Grow more locally? Not easy to cultivate

Farmers hail promise of funding and land, but worry about labour shortages, land prices and environmental constraints
Irene Tham, Straits Times 9 Aug 09;

Grow more locally, eat more locally.

That call to increase local produce was made by a minister recently, and Singapore's farming community is keen to take up the idea.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, in a speech at the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority's (AVA's) food safety awards on July31, said local farming, like Newater, can serve as a 'strategic stockpile'.

He pledged to set aside more land and set up a fund - the sum has yet to be announced - to increase output so that Singapore will have a stable supply of produce.

This will help mitigate supply shortfalls and price hikes. A case in point is last year's rice shortage.

Mr Tay Khiam Back, 53, managing director of 17-year-old fruit and vegetable trader Hupco, wants to commercially grow premium tropical fruits like guavas, papayas and bananas here.

Most of these fruits are now imported, and they are harvested unripe to minimise spoilage while being shipped here and to ensure a longer shelf-life.

'Isn't it better if local markets sell fruits that are harvested just a few hours earlier from a local farmer? They'll taste and smell better, and may even be safer as we can control the use of pesticides,' said Mr Tay, who is also chairman of the Singapore Fruits and Vegetables Importers and Exporters Association.

For major local egg producer Seng Choon Farm, the Government's promise of financial aid could not have come at a better time. The farm, which sells 100million eggs a year to local supermarkets and wet markets, is expanding, with a 14.7ha facility being built in Lim Chu Kang.

'Depending on the size of the funding, we could double our production,' said farm manager Koh Chern Peng, 35.

Over the next five years, the Government wants to increase supply of local produce: from 23 per cent to 30 per cent for eggs; from 4 per cent to 15 per cent for fish; and from 7 per cent to 10 per cent for leafy vegetables.

But farmers, while enthusiastic, say the ambitious plan faces some challenges. They cite issues such as manpower shortages, the high price of land and limited coastline for seafood farming.

'Singaporeans are not keen to take up farming jobs, so we have to hire foreigners,' said Mr Chew Eng Hoe, 44, managing director of egg farm Chew's Agriculture. 'But we have to meet the 1:1 local versus foreign worker ratio, which is tough.'

Like Hupco's Mr Tay, Mr Chew hopes the Manpower Ministry will relax restrictions on the use of foreign labour.

Farmers also hope to get special prices for land set aside for farming, as well as an instalment payment scheme instead of upfront payment.

'The current bidding system inflates prices,' said Mr Tay, adding that upfront payment could amount to $1million, depending on land size.

Fish farmers, on the other hand, are facing not only space scarcity but also environmental challenges.

'Our high water temperature and water quality do not allow us to rear a great variety of fish,' said Mr Lee Boon Cheow, 70, president of the Singapore Fish Merchants' General Association. The wholesaler handles 80per cent of Singapore's daily seafood imports.

'Our fish farmers rear a lot of milk fish, which locals do not appreciate. So we ended up exporting the fish to Malaysia,' Mr Lee said.

He mooted the idea of tapping the waterways of countries like China and Indonesia.

An AVA spokesman said the authority 'will be looking into ways to harness regional waters for contract farming that will help to bring more food fish back to Singapore'.

The AVA said it will also invest in research and development for genetic selection to, say, reduce crop cycle and speed up the growth of fish.

Insurance against bird flu is an issue for Mr Chew from Chew's Agriculture. He has not been able to buy a policy this year to cover bird flu for his chicken livestock and he hopes the Government will look into the matter. The most recent policy he obtained from NTUC Income expired last year, but he could not renew it.

'They do not sell it any more,' he said. 'If we increase our production and buy more chickens, who will share my losses if bird flu strikes?'

When contacted, an NTUC Income spokesman said: 'Like many other insurance companies, NTUC Income works with reinsurers to cover various risks.

'As our reinsurers have ceased avian flu cover for livestock, we are no longer able to continue providing such cover for farmers.'