Amid high-tech push, longtime Lim Chu Kang farmers keep faith with tradition

WONG PEI TING Today Online 20 May 17;

SINGAPORE — As the longtime farmers in Lim Chu Kang come face-to-face with the Government’s push for them to adopt new technologies, they swear by the simple technologies that they have devised and used over the past 20 years, saying that these work.

No need for conveyor belts or state-of-the-art tools, for what they have on their side is the strength of their know-how, personal care and knowledge of their farm animals and produce, and the results to show for it.

A quail farmer, a vegetable farmer, and a frog farmer tell TODAY about the values of prudence and minimalism that they uphold.

LIAN WAH HANG QUAIL FARM

Step into 63-year-old farm Lian Wah Hang, and you will feel like you are visiting a science park of sorts that is filled with disarming inventions.

There are cages with 15-degree sloped bases, so that freshly laid quail eggs can roll out gently onto a collection tray.

Incubators are made using household items such as light bulbs and black plastic sheets that cost no more than S$200 each.

And there is that atmospheric-pressure-based water feeder, made of pipes with holes, that will dispense water onto a holder when pecked by bird chicks.

These simple tips and tricks are all the technology that 94-year-old Ho Seng Choon and his sons adopted.

The farm, mind you, was once at the frontier of modern farming techniques in the 1960s. It was one of the pioneers to introduce machine incubators, automatic egg graders that check for spots and cracks and sort eggs according to their size, and feather-plucking machines.

Despite having helped other farms including pig farms in Punggol and Kalimantan, Indonesia, move into automation in the past, it kept its own processes fuss-free today because “hi-tech doesn’t always equals results”, Mr Ho’s son William, 51, said.



For example, an automatic quail egg grader and packer could cut the job of four workers, but its S$500,000 price tag is not justified to help the farm sort and pack 30,000 eggs a day. Right now, six workers can do this in an hour in the evenings.

Another idea that sounds good on paper is to fix conveyor belts so that more labour-intensive processes such as feeding, egg collection and manure collection can be sped up, Mr Ho said. However, while it may reduce one’s physical exertion, it increases mental stress instead when they have to balance the accounts, such as having to match the investment with increased productivity when the demand remains largely stagnant.

Mr Ho, who had chosen farming over a career as an engineer with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, said such mental strain is uncalled for, and that farming is supposed to be all country and soul, with “no pressure”, yet “very fulfilling”.

“It’s very rewarding because you tend the earth, the animals give you back the returns.”

This is a day in his life: In the morning, his employees will feed the quails and clean up the coops so that their birds — numbering 150,000 at present — can “feel more at home”.

Then he will send about 10,000 quails to the slaughterhouse or transport the birds’ manure to other farms to be used as fertilisers.
After lunch, they will put new eggs into an incubator or take chicks into a brooder, which is a toasty-warm coop to nurture them into toddlerhood.

After tea time, they will feed the animals again and collect the eggs. This last part still thrills Mr Ho.

“Every egg you collect is like every cent that you put in your pockets… You feed the quails in the morning, and collect the returns by evening. The feeling is indescribable. That’s why I love being a farmer,” he said.

All these have served the business well, but the signs that things have to change are appearing.

The farm has been making S$90,000 in monthly revenue from 1997 to 2016, until Malaysian imports started to flood the market this year and they are only getting a third of what they used to earn.

Then, by 2019, it would have to move out of its 2.7ha premises to a proposed 1.5ha space, the vacated site of Aero Green Technology at Neo Tiew Crescent.



Mr Ho shook his head as he foresees that he would need an estimated S$3.5 million to build his facility from scratch there. “The investment, overheads and material costs will be sky-high... I asked for the ministry to come up with a special arrangement or package to help us in financing the structural build-up, but unfortunately, there is no mechanism yet.”

He finds that the same money could be used to upgrade Lian Wah Hang’s existing space, which has not been open to public since 2004, to kickstart its recreational and educational arm, such as having a visitor’s centre, museum and event hall, among others. For now, the Tourism Board certified nature guide is currently conducting farm tours from Farmart Centre at Sungei Tengah near Choa Chu Kang.
Moving would mean “needing to start all over again (and) that we need to slowly build our flocks up”, he said.

FARM 85 AND YILI VEGETATION

Fluctuating weather in Singapore is a daily battle for local vegetable farms Farm 85 and Yili Vegetation. Too hot, and crops like cai xin and xiao bai cai might not get receive enough water. Too wet, and soil nutrients and fertilisers get washed away.

But the farms, neighbours at Lim Chu Kang Lane 1, have found a way to overcome the problem, through adapting a greenhouse setup they came across four years ago during a study trip to a Shandong farm in eastern China.

