High-tech farms in Singapore take on cold-weather crops

Wendy Wong Channel NewsAsia 8 Jun 17;

SINGAPORE: Kale is touted as a "superfood", eaten in salads and sandwiches, blended in green juices and even baked into chips.

The trendy greens are typically grown in temperate countries such as Australia and the US, but with the help of technology, such cold-weather crops - which typically would not survive in Singapore's climate - are now being grown in some high-tech vertical farms.

Local farms currently produce 12 per cent of Singapore's total vegetable consumption, exceeding the 10 per cent target set in 2009.

In line with the Government's push for farming productivity - such as the recently enhanced Agriculture Productivity Fund and the announcement that farmland would be set aside to promote high-tech farming - more farms are exploring new methods to grow crops previously thought to be impossible to cultivate in Singapore's climate.

One such farm is Sustenir, which grows hydroponic crops in a fully controlled environment. This includes making use of technology such as LED lights, air-conditioning ducts and an automated irrigation system to grow temperate produce such as kale, cherry tomatoes and strawberries.

Co-founder Benjamin Swan explained that the firm leverages technology to manipulate every facet of growth within the room, from humidity and temperature, to the nutrients in the water.

This has helped the farm cut the growth time of crops to two weeks - half the time needed at conventional farms - as well as customise its crops to fit customer preferences. For example, it has successfully modified the naturally fibrous and indigestible stems of kale crops to become edible.

Da Paolo Group is one eatery chain that sources its kale from the farm, and its group executive chef Andrea Scarpa said he found the produce "very comparable" to that found overseas.

"The taste profile is very, very similar to what we get imported. But for us it's even better, simply because you get to eat the entire plant from the top of the leaf down to the root," he explained.

"Traditionally when you eat kale you import from overseas, you'd have to rip off the stem, which is a huge waste - 50 per cent of your weight gone. But it's great (that) we get to use the whole thing when it's done locally.”

The 740 sq m farm, which is located in an industrial building, also plans to expand to tailoring edible flowers and micro-greens for its customers.

Another vertical farm thriving on technology is owned by Japanese electronics company Panasonic. The 1,154 sq m farm currently grows 81 tonnes of produce annually under its brand Veggie Lite, which supplies its vegetables to supermarket chains, hotels and restaurants. This includes more than 30 crop varieties such as green and red lettuce, swiss chards and sweet basil.

"By adopting technology from our parent company in Japan, we are able to control light, temperature and humidity to ensure optimum conditions,” a spokesperson for the farm told Channel NewsAsia.

"Through local production, we have the control to produce a stable supply of safe, fresh, high-nutrition and high-quality vegetables," the spokesperson said. "As importation involves more third parties and logistics arrangement, there are more concerns to be considered in ensuring the produce quality and freshness."

Veggie Lite aims to contribute 5 per cent of local vegetable production - or about 1,000 tonnes annually - by 2020.
Source: CNA/mz

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