to the incessant clanking and banging of heavy machinery outside. A vibrant curtain of green fills up almost all corners of the space, making for a visual treat.

Ryota Wong calls it his urban farm. But it could easily be a meditation garden too.

Ryota tending to his plants at his indoor vertical urban farm

“My time here can be quite therapeutic. Tending to the plants is something that helps me calm down,” said the national baseballer as he meticulously inspected an array of delicious green edibles.

They range from market usuals like xiao bai cai to premium greens like curly kale, all sprouting from 15 stainless steel racks rigged up with an intricate array of pipes and bright LED lights. “Everything was built and designed by us,” added the 24-year-old.

While the hands of this pitcher are capable of throwing a vicious fastball, they are equally skilled at handling a fragile shoot with a tender gentleness. He is the co-founder of the Urban Green Dot, an indoor vertical farm that opened in June last year.

This small two-man outfit has an ambitious vision: to encourage more Singaporeans to be self-sufficient on food produce while helping the country to strengthen its food security. The plan? Selling their own produce aside, they also want to market their own farming systems to make home farming more accessible.

“We’re also helping households eat cleaner and fresher – it is something I find very meaningful,” he said.

 

A Covid curveball

Ryota was part of the first baseball team to represent Singapore at the SEA Games in 2019. Photo: Stanley Yeo

The seeds of Wong’s interest in farming were sowed from a young age over 5,000km away in the Japanese countryside, where he would visit his grandmother during the school holidays and help out at her garden. An attraction to the life Japanese farmers led blossomed.

“They always have a strong connection with nature and they care deeply about what they grow – their lifestyle was something I admired a lot,” said the self-professed nature lover.

Farming, he thought to himself, would be a retirement dream. For now, it would suffice as a part-time hobby. The goal for the Yale-NUS undergraduate then was to work in the public sector, pursuing his other passion for policy work. The national player of nine years was also keen to represent the country in more competitions.

But Covid-19 would throw a wild curveball to these plans. Instead of interning at a local urban farm and preparing for a baseball competition during the summer break last year, he was stuck at home.

That was when a close friend approached him with the idea of setting up an urban farm. With Singapore also chasing its ‘30 by 30’ goal, with an aim to produce 30 per cent of its foods locally by 2030, it felt like an opportunity.

“I thought, why not bring forward my retirement dreams to something I can work on now to help the urban farming scene in Singapore?” he said.

After formulating their business operations for a month, the duo made their move and rented a space. They each ploughed about S$10,000 into the business – money entirely saved up from their National Service days.

While his business partner is in charge of the farm’s technical aspects, such as designing and building its hydroponics systems, Wong takes care of the business side of things such as social media content and marketing strategy. “We’re still very much on the learning curve,” he noted. And there would be applicable lessons gleaned from his sport.Trust the process

As a business owner, national athlete, and full-time student all at once, Wong is starved for time, even on weekends. He spends Saturdays training in the morning and working in the afternoon, helping with harvesting, packaging and deliveries.

Fortunately, he is skilled at maximising his time – all thanks to his sport. “It was something that I picked up while I was training for the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games,” he said. “I learnt how to be productive during my travelling. Now, I’m either doing readings or working on something for the farm while on the train.”

The Singapore men’s baseball team finished a creditable fourth in their first SEA Games outing in 2019. Photo: Stanley Yeo

Baseball also taught him to trust the process. Singapore’s baseball team had long been the region’s whipping boys. When they first started playing against Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia in 2012, games even ended early because of a mercy rule – a regulation that spares the losing team from further humiliation.

“We felt that being at a major Games was a tall dream that could never be achieved. But our vice-captain then pushed the idea of trusting the process. Don’t be overly engrossed about the end goal. Instead, give our best and hope that results will follow,” he said.

The dream became reality seven years later, when the team headed for Manila – marking the first time that Singapore sent a baseball team to the SEA Games. In the Philippines, the debutants finished fourth, narrowly missing out on a bronze medal. Despite the disappointment, Wong saw only positives. “The fact that we made it was testament to us trusting the process,” he remarked.

Now, that mantra is also coming in useful in his business, especially when doubts creep in. “While my friends might be interning at big companies to secure stable jobs, I do feel at times that I might be taking a risk that might not be worth it in the long run,” he said.

“But there’s a lot to gain from this experience – to be able to set up our own company and talk to investors… it’s important to recognise that the process itself can be very enriching and fruitful.”

Click here to check out the Urban Green Dot.