Locally grown strawberries a first for Singapore's farming industry

Wendy Wong Channel NewsAsia 20 Jun 18;

SINGAPORE: It was once an unthinkable feat - growing non-native temperate produce on Singapore soil. But a local urban farm has managed to do just that - growing strawberries, with the help of technology in a controlled hydroponics environment.

"We manipulate the environment to enhance the flavour profiles of our products, even down to the nutrients that run in the water," said Benjamin Swan, co-founder of Sustenir Agriculture.

"So even though it took two months to get the (strawberries) up, we spent the better part of six months understanding how we can best optimise the growth footprints we have to make the products the best we can be ... by controlling the environment."

Strawberries are the latest fruits of the vertical farm's labour, with other temperate produce in its basket including kale and arugula. The vertical farm also has plans to explore innovations in agriculture, by setting up a research and development lab in startup complex JTC LaunchPad @ one-north.

In a visit to the 1,000 sq ft facility on Wednesday (Jun 20), Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said the Government would continue supporting urban farmers in co-developing solutions with industry players, in light of challenges faced by the urban farmers.

"The industry gave feedback that they have two challenges. One is that there is a lack of plug-and-play, cost-effective solutions for automation they can use quite quickly," said Dr Koh. "The second challenge they face is that they may need to have more understanding of science of certain niche crop types they can grow in an indoor environment."

"Urban farming as a movement is still fairly new globally. Therefore some of these solutions may not be readily available off the shelf," Dr Koh said. "But we do see a lot of solution providers innovating solutions that can be adoptable."

"They being here in LaunchPad – where a lot of innovation and entrepreneurs are – this can be a place to catalyse cocreation of solutions. And I think that would not just meet needs, but create an entirely new pillar of exportable technology for our local companies as well," Dr Koh said.

He cited the example of Sustenir Agriculture, which partnered with robotic solutions company PBA Hanhwa Robotics to devise a robotic arm for its seeding and transplanting process.

The farm is exploring the use of robotic arms to help in its seeding and transplanting process, with the robots able to take on the workload of eight personnel, according to Mr Swan. (Photo: Wendy Wong)

Dr Koh added that the Government would continue to encourage collaboration between farmers and institutes of higher learning. "The NUS Environmental Research Institute (NERI) is already working with some of our industry to better understand the science behind growing niche crop varieties, and to look at agrotech they can co-develop together to meet those challenges."

The vertical farm, which is expanding into Hong Kong in the third quarter of 2018, is also looking at growing "indoor grapes" – and eventually even harvesting "made in Singapore" wine among others.

"All strawberries need to be pollinated – typically that happens with bees outdoors," said Mr Swan. "What we do right now is that we do it by hand with a forensic brush. It’s a little bit laborious and we don’t get 100 per cent success. But we are exploring bringing in bees to the room, which means we could have 100 per cent clean honey as well."

Source: CNA/na


Coming to a supermarket near you: Made-in-Singapore strawberries
VICTOR LOH Today Online 20 Jun 18;

SINGAPORE — Ideally suited for a cooler climate with temperatures between 16°C and 27°C, strawberries are hard to grow here — until now.

In what is touted as a first in the country and the region, a Singapore start-up Sustenir has managed to produce strawberries on a commercial scale, in a controlled indoor environment.

Buoyed by its success, the enterprise has set its sights on made-in-Singapore grapes and even wine.

Speaking at the launch of its research and development lab at JTC Launchpad in one-north on Wednesday (June 20), Mr Benjamin Swan, 37, co-founder and chief executive officer of Sustenir, said: "The sky is the limit to this because, effectively, we can grow anything indoors."

The strawberries are now sold at selected Cold Storage supermarkets and online grocer RedMart at S$12 for a 200g packet, and Mr Swan said that there may be plans to sell them at more shops in the heartlands.

The fruit is produced using patented technology, which allows Sustenir to maximise its output in land-scarce Singapore, to grow more with less.

For example, a traditional farm can grow an average of 140 tonnes of leafy greens in one hectare of land, but Sustenir can produce 2,100 tonnes in the same space using 95 per cent less water.

