Farming, one rooftop at a time

AQIL HAZIQ MAHMUD Today Online 9 Aug 15;

SINGAPORE — In the heart of the nation’s bustling shopping district, some Singaporeans spend their time in a rooftop “garden”, carefully tending to basil and mint plants.

Comcrop co-founder Allan Lim, 42, and his team of four full-time urban farmers are part of a small wave of Singaporeans trying to grow their own food.

The urban farming collective runs a 6,000 sq ft farm — equivalent to the floor area of five five-room Housing and Development Board flats — on the rooftop of *Scape on Orchard Road.

“Our aim is to grow the most amount of food on the smallest amount of land,” Mr Lim said.

Comcrop produces herbs and seasonal produce such as basil, mint, eggplants and peppers. Plants grow from 5m-high vertical frames comprising terraces of water-filled pipes. Before entering the pipes, the water is run through large tanks of tilapia fish, whose waste provide nutrients for the plants.

The farm churns out up to 30kg of produce weekly. Considering the amount of land utilised, the farm is 50 per cent more productive than conventional ones, Mr Lim said.

“We apply our technology to marginalised land, which is something very important to Singapore,” he said.

Land-scarce Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food, and only 8 per cent of its vegetables are locally grown, according to the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore.

Although he knows the odds are against him, Mr Lim hopes to see his produce on tables islandwide one day.

“My personal ambition is to make an impact on the food system of Singapore,” he said.

For now, Comcrop supplies to more than 20 food and beverage outlets, most of which are high-end establishments such as 28 HongKong Street and Halia at Raffles Hotel. This is because chefs at these eateries appreciate the value of high-quality ingredients, said Mr Lim.

Another Comcrop farmer, Mr Lim Yuan Kang, 28, said herbs grown on the farm smell and taste better than those available on supermarket shelves.

“There’s a big difference in quality and taste,” he said. “I think the way we grow (herbs) creates a strong flavour; the fish waste offers a constant supply of nutrients.”

He added that herbs sold in supermarkets are usually less fresh because of the time it takes for them to be brought in from Genting Highlands or Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.

Despite their confidence in the quality of their produce, things are far from rosy for the ambitious farmers.

“We’ve not made back a single cent,” Mr Allan Lim said of his business. He has spent at least S$300,000 on Comcrop since its launch four years ago.

He attributed his losses to underestimating the challenges of growing crops on a rooftop.

“We lack knowledge on pests, insects,” he said. “We lost 400 tomato plants in one season without fruiting because of environmental factors such as heat and humidity.

“We are still struggling quite a bit. The purpose of this farm is really to break new ground and to learn as much as possible from there.”

Despite the difficulties, Mr Lim and his team are determined to wean Singapore off food imports.

“If you look at where we are now — 95 per cent of food (imported) from 35 countries — in the next 10 years, the GDP of (these countries) will probably go up by at least 10 to 20 per cent.

“What this means is that … as we go along, the food security of Singapore will come under tremendous pressure.”

To overcome this, he intends to launch a new farm that he dubbed as the “biggest rooftop hydroponic farm in the world”.

Slated to open next year on top of an industrial building in Woodlands, the rooftop farm will occupy an area about the size of a football field.

“The solution is no longer on paper, the solution has to be on the ground,” Mr Lim said. “(The new farm) will define us Singaporeans when people say we cannot grow food. Let’s grow it and show people that we can.”

The new farm will produce more fruits, vegetables and herbs, and provide jobs for the marginalised workforce, such as ex-offenders, he added.

What others say

Urban farmers and experts TODAY spoke to said it is not impossible for a farming industry to thrive here.

“There are all sorts of generally under-utilised space,” said Mr Robert Pearce, co-founder of Edible Garden City, which runs urban farms in Chinatown and near Dempsey Hill. “You could cover the entire area of Singapore in farms if you just farmed on a rooftop.” He also lamented the removal of fruit trees in Singapore, which were part of the island’s natural landscape, due to squabbles among some members of the public over the fruit.

“Such a shame. If we can just work a bit of a better system of managing that … it’s worth it,” Mr Pearce added.

Kranji Countryside Association honorary secretary Chelsea Wan said: “Singapore prides itself on being a garden city to make the country look good. Why not make it more practical by growing food gardens so we can keep the harvest for everyone?”

The association works with public and private organisations to maintain 1 per cent of Singapore’s land for growing food.

But Nanyang Technological University biological sciences professor Lee Sing Kong, who has developed new technologies for urban food production, warned that produce from local urban farms may not be able to compete with cheaper imports.

“With technology, it is possible to produce a sizeable volume of vegetables for supply to Singapore. But whether prices are competitive will be a strong consideration for the initiative to be a success here,” he said.

“Ultimately, consumers will buy cheaper vegetables, rather than vegetables (that cost more), even though they may be fresher … or cleaner,” added Prof Lee.