They used black netting as the heat-trapping material, in place of a white plastic cover, so less heat penetrates when the sun is overhead. To allow more air to flow through the greenhouse, they extended the width of the roof from 1m to 2.5m.

Just like that, the two farms, which have been around for about 20 years, manage to churn out about 15 harvests each annually. That’s seven tonnes of leafy greens daily, or about one-quarter the Republic’s vegetable produce.

Everything else at their setups is by the sweat of brow. Seeds, germinated in a nursery for up to 12 days first, are transplanted by hand. Four to five workers are needed for each hectare of land – Farm 85 is close to 14ha, Yili is 4ha.

After 20 to 24 days — depending, again, on the weather — the produce is harvested by hand and manually packed.

Although they are keen to continue upgrading their systems, Farm 85 director Tan Koon Hua, 49, and Yili owner Alan Toh, 53, said it is not just a matter of buying machines.

Mr Tan said, in Mandarin: “(Relying on a machine to keep temperatures in a greenhouse constant) might work in countries with four seasons, but it is not suitable in Asia. Singapore’s temperature fluctuates a lot, so the system needs to keep adjusting to keep the conditions the same, so the machine spoils easily, incurring higher maintenance costs, while its intended impact is not there.”

What could work, though, are sensors that alert them to toggle settings to regulate temperatures remotely, they said. Even if they are overseas, a few taps on a tablet or smartphone is all that is needed to ensure crops are tended to optimally.

But such sensors cost S$15,000 each. And for every hectare, eight such sensors are needed.

With the land they are currently sitting on up for redevelopment by the end of 2021, the idea has to be put on the backburner.

For now, a bigger concern looms: Is the land parcel they are relocating to reclaimed land?

Half of Yili sits on reclaimed land, and it took Mr Toh more than five years to adjust the soil conditions using compost. And even then, the results are sub-optimal, 20 years on.

Mr Toh said water still does not drain as well as it does on natural soil, and the yield is as much as 30 per cent lower, as well as of poorer quality.

“(Produce) from reclaimed land are ‘old-looking’ – they take two to three days more to ripen, so the quality changes,” he said. “But on natural soil, my spinach heads are white and translucent, they sparkle.”

JURONG FROG FARM

Thirty-six years ago, Ms Chelsea Wan’s father started Jurong Frog Farm, even though the various limitations here — they depend on Mother Nature for enough rain for their frogs to grow properly because rules forbid them from using water from the tap for the frogs, for instance — put the number of frogs they can rear from scratch out of their hands.

Since then, their singular focus has been to make every frog they have count — beyond the frog legs they sell for dishes, such as porridge.

In 1999, they had their first breakthrough: Producing hashima locally. The collagen-rich delicacy was previously thought of as only attainable from frogs living in mountains in the northern regions of China. But Ms Wan’s father, after two years of experimentation, found a way to convert the fatty tissue found near a frog’s fallopian tube into hashima.

He used different methods and temperatures to dry the tissue, but the taste and texture was not up to mark. So he employed various ways to cutting the tissue, finally finding a streamlined process to mass-produce it for the market.

Today, the hashima they produce earns enough to “cover one to two head counts” but is a source of pride.

They did not stop there.

Later, Ms Wan found that frog innards can be sold to pet shops and clinics as an alternative diet for dogs with skin problems.
Frog skin? Why not deep fry it and serve it as a snack, similar to what is done for fish skin?

Recently, they started working on a new idea. Tapping researchers from the Nanyang Technological University — who took up residence at the farm — they are toying with processes to harvest bioactive collagen peptides from frog skin for use in cosmetic products.

All these efforts, said Ms Wan, have yielded extra income, so much so that half of what they used to discard now brings in revenue.
This enterprising spirit, to the 34-year-old who became a frog farmer right after graduating with a Sociology degree from National University of Singapore, is what it means to be true farmers: They make do, innovate, and grow within their means.

After all, farming is “not rocket science”, she quipped. The conditions are “so simple, so basic”, and “you don’t need to employ a six-figure system to run the operations, and then incur much more in percentage of utility costs”, she added.

“There are things like automatic food dispensers, but farmers should be the ones feeding because you need to monitor the rate of (your animals’) growth. You need to pick up the diseased animals early enough. You just need to feed them – how long will it take?”

In fact, getting your hands dirty is, to Ms Wan, as much a vital part of a farming existence as the simple pleasures she enjoyed growing up in her family’s farm.

Last December, she moved into a flat in Bukit Panjang and is still trying to adjust to the changes — traffic is too noisy, there is no fresh air, nor unobstructed views of the sky.

“Right now work is still quite menial. Nothing is really mechanised ... We rely on the elements, but funny thing is the farm is still around 35 years later,” she said.

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