A typical farm also takes about seven to eight weeks to grow strawberries from the plant stem using regular farming methods, but Sustenir can do so in under six weeks.

Its vertical farm at Sembawang — which is certified under the food safety management systems scheme, ISO 22000 — has been cultivating other non-native vegetables such as kale and arugula (rocket) since 2014, and can now produce about 800kg of strawberries monthly all year round. Plans are afoot to double the size of its 54sqm strawberry farm.

Mr Swan, a former UOB and Citibank banker before he co-founded Sustenir, said that because its products are cultivated in "perfectly clean conditions that are free from pesticides, contaminated soil and any form of haze or air pollution from outside", there is no need to wash its fruits and vegetables before consumption, and they can last for two weeks when refrigerated.

While the firm took just two months to research and cultivate its first batch of strawberries, but pollination — which usually happens with bees outdoors — was a challenge.

Pollination is now done manually, but the company is looking to introduce bees indoors, and perhaps from there, even create "100 per cent clean honey", Mr Swan said.

He stressed that Sustenir is not out to compete with Singapore farmers for staple vegetables and fruits. "We can grow bok choy and so forth locally, but do we want to grow (bok choy) here indoors or outdoors? Of course not. What we are doing is focusing on imported products."

It is this same imported-produce-first strategy that Sustenir is taking to Hong Kong, where it will open a vertical farm in the third quarter of this year.

He added: "We are going as far as the more medicinal products. Take TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). We are working with NUS (National University of Singapore), for example, so that we can extract the enzymes out of (nutrient-rich) kale, a superfood to help with (the well-being of) cancer patients."

POTENTIAL FOR MASS-MARKET PRODUCE

On Wednesday, Sustenir also launched the sale of its strawberries at Cold Storage's new one-north outlet.

When asked about the S$12-per-200g price of its strawberries, Mr Swan said that they are "very competitive" compared with the South Korean varieties, for instance.

An online site sells strawberries from South Korea for S$11.60 per 330g box, while a 250g box of strawberries from the United States costs S$6.50 at Cold Storage.

Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, who was present at the launch event, was asked if urban farmers are limited to producing just high-value fruits and vegetables.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Dr Koh Poh Koon (left) with Sustenir Agriculture's CEO Benjamin Swan looking at home-grown strawberries at Sustenir's Research and Development facility. Photo: Chng Shao Kai/TODAY

He noted that the technology has the potential for other common vegetables such as bok choy to be grown locally for commercial use.

"Strawberries is one of those varieties that we would not have imagined possible growing in Singapore. But for a controlled environment, by manipulating the growth conditions, we see that strawberries are now possible.

"If you know how to grow strawberries in an indoor environment, you know how to manipulate conditions, I think it will not take a big leap for (urban farmers) to switch to more mass-market vegetables like bok choy, for example," Dr Koh said.

"It's only left to our imagination to see how (urban farmers) can capitalise on this to do more with less and get ourselves more fruits, and be self-sufficient."


Strawberries grown in Singapore vertical farm make debut
Low De Wei Straits Times 20 Jun 18;

SINGAPORE - Strawberries grown in a vertical farm in Singapore - and available all year round - are being sold at selected supermarkets.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon, who took a look at Singapore's first commercially-grown local strawberries on Wednesday (June 20), said government agencies will need to see how best they can change rules to assist vertical farms here.

This means that agencies may need to be flexible, and liberalise regulations, to accommodate the needs of such firms here, he added.

Acknowledging the challenges that the vertical farm industry faces here, Dr Koh said that one solution was for commercial companies, universities and firms with research and development (R&D) expertise to work together with urban farmers. The Government will explore how clustering can be applied in this industry as well, like siting vertical farms with other businesses they can leverage for expertise, he added.

He accepted that finding spaces here for vertical farms was a challenge and said that the Government would see what more it could do to assist farmers who identify areas and buildings that they are keen to set up facilities in.

