The Organic Butchery That’s Not Just Talking Cock

Just Food: How Singaporeans Are Nourishing Visions of a Better World

Mr Farmer knows chicken. A small and spunky butchery started by the Toh family, it began in 2017 as an online delivery service supplying free-range, certified organic, and certified humane chickens to Singapore—the first in Asia to receive these accreditations. Since then, Mr Farmer has expanded their repertoire to include pork, beef, seafood, and eggs. This July, they opened a physical location in Jalan Lokam, Paya Lebar, which also includes a deli where customers can purchase cooked food like cod soup and schnitzel. But their core product is still chicken: their GG™ French Poulet. “During trips to the butchery, we would always see people asking a lot about the beef, or the lamb,” says Kenny Toh, Head of Projects at Mr Farmer. “And this piqued my interest, because according to statistics, chicken is the number one most consumed protein product. So if we’re going to eat a large amount of chicken, why are we not putting more thought towards your chicken? Why do we concentrate our efforts on knowing the origins of a product that we don’t actually consume that much?”

The wonderful thing about Mr Farmer is that it takes a totally local outlook to its ethics of sustainable farming—a far cry from the usual gourmet and organic food stores located in Orchard Road or around districts beset with moneyed expats. Sustainable farming and humane consumption habits, Mr Farmer proposes, do not have to be prohibitively expensive—a fantasy afforded only to the rich and the Western(ised). Instead, with its slogan of “Where The Ho Liao Is”, the brand is pitched intentionally to local customers. Kenny explains how they came to this strategy: “How would locals understand these things? In Singapore, we’re not so familiar with how sustainable farming impacts society and future generations as a whole. That’s why we started to use very colloquial terms, to speak to our customers as locally as possible, and to break it down into basics.” 

“In Singapore, we’re not so familiar with how sustainable farming impacts society and future generations as a whole.”

In some ways, Mr Farmer is ahead of the curve. But in others, it’s just what local customers who are ethically- and environmentally-minded—and who care about where their food comes from and how it’s treated—have been waiting for. “Many Singaporeans have become more interested in knowing where their food comes from. That is what we’re trying to achieve: to be honest and clear with what we are selling, and what we’re offering to the community,” Kenneth Toh, Mr Farmer’s marketing executive, tells me. “So we focus our marketing efforts to push people to question: Where does your chicken come from?,” Kenny adds. “What does it feed on? What is the breed? What is the origin? Are there any certifications, or is it just all marketing talk and gimmicks? That is what we have been trying to educate the public about: if you’re gonna consume that much chicken, why not just get a good one?”

The local origins of Mr Farmer began even before 2017, since it arose from the Tohs’ family business—the parent company, Toh Thye San Farm—which was incorporated in 1979. Combining generations of chicken farming expertise with an increasingly thoughtful approach, Mr Farmer produces chickens the best way it knows how: naturally, and with care for its customers, the chickens themselves, and the environment. “We just want to grow the chicken as naturally as possible and close to what our grandfathers and fathers tasted,” Kenny says. “A lot of people lament that chicken is now tasteless; that it’s a vehicle for other taste profiles. We disagree with that. So we went ahead and developed a product that can be good tasting on its own: the taste that your parents remember and your children love. My father is the one that actually has a very big philosophy of consuming everything natural and not adding things to mask the taste—to add in anything that shouldn’t be in a product in the first place. But with Mr Farmer, we also wanted to produce food for people that comes with a conscience as well. So we pressured the parent company to pursue certifications, such as certified humane. It’s something that we’re very proud of: how do we produce a product that is not just a product, but is proper food for everybody. That was always our goal.”

Rearing chickens as naturally and humanely as possible, Mr Farmer believes, produces better-tasting, more nutritious meat—therefore promoting health while reducing consumption and food waste. “We give our chickens all the care that we can; we do not abuse them and we give them natural feed, and that actually increases the meat quality. So that will result in lesser wastage for us as well,” Kenny explains, “And when the consumers buy this more nutritious product, it does not require that much seasoning since it already tastes good. You do not need to add in a lot more salt or MSG flavouring. When the chicken eats the good stuff, this is being transferred over to the consumers who, in turn, reduce the overall meal spending, and at the end of the day, they have better health. So this ecosystem is being repeated; it will be recycled over and over again. Overall, that’s what we call a sustainable farm farming system.”

Part of Mr Farmer’s sustainable approach also focuses on reducing their carbon footprint and packaging waste as much as they can. And so, Mr Farmer’s GG™ French Poulet chickens come from a farm in Johor Bahru. Unlike the fancy organic chickens stocked at gourmet grocers are flown in from Europe, thereby having the gloss of environmentalism but in actuality producing a sizeable carbon footprint, Mr Farmer brings its chickens just 45 minutes across the causeway from Simpang Rengam. “We could have also chosen other places like Malacca or even further up north,” Kenny tells me, “But we chose Johor as our base so that we could be as close to production as we can.” The company has also switched to compostable cardboard packaging wherever they can, instead of relying on styrofoam and vacuum packing—the usual techniques for packing meat that industrial farming companies have trained everyday consumers to expect. Like the marketing of the chicken itself, this requires the Mr Farmer team to actively engage with and educate their customers. But according to Kenneth, the extra effort is worth it: “In the long term, what we’re trying to achieve is being 100% environmentally friendly and sustainable. Not everyone in Singapore is as conscious about the environment as we want them to be.” Even so, Kenny adds, “It’s important for companies to make a stand, and to tell consumers that enough is enough—we want to reduce the amount of environmental waste, and that’s why we are switching to cardboard. We informed our customers beforehand that we were changing our packaging, and we maintain the temperature integrity through other forms. But I think that we as enterprises should take a determined stance. Because if we give consumers the choice, they might subconsciously or unintentionally choose the product that harms the environment a bit more.”

“… we as enterprises should take a determined stance. Because if we give consumers the choice, they might subconsciously or unintentionally choose the product that harms the environment a bit more.”

Still, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive—and Kenny and Kenneth know this because their intimate business model is built on being close to the ground and engaged in an open and constant dialogue with their customers. “Out of ten customers, there might be one that expresses concern. But I think that it would be ill-advised to ignore the other seven or eight out of ten who’ve said this is actually a move in the right direction.” Part of this dialogic approach with customers may arise from the fact that Mr Farmer is a family business through and through: “I think working as a family makes us more honest with each other,” Kenneth says, “So it’s easier for us to improve our business and express our opinions.” In the same way that eating humanely-raised chicken transfers more nutritious benefits to the eater, perhaps a healthy and kinship-based business transfers more benefits to the customer as well. There’s a sense of respect, not just for the animal but for the customer. Whereas big businesses treat customers like children, to be sold something and placated, Mr Farmer establishes a slower, more thoughtful relationship with their customer base. There is a sense of trust here, and a respect not only for Singaporeans’ intelligence, but for their sense of ethics and their desire to contribute to a more environmentally just future. Kenny agrees, stressing that Mr Farmer’s customers are a key part of the equation. “ I think we’re blessed with a very intelligent and understanding clientele,” he says. “They understand the ethos of the product; they want to know more about sustainable farming. We give them a choice to make informed decisions, and as concerned customers, they can make choices to create a better environment for everybody.”

Just Food is a five-part series. Click through to read more: