For new breed of local farmers, the sky’s the limit

WONG PEI TING Today Online 18 Feb 18;

SINGAPORE — In less than two years, green shoots sprouting from swathes of flat land may no longer be the image that best represents local vegetable farming.

If the proposals picked by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) in a recent tender are any indication, the future of farming will consist of mid-rise “apartment blocks” for vegetables, as well as towering rows of leafy greens in next-generation greenhouses.

The winning companies said they are raring to place Singapore on the map for urban farming.

Backed by public-listed company Edition, a four-year-old firm called Meod snapped up the biggest number of plots – three – last week in the AVA’s first tender that featured a fixed price upfront, for companies to compete solely on concept.

The seven other successful tenderers each secured one plot in Lim Chu Kang.

With each plot spanning about two hectares, Meod’s three plots, which cost S$836,000, will significantly boost its existing operations, which started in January last year.

It currently farms on a one-hectare plot at the D’Kranji Farm Resort with an aim to produce about 500 to 550kg a day.

Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and melons are planted there using trellis lines that allow farmers to string up crops and grow them to a maximum height of 4.5m. The method was inspired by practices in Israel and gleaned from Dutch consultants the firm engaged, said Meod director Jeremy Chua, 38.

In the new plots, Meod plans to grow only leafy greens using its proprietary hydroponics system, which features modular plant beds that can be stacked to heights of three to four metres.

Meod will also be making use of the data they have collected in its current farm – where they planted a mix of lettuce, Asian greens, herbs and Swiss chards – in a big way. Besides the temperature, humidity and light within the greenhouses, the company tracked the growth of seedlings and crops using various methods, as well as the time needed for each plant to reach a certain weight and stage of growth.

Such a science-based approach provided “a solid base to work with our consultants for the six hectares, to design and build the greenhouse and growing structures that can cater specifically to our local and regional tropical climate”, said Mr Chua.

He expects the newly secured plots to be operational in 12 to 18 months’ time.

Asked about its relative lack of large-scale farming experience, Mr Chua said: “We do have a team of consultants, both local and abroad to help with the size and scale. Two of our partners had also been heavily involved in the urban farming movement in Singapore since 2011 and 2012.”

Mr Chua said Meod hopes to write the chapter in Singapore’s farming story and “scale (the technology) beyond Singapore, specifically into South-east Asia”.

“We have to look at how to implement large and tangible improvements in harvest and yield with the help of technology, while still keeping costs realistic in the regional context,” he said.

NO SUN, NO PROBLEM

At least two of the successful tenderers are taking their farming indoors, growing crops on tiered racks with light emitting diodes (LEDs) replacing sunlight.

Sunpower Grand Holdings was set up by Taiwanese academic Wu Yu-Chien.

Dr Wu holds a patent in LED technology that allows brightness to be adjusted with a computer, without the use of bulky magnetic components like transformers and inductors.

Partnering Ms Jean Ee, a Johor-based former banker, Dr Wu will be rolling out his invention for growing hydroponics fruits and vegetables in a real farm setting for the first time.

The technology will enable vegetables like kailan and xiao bai cai, which typically require 45 days to grow, to be harvested in 15 days, said Ms Ee, 45.

The yield from their three planned buildings is expected to be 900 tonnes a year. One building will hold up to 15 tiers of plants.

“If you leave it to nature, sometimes the weather varies,” said Ms Ee, whose mother is a traditional caixin and herb farmer in Johor.

She and Dr Wu also intend to build an education centre on their premises.

Another company, Farm deLight, will use its two-hectare plot to expand its 600sqm operation in Boon Lay.

It currently farms herbs and microgreens using red and blue LED lights, while smart controls regulate air-conditioning and the amount of carbon dioxide.

It intends to farm “common leafy greens” like xiao bai cai and kale going forward.

Meanwhile, Cameron Highlands farm operator Vegeasia has joined hands with beansprout farmer Tan Teck Tiang, 51, to set up an outdoor hydroponics system that uses PVC panels, as well as pumps and pipes to supply the crops with nutrients and water.

Vegeasia currently uses the technology in Malaysia, where it has more than 100 hectares of farmland that yields 40 to 50 tonnes of vegetables such as lettuce, caixin, kailan, and tomatoes a day.

Mr Tan said the S$1 million partnership aims to bring Vegeasia’s “tried, tested and proven” technology to the Republic.

“We (will) save a lot on trial and error,” said Mr Tan, who has about 15 years’ experience at his uncle’s company, Chiam Joo Seng Towgay Growers. The latter supplies about four tonnes of beansprouts a day to supermarkets here.

The AVA has high hopes for the eight companies. “We look forward to the contributions of these companies in transforming the local farming sector into one that is productive, innovative and sustainable,” Mr Melvin Chow, its group director of food supply resilience, said last week.

Its tender launched last August attracted 28 parties.

Among the unsuccessful tenderers was veteran farmer Wong Kok Fah, 56, who wanted to secure more land for high-tech farming “for my next generation” – his nephew Dave Huang, 33.

Mr Wong’s Kok Fah Technology Farm currently operates seven plots spanning nine hectares in Sungei Tengah.

The plots’ leases are renewed on a three-year basis and he produces about 100 tonnes of leafy vegetables like bayam (a variety of spinach), kailan and xiao bai cai monthly through a mix of soil cultivation and hydroponics.

Mr Huang, who joined the business straight out of university, said the unsuccessful attempt is not the end of the road.

It will give him “more time to perfect the system” before the next tender, he declared.

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