Unanswered questions, uncertain future for Kranji farmers

Justin Ong Channel NewsAsia 28 May 16;

SINGAPORE: With around a year to go before the relocation of 62 farms in the Kranji area, some of their owners said earlier this week that a lack of clarity from the authorities has left them concerned about their future.

The farms - part of a roughly 400-hectare, 100-strong cluster at the northwestern tip of Singapore - were first informed in 2014 that their land leases would not be renewed upon expiry in June 2017. They will make way for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), which needs to replace training land used to develop the upcoming Tengah New Town. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) will then open up new, albeit smaller, farm sites in nearby Sungei Tengah and Lim Chu Kang areas for public tender.

But as quail farmer William Ho, 50, explained, much uncertainty remains. “In the first place, the tender is no longer about just being the highest bidder, because AVA said they will also assess certain criteria like experience and development plans. But it’s still not entirely clear.

“Now it’s going to be (next) June and there still has been no exact allocation of which part of the land we are going to; no exact size of the land up for bidding; no exact benchmark of how much rental will cost, and so on,” he said.

Added Mr Ho: “AVA also said they won’t chase us out in June 2017 - but then when? One day later? One week later? One month later?”

Having a clearer idea of the long-term vision for the agriculture industry would also help the farmers plan their future, said Mr Kenny Eng, 42, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), a non-profit group of 40 member farms.

“Just like how you can have a Singapore masterplan for 30 years, you can have one for the agriculture industry,” he stated. “We understand that land is scarce, thus we’ve already made it clear to the Government that we are not just after land. We are after certainty.”

“When we engage and can’t get feedback, it makes us very jittery. It means you are not sure what’s in store for us,” Mr Eng continued.

In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, AVA and the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) issued a joint statement on Friday (May 27) indicating “the Government is mindful that farmers will require time to move from their current sites to the new sites should they bid successfully for land”.

“We communicated as early as we could so that farmers have ample time to make business plans,” said the two statutory boards. “AVA is also in the midst of preparing (the) new sites… and will inform interested parties when the sites are ready for tender. Farmers can take this opportunity to revamp their model of farming and make longer term investment plans to improve production yields.”

Meanwhile Member of Parliament (MP) Yee Chia Hsing of Chua Chu Kang Group Representation Constituency (GRC), whose Nanyang ward covers the Kranji farms, told Channel NewsAsia: “If more time is needed for (the farms) to make alternative arrangements, whether the appeal comes through me or directly to AVA or SLA, I am sure the authorities will consider each case carefully and to help if possible.”

‘ALL WILL BE LOST’

Even as the affected farmers called for more light to be shed on their big shift, it was also clear that the information they have already received has caused some concern.

One particular issue was the length of the 10-year lease for the new sites, with the possibility of a 10-year extension if the land is not required for development, and if the farm “meets prevailing minimum production level and other criteria”, said AVA in 2015.

“When they asked me if I can halve the size of my two-hectare farm, I said ‘No problem, I can go multi-storey’,” said goat farmer John Hay, 61. “But investing in three to four storeys will cost me about S$1 million, and in 10 years you think I can make back the money? For farming, you need at least 30 years. That’s why some of us farmers have said that if the new lease is 10 years, we might not accept it.”

Vegetable farmer Alan Toh, on the other hand, expressed more concern over the limited time he would have to grapple with the farming feasibility of the new site.

“I’m worried about the land near Kranji Marshes being reclaimed and non-arable, which will compromise the quality of my crops,” said the 52-year-old, whose four-hectare Yili farm counts the Fairprice and Sheng Siong supermarkets as clients.

“Vegetable farms need forward, long-term planning up to 30 years - about five to six years to invest in infrastructure and make adjustments before producing proper output. Very quickly it’ll be seven to eight years, and then we cannot invest any further with the lease ending in 10,” said Mr Ho in Mandarin.

He further pointed out that moving his vegetable farm was not the same as moving a house or a factory and its machines, explaining: “You plant something, move it - it gets damaged.”

A handful of farms said they may not even opt to make the move. Their businesses are not categorised under food staples, unlike the egg and vegetable produce of Mr Ho and Mr Toh, who have been allocated pieces of land and can bid for as many plots as they want.

AVA and SLA noted it was “critical to prioritise agricultural land for strategic food farms producing leafy vegetables, food fish and eggs”.

This has resulted in eight non-food staple farms having to wrangle over just two assigned plots of land, according to goat farmer Mr Hay, who insisted: “I will never step in because you are making us fight one another.”

Jurong Frog Farm director Chelsea Wan, 33, said the same. “We decided we’re not going to bid. We shouldn’t be going against each other. We are all friends and now they want us to do this. Just close lah, don’t do anymore,” she laughed.

