Turning American bullfrogs into Asian delicacies, one frog-skin chip at a time
Jurong Frog Farm’s future in northwestern Singapore may be uncertain but ‘Frog Princess’ Chelsea Wan isn’t slowing down
Are frog-skin chips the future of Singaporean agriculture? If Chelsea Wan has anything to do with it, the answer is yes.
Wan, a second-generation farmer and fierce advocate for Singapore’s tiny agriculture industry, is on the hunt for ways to diversify her product - frogs - in ways that appeal to consumers in the sophisticated and land-scarce city-state.
Jurong Frog Farm was founded by Wan’s father, Wan Bock Thiaw, in 1981 and is Singapore’s first and only frog farm.
The Wan family, together with a staff of 13 foreign workers, rear American bullfrogs, a frog species prized for their meaty hind legs, which are cooked as a delicacy. There are usually between 10,000 and 15,000 frogs, from tadpoles to market-size adults, living at one time on the 1.1. hectare farm nestled in the Kranji countryside.
The 33-year old Singaporean, who majored in sociology, joined the family business full-time in 2006, in part to help her busy father.
“I see a lot of potential for the business. Also, I saw my dad toiling so hard when I was growing up, he’s literally a one-man show,” Wan, who’s now director of the farm, tells CNBC.
Jurong Frog Farm sells most of its antibiotic-, hormone- and steroid-free amphibians to restaurants and supermarkets in Singapore, as well as selling deboned frog meat as pet food. But Wan and her brother Jackson have branched out, opening an online store to make the farm’s produce more accessible.
“I wanted to offer more value compared to what the traditional frog farming business was about, which was mostly just the meat or selling live frogs,” says Wan, who’s known as the “Frog Princess” in the farming community.
“Frog farming can only be profitable if you keep overheads really lean. In our case we had to diversify and create value out of our byproducts because of increased competition from frog breeders in neighboring countries,” Wan explains.
She reveals that the farm has an annual turnover of 1.2 million Singapore dollars (US$880,000) but declines to comment further on financial details.
Aside from frog meat, the farm manufactures its own bottled “hashima,” a fragrant, collagen-rich desert popular in China and central Asia that’s made from the fatty tissue near the frog’s fallopian tubes. And for even more adventurous foodies, they’ve starting making frog skin chips seasoned with spices, which Wan says are “also very rich in collagen.”
Wan also developed a structured educational tour for students or tourists who want to learn about the frog’s life cycle, and is working with tertiary education institutions to learn how to better cater to her frogs’ needs and discover other uses for frogs’ body parts.
Farms are rarely associated with Singapore, a small urban city-state that imports more than 90 per cent of its food.
But as well as the Jurong Frog Farm, the Kranji countryside is home to a goat dairy farm and a number of high-tech vertical farms equipped with the latest technologies to maximise output within tight spaces.
The area’s farms are currently enjoying a new lease of life, after until recently fearing for their future. In late 2014, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) told 62 of the local farms, including Jurong Frog Farm, that their land leases would not be renewed when they expired in June 2017, so the land could be redeveloped.
But following an outpouring of public support for the farmers, AVA said in June it would extend the farmers’ tenure until the end of 2019.
“It was really a consolidated effort by the farmers, we banded together through the Kranji Countryside Association, and through that association we made our voices heard,” Wan says, adding that she was greatly encouraged by support from the public. “We really still see a future for farming in Singapore.”
Singapore’s local farms produce 8 per cent of all vegetables sold in the city-state, 8 per cent of the fish and 26 per cent of the eggs, according to AVA data. But the Kranji farmers don’t know what will happen to them once their lease extensions run out.
“It is important to keep this industry alive and thriving, for young Singaporeans to know that there are farms in Singapore, and for consumers to support their local farms instead of always looking at imported products just because it’s cheaper,” Wan says.
Wan recognises that the future of her farm remains tentative but says she’s focused on the present.
“You can’t feed yourself with worries, you just have to move along with the times,” she says.
“With the three years of lease extension that we’ve been given, I’ll make sure we do enough so that even without the land we can still have a stake in the same business, we’ll look for other avenues,” Wan says. “But we will definitely stick to frogs. It’s frogs or nothing.”