On a rainy afternoon in June, I find myself in a quaint part of the island, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but not quite detached from civilisation. I am at Sprout Hub, an urban farm and community space nestled within the former Henderson Secondary School building. Owned by social enterprise City Sprouts, the hub leases out greenhouses and spaces to hobbyists, agriculture entrepreneurs and community farmers who are looking to do “city farming in the heartland”. I am here to visit one such group of community farmers—Mushroom Buddies.
An initiative by SNCF’s affiliate Employment for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities (E4PID), Mushroom Buddies occupies two container lots at Sprout Hub. Wholly run by volunteers and staff with special needs, Mushroom Buddies grows, harvests, and sells organic and nutrient-rich oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms.
“The volunteers are mostly parents of the staff with intellectual disabilities,” says Bernard Yu, 56, treasurer and board member of E4PID. Founded in 2011 by parents of children with intellectual disabilities, E4PID trains these special needs individuals and empowers them with the relevant skills to gain employment.
Of the two containers, only one of them is used to grow the mushrooms. As such, the retrofitted container, which is sponsored by waste management company Blue Planet, becomes the farm, which is air-conditioned to keep the crops chilled. In it, bags of substrate rest atop the shelves of several extensive industrial racks. These substrates have been inoculated with mushroom mycelium and contain rubber wood sawdust and rice bran. In the other container, the volunteers and staff would pack the harvested mushrooms for distribution.
“The harvest varies every month. On good months, we can harvest over 100kg of mushrooms,” Mr Yu gushes. On average, Mushroom Buddies produces between 4kg and 5kg a day. This is heartening news but even so, the initiative has seen its fair share of ups and downs. E4PID used to run the initiative within Jalan Penjara in Queenstown, before it was temporarily put on hold. “We had challenges finding commercially viable methods of growing mushrooms and places to farm our mushrooms,” the retired investment banker elaborates. “We came back in 2020 and started operating at Sprout Hub.”
Staff members who work at Mushroom Buddies are paid hourly. They also work around short pockets of time of approximately 2-3 hours. Their scope of work runs the gamut from harvesting and trimming off the industrial racks to packaging the mushrooms. At times, the team at E4PID would also attend farmers’ markets to sell their harvests. I later learned that Sprout Hub organises monthly farmers’ market on the first Saturday of each month. Interestingly, the co-operative has also started supplying some of their mushrooms to wholesalers and dining establishments, such as Little Farms at Tanglin Mall, YhingThai Palace at Purvis street, and Open Farm Community, as well.
According to Mr Yu, most of the volunteers are members of the co-operative who join via word-of-mouth. These members, he posits, are resourceful and proffer their connections for the co-operative. “A co-operative, to me, is about raising a community,” says Mr Yu. “As a co-op member, you can contribute with your ideas, share your network, or volunteer your time. You don’t have to make financial contributions.”
Mr Yu, who has a 16-year-old daughter with autism, explains that working with persons with special needs can be an intriguing experience. Not a day is spent without laughter, he says. “Hong An, who is one of our key employees and has Down Syndrome, can be quite humourous,” he beams, introducing me to the 36-year-old employee who gave me a wave. Mr Yu says: “They are all very personable.”
Hear, read our exclusive with Mr Yu from E4PID.
Bernard Yu: I am Bernard Yu, the treasurer of and a board member of E4PID.
BY: At E4PID, we endeavour to provide choices of employment for persons with special needs with proper guidance and help so that our staff can all thrive in a community of love and care. Our Mushroom Buddies initiative is our first venture into mushroom farming and other mushroom products.
BY: E4PID members volunteer for this initiative and we hire persons with special needs to help run it. Our members are often parents with children with special needs. Some of our volunteers’ children work with us. Under Mushroom Buddies, we grow two different types of mushrooms: pearl oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms. That said, we are always looking to expand our catalogue of mushrooms offered.
BY: We sell it to the public at roadshows or farmers’ markets. We also supply wholesalers and dining establishments, such as Little Farms at Tanglin Mall, YhingThai Palace at Purvis street, and Open Farm Community, too. Sometimes, companies would approach us to order in bulk in order to gift their employees.
BY: Persons with special needs may find it a challenge to interact with their co-workers. Some of them may not be able to express themselves clearly or they are unable to relate to their colleagues. These could create a divide between them and their colleagues. When they start to feel estranged or rejected, they don’t feel welcomed. And they are not ignorant. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t be keen to come to work, just like what we would feel as well.
BY: Oh definitely! As parents, we’d want our children—whether they have special needs or not—to live happy and fulfilling lives. Also, not all of them can work eight hours a day. Every one of them is different.
As parents, we know that they need pockets of time off work. This also means that it may not be feasible for them to take on full-time employment, where they have to commit a fixed number of hours a day. At E4PID, Mushroom Buddies offers that versatility and pays staff by the hour.
BY: We are always trying to reduce the costs of running the initiative. Right now, our main expenditures are on rental and electricity. We are open to doing collaborations and increasing our brand awareness. It would be good if we can find a full-time staffer as well.
BY: It’s imperative that we don't give them jobs that are so complicated from the get-go. In the past, we did ponder the idea of cleaning hotel rooms as well, but we went back to growing mushrooms because we are able to split up the jobs and predict the growth cycle of these mushrooms. When our staff members start to get into the groove and pick up speed, we’d gradually get them to dabble into different parts of the jobs. We pay our staff hourly.
BY: Beyond the soft skills that we can teach them or the remunerations, I hope we can nurture a community that is empathetic and cares. Persons with special needs should not be sidelined. They need to feel belonged.
BY: Digitalisation. Thanks to a pro-bono web designer, we are in the midst of creating a new website where Singaporeans can order from us online. We are also tapping into Group Buys to reach out to the neighbourhoods. We are equally excited too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
By Sng Ler Jun
Photos by Sng Ler Jun