FAMILY LIVELIHOODS AT STAKE

Some of the farms told Channel NewsAsia that they are already preparing for the curtain to fall on a decades-long family business.

“If there’s no land for me, I will clear out,” said Mr Hay, who added that he might set up shop in Malaysia. “But I’m more worried for my son, who’s nearly 40 and wants to take over the farm. As a parent, I’m very happy because you can’t find youngsters keen on farming these days - it’s dirty, 24 hours, 365 days a year work. What will my son do now?”

Said Ms Wan, who holds a social sciences degree from the National University of Singapore: “Farming has been my first and only job for 10 years. I’m already past 30. If I were to look for a job, I don’t know where my expertise is besides running around.”

“Younger generations like us have to be told,” said Mr Eng, who is also a director at Nyee Phoe group, the oldest garden nursery in Singapore at 105. His farm is not part of the 62, but its lease expires at the end of 2017 with no word on an extension so far.

“Can you imagine all the young farmers who will be structurally unemployed? Who is going to look at graduates with farming portfolios and employ you for other purposes?”

“We’ve put (it) across to the ministries. What we need is really just clarity. Even if you say agriculture is not important, I will accept it - but you let me know soon because then we will stop our family business and just do trading, manufacturing or go into another industry altogether,” said Ms Wan. “Just tell us. Don’t keep us uncertain.”

In response, AVA and SLA said they “have been taking steps to minimise the impact of this development on our local agricultural sector”.

FARMING INDUSTRY SHOULD BE NURTURED

In spite of their misgivings, the farms were unanimous in arguing for their industry’s continued relevance on both practical and intangible levels.

“Even though farming doesn’t contribute much to KPIs or GDP - and we also lose out to our neighbours whose produce is definitely cheaper than ours - in crises we play a little part, like how we survived SARS and the bird flu by having our own farms,” said Mr Ho.

AVA and SLA agreed, stating that the local agricultural sector, “though small, plays an important role in Singapore’s food security as it helps to buffer against sudden supply disruptions”.

“Farms can help to achieve greater food security when they operate sustainably for higher agricultural yields,” the agencies said. “Technology can be a game-changer in achieving greater food security for us. We envisage our future farms to be highly productive, while maximising land use and resources, and operate on minimal manpower.”

Added the area’s MP, Mr Yee: “We hope to increase production of farm produce by allocating land to farmers who are willing and able to commit to producing a certain quantity of food. This will help to reduce our dependency on imported sources of food.”

On the other hand, Ms Chai Sheau Shi of organic vegetable farm Fire Flies noted: “It’s sad when you ask children where vegetables come from, and they say NTUC, or when you ask them where chickens come from and they say the fridge. Is there space for small niches in Singapore where we are not always referring to textbooks for knowledge, where we can see and touch something and be informed that way?”

“We are opening up a place where children and their families can come enjoy nature,” added Mr Ho. “I dream that one day we can partner the Government, for them to (provide) seed funding for our farms. If they want, they can come up with guidelines for us to not squander their money.

“But above all, them having a stake in us will show that farming is important. And it is important.”


Kranji's young farmers rally to keep the family business thriving
Susanna Kulatissa and Poh Kok Ing Channel NewsAsia 29 May 16;

SINGAPORE: When Ms Chelsea Wan says she has to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty to run her father’s business, she means exactly that.

The 33-year-old “frog princess”, as she is affectionately known in the farming community, does everything from packing meat to conducting farm tours and researching new products on her famer’s Jurong Frog Farm.

The 1.1-hectare plot - the only frog breeding farm in Singapore - is home to 20,000 American bullfrogs. Her father started the farm in 1981 and moved it to Lim Chu Kang in 1997. The family live right next to it, in a house her father built.

“In the early 1990s, when I first visited this farm, the whole area was just grassland,” said Ms Wan. “I saw my dad really building on this plot, brick by brick.”

About 20,000 farms once took up a quarter of Singapore’s land area, back in the 1960s. Most have since made way for homes and factories, and today, just 200 land-based farms remain on less than 1 per cent of the land.

Of these, about 180 are tucked away in Lim Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang, or the Kranji countryside as it’s known. Some face an uncertain future with the expiry of their land-leases in the next few years.

A recent episode of current affairs programme On The Red Dot profiled this community and the younger generation’s worry for their future.

OVER S$1M IN REVENUE

Ms Wan joined the family business in 2006 after graduating from the National University of Singapore, where she majored in Sociology.