Dr Koh was speaking on the sidelines of a visit to the R&D laboratory of local vertical farming company, Sustenir Agriculture, at one-north.

Sustenir's researchers had successfully cultivated strawberry plants in the lab, and the fruit has since been grown in Sustenir's vertical farm.

The strawberries are being sold at selected Cold Storage outlets at $12 a punnet.

Most vertical farm companies, such as Sustenir, currently grow vegetables like kale and other salad vegetables for sale in the local market. The latest addition to this plate are home-grown strawberries.

Dr Koh said that the technology used to grow high-value crops like strawberries can also support Singapore's food security requirements in times of need.

"The idea is to develop the know-how and have the technology mature so that in a time of need, you can easily switch over to different plant types (to grow in vertical farms)," he said.

Figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) show that there were 26 indoor vertical farms here as at the end of April. In 2016, there were just six such farms.

More players need to be willing to adopt such business models even as the Government reaches out to them, Dr Koh said.

As the urban farming landscape matures in Singapore, the Government will also seek to engage residents.

Citing the example of the new town of Tengah, which features "community farmways", Dr Koh said the Government is exploring how to incorporate more urban community farming into newer housing estates.

While AVA figures show that the number of commercial rooftop farms here remained at one as of end-April, with no new additions in the past two years, Dr Koh said the Government will continue to look at how rooftop spaces like those at multi-storey carparks can be adapted for producing edible food.

"As we explore this space, and as interest grows, we will be able to do something more concrete," he said.

Berry fresh prospects for vertical farming
Govt agencies may have to ease rules to let sector flourish, says senior minister of state
Low De Wei Straits Times 21 Jun 18;

Now in selected supermarkets near you: Strawberries grown in a Singapore vertical farm.

On the sidelines of a visit to an R&D laboratory belonging to Sus-tenir Agriculture, which developed a method to grow strawberries here, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said government agencies will need to see how best they can change rules to assist vertical farms.

This means agencies may need to be flexible, and liberalise regulations, to accommodate the needs of such firms, he added yesterday.

Acknowledging the challenges faced by the vertical farm industry, Dr Koh said one solution the Government will explore is to locate such farms near commercial companies, universities and R&D firms.

He explained that having such "clusters" will let urban farmers leverage on expertise in other areas to devise cost-effective technological solutions. He also acknowledged that finding spaces for vertical farms was a challenge, and said the Government would see what more it can do to help farmers who identify areas and buildings they are keen to set up facilities in.

Mr James Liu, co-founder of vertical farming company SING.Fresh, is one such farmer who had to grapple with the "significant challenge" of getting approval from various agencies for the use of unused spaces, which he said is hindered by land usage policies.

Higher location costs for vertical farming would also mean higher costs for consumers, he said.

Most vertical farm companies grow high-value greens like kale and other salad vegetables that can be sold at more competitive prices compared to imported varieties.

Asked about the rationale for growing such crops, co-founder and chief executive of Sustenir Agriculture Benjamin Swan said this was to avoid competing against lower-cost greens like bok choy.

Dr Koh said the know-how gained from growing high-value crops like strawberries can still contribute to supporting Singapore's food security in times of need.

Figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) show there were 26 commercial indoor vertical farms as of end-April this year. In 2016, there were six such farms.

Still, more players need to be willing to adopt such business models even as the Government reaches out to them, Dr Koh said.

And as the urban farming landscape matures, the Government will also seek to engage residents. Dr Koh said the Government is exploring how to incorporate more urban community farming into newer housing estates.

AVA figures show there was only one commercial rooftop vertical farm as of end-April.

A spokesman for the Ministry of National Development, when asked about its policy on rooftop farming, said it adopts "a facilitative approach". "We will continue to push for innovative projects to optimise our land use and grow the urban farming movement," the spokesman added.

Asked if the Government can do more, Dr Koh said it will continue to look at how rooftop spaces like those on multi-storey carparks can be adapted for producing edible food.

"As we explore this space, and as interest grows, we will be able to do something more concrete," he said.

No comments:

Post a Comment