Local veggie farm taps AVA fund to reap bigger harvest

Jessica Lim Consumer Correspondent Straits Times 11 Jul 13;

AT KOK Fah Technology Farm (KFTF) in Sungei Tengah, workers used to dump buckets of water over crops, plant seeds by hand and sell the produce from large rattan baskets.

Today at the 40-year-old farm, a machine sows 25,600 vegetable seeds every hour, and an automatic spray provides the water. After harvest, the vegetables go into a vacuum cooler before being packed in an assembly line.

Technology has helped the farm increase leafy vegetable production from 500 tonnes in 2008 to more than 1,400 tonnes a year now.

The 8ha farm was yesterday held up as an example to follow by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which wants more farms to adopt high-tech methods and help the country reduce its reliance on food imports.

Singapore has 46 leafy vegetable farms. While they produced 10,200 tonnes last year, up from 9,400 tonnes in 2010, local vegetables still make up 7 per cent of total local consumption, a figure that has not changed since three years ago. The AVA wants to raise this to 10 per cent in the long term.

But one issue is that 80 per cent of vegetable farms here do not make full use of technology, said AVA's director of horticulture technology Poh Bee Ling at a tour of KFTF.

The reason for the slow pick-up rate, despite the agency's offer of funding, is that these farms have small output volumes and are turned off by the high cost of technology, she explained.

"Some farmers are also very traditional and not so comfortable adopting new technologies. So we find it quite difficult to encourage them to do so."

KFTF director Wong Kok Fah was worried at first about adopting technology that "no one had used before".

"But we knew we needed machines to help increase output," the 52-year-old said, adding that it was difficult to find workers for the family-run farm.

He said it helped that half of the $1 million cost of the new machinery came from various government agencies, including the AVA, which launched a food fund in December 2009.

So far, $20 million has been committed to help farms improve operations. A total of 240 applications were received, of which 141 were approved.

The AVA is also working with smaller farmers to help them band together and benefit from economies of scale when adopting technology, said Ms Poh yesterday.