“I didn’t want to be on a payroll just doing existing work,” she said. “Product development was something I was very keen to explore. I saw that there was a lot of potential yet to be marketed because my father was busy with the day-to-day work … He doesn’t have time to explore all that.”

She set about expanding products and services. For instance, the farm had been selling dried hashima - made from the oviducts of female frogs, and said to be good for the skin – since 1999. Ms Wan turned it into a bottled ready-to-drink brew.

And just last year, she set up The Royal Frog online shop, delivering their products island-wide. Today, the farm supplies restaurants and supermarkets with about 30,000 frogs a month, raking in more than S$1 million in revenue.

FIRE IN HER BELLY

Also in the Kranji backwater, her friend 25-year-old Stella Tan is helping to give her family’s unique traditional business a new breath of life.

In their backyard lies a 36m-long, fire-breathing “dragon” with a lineage that goes back 2,000 years in China. This pottery-making technology was brought to Singapore by immigrants, and while there were as many as 20 dragon kilns here in the 1970s, today only two remain.

Ms Tan’s grandfather took over the pottery centre in 1965, and his five children helped to keep it going. They made cups for rubber plantation use, water jars for storing bathwater, and later orchid pots.

As for Ms Tan herself, after a short stint as a pastry chef, she decided to return to her roots at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle two years ago – the only one in the third-generation of Tans still working in the family business.

“I saw (my aunts and uncles) working so hard. And they’re all getting old,” she said. “Thow Kwang is the one and only family-run dragon kiln. So it’s a very unique trade, and it’s important to let the future generations know about us.”

These days Thow Kwang mainly imports and sells ceramics from China, a business which brings in revenue of over S$1 million a year.

But it continues to keep the tradition alive by holding pottery workshops, which start from S$28 a child and draw at least 300 pupils a month. This is now Thow Kwang’s second biggest moneymaker.

And, two or three times a year, the dragon still comes alive - breathing life into the works of art of a community of potters that has rallied around the kiln.

Said artist Tan Tuan Yong: “I think that’s a good thing that we preserve those (kilns), rather than demolishing it or putting it in a museum. We are still producing works from the old kiln, and people are enjoying and appreciating it.”

COMING TOGETHER TO PRESERVE THE LEGACY

Faced with an uncertain future, Ms Wan and Ms Tan decided to join hands with others to increase awareness of farming among younger Singaporeans and reconnect them to the countryside.

Singapore Young Farmers was started in May 2015 as the youth wing to the Kranji Countryside Association. Ms Wan talks about how close-knit the group is: “We know how important it is to preserve the legacy of what our parents and grandparents have started.”

She feels it is important for Singaporeans to understand and appreciate their food sources. “I grew up on a farm and I saw how hard my father worked,” she said. “I know that for a frog to grow to market size, it takes nine months. Few people know that.”

The young farmers want to give young Singaporeans an insider’s peek into agriculture by taking them to farms not otherwise open to the public. They are doing that with the help of a small but dedicated group of volunteers.

One of them, Darren Ho, said: “As much as we can rely a lot on other countries, we still have to find ways to feed ourselves so that we are not at the mercy of other countries.”

‘THIS IS WHERE OUR FAMILIES AND FRIENDS ARE'

Visitor Lili Lim was surprised to discover how young the new generation of farmers was. “They are very different from what I perceived - educated, vibrant. They’ve made a very big sacrifice. I mean they could have worked in an office, a cosy environment. But they’ve continued the family business which, I think, is awesome.”

Indeed, despite her youth, Ms Wan has become an integral part of the Kranji community. Neighbouring farmers rallied when she got married two years ago – loaning tables and chairs, for instance, for the solemnisation held on the farm.

And when she gave birth to a baby boy a year ago, Hay Dairies owner John Hay, whom she fondly calls “Uncle Goat”, sent her a weekly supply of fresh goat’s milk for free.

Said Mr Hay: “I’m impressed with her, because she’s a young girl who’s working in a farm. You can’t find a girl who likes to work in a farm. That’s why I treat her like my own daughter.”

But life will soon change drastically for Ms Wan. In 2014, 62 farms – among them, her frog farm - were told that their leases will not be renewed when they expire between 2017 and 2021.

The farm sites will be given to the military to replace the land the Defence Ministry gave up for the building of 55,000 homes in Tengah New Town. The Government is preparing new farmland that the farmers can tender for in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah.

Ms Wan says her family has received offers from Singaporeans who own land overseas to relocate their operations to places like the Philippines, Indonesia, China or even Turkey. But she is choosing to stay.

“Singapore is where our heart is. This is where all our families and friends are. This is where we have really put in effort to develop the business over the last three decades. So I can’t see ourselves uprooting to bring the business to a foreign land,” she said.

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