Mr Chai Kien Chin never dreamt he would become a farmer.
All he wanted to do more than three decades ago was to earn enough money from selling vegetables so that he could open his own medicinal herbs store.
He graduated from the Singapore Chung Hwa Medical Institution in 1981 at the age of 30 and practised as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physician for nine years.
In 1985, while still in practice, he opened a farm in Mandai growing vegetables such as choy sum and bok choy so that he could save up for the rental of a store space to sell medicinal herbs.
"At that time, even though being a farmer was tough work, profits were good," Mr Chai, 68, told The Straits Times in Mandarin, adding that a kilogram of vegetables could fetch $4 or $5 at the market back in the 1980s.
What was supposed to be a temporary stint, however, became a life-long career for Mr Chai, who is the father of three grown-up children.
"After I got into growing vegetables, I was happy and I didn't look back," he said.
"There's a lot going on in nature that is far beyond your imagination. I found nature to be full of mystery and wonder," he added.
As the third child among seven children of farmer parents, Mr Chai was no stranger to the hard work on the land.
As a child, he toiled under the blistering sun on his parents' farm in Choa Chu Kang after school every day, weeding the field by hand and putting tobacco leaves out to dry.
"It was tough, and there was no exception, even when we had exams," said Mr Chai, who worked on the farm with his four brothers and two sisters.
But the hard physical labour did not deter Mr Chai, who has been in farming for more than 34 years.
Over the past three decades, he has witnessed the many changes in Singapore's farming landscape.
"Growing vegetables was easy in the past. A harvest was guaranteed as long as you sow the seeds and water them."
But that changed in the 1990s, when pests started to surface on the farms and spraying insecticide on the plants became inevitable, said Mr Chai.
"With Singapore being a free port, vegetables from all over the world were imported into the country, and along with them came the bugs," he added.
After he discovered the harmful effects of pesticides, he switched to organic farming more than 20 years ago and stayed away totally from chemicals.
"Bugs thrive only in bad environments. If you give too much of a good thing to the vegetables - including fertilisers - the vegetables will attract the bugs."
No weed killers are used on Mr Chai's Fire Flies Health Farm, where he, his eldest son and his dozen or so workers grow vegetables such as spinach, endives and kailan, and weed the 3.1ha farm in Lim Chu Kang by hand.
His wife, Madam Chua Lye Gek, 63, used to help out on the farm but is now the main cook at one of the family's three stalls selling vegetarian thunder tea rice, a traditional Hakka dish made up of various vegetables and served with tea soup made of tea leaves, nuts, seeds and herbs.
The food at the Thunder Tree stalls, where their daughter and younger son also work, is prepared with ingredients such as leafy greens and herbs, most of which are obtained from their farm.
The recipe for their signature thunder tea sauce was Mr Chai's creation, while his wife came up with the ideas for most of the dishes on the menu.
Asked to name his favourite vegetable, he replied: "I like all vegetables. There are no awful-tasting vegetables, only people who can't cook them well."
The avid vegetarian said he used to eat "every kind of meat there is".
"In the past, wherever there is good food, I'll go for it. But after I started organic farming, I stopped eating meat altogether," said Mr Chai, who became a vegetarian in 1998.
He began his foray into organic farming that year, at a time when most organic produce here were imported. His vegetables became an instant hit with his customers at that time, he noted.
"Many patients suffering from cancer would come to my farm right after they were discharged from hospital so that they could eat healthily," he said.
"Being an organic farmer is like being a doctor. Those who don't know me personally can still get healthy by eating the vegetables I grow."
Over the years, however, it has become harder for farms like his to survive, he added.
He estimated that while it would set him back about $5,000 to set up a farm three decades ago, it would cost more than $1 million to start one today.
Higher costs of operation, an increase in the number of rules and regulations for agribusinesses, and having to vacate the land when it is needed for other development uses are reasons why he plans to retire in a couple of years.
Since setting up his first farm in 1985, he has had to vacate the land twice. His current farm has been around since 2001 after he had to move to it from a previous location, also in Lim Chu Kang.
"From the start till now, I've opened many farms - and I've been 'chased out' each time," said Mr Chai, who had to move out of his previous farms in Mandai and Lim Chu Kang after the lease was up and the land was allocated by the authorities for other uses
He pointed out that it takes seven or eight years to cultivate an organic farm like his. Moving to a new land means that he would have to start all over.
The lease for his current farm was up in September this year, said Mr Chai, but it has since been extended till 2021.
But the sun may soon set on his days on the farm.
"This is the last time," he added. "I won't do (farming) any more.
"When we first got this land, the soil quality was terrible. It took us more than a decade to get to where we are. I'm getting on in years. I can't be looking for land to set up another farm."
But for now, his focus is on his crops.
"Have you heard of the phrase, 'tomorrow will be a better day'? As farmers, when we sow seeds, we're never thinking that there's no harvest at the end of the day.
"We're always thinking that there is hope when we sow the seeds. That the vegetables will grow well, that we will have something to eat the next day.
"Every seed we sow is a seed of hope."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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