Technologies in Singapore’s High Tech Kranji Farms

Technologies in Singapore’s High Tech Kranji Farms

Published: 2021.05.26
Accepted: 2021.05.19
9
Associate/Lecturer
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

In the past, Singapore had an agrarian economic sector, but over time, the traditional farmlands in villages transformed into urbanized areas, leaving only a sliver of land use in Kranji for high tech agriculture. Even the Kranji farming landscape over time transformed into multistoried hydroponics/aeroponics facility with artificial sunlight for optimal growth of crops. From 2017 onwards, there was renewed interest in the Kranji farmlands, moving beyond just food supplies to broader economic gains. The accent was placed on technologies as a way to overcome natural land space limitations. The hope was that this could increase productivity and also train a new generation of agricultural experts that can utilize technologies for this purpose. Singapore's visionary government provided grants to acquire hardware, provide training, come up with blueprints and institute world-class planning for this purpose. The implications were directed towards spillover effects on the education, leisure, hospitality sectors. At the same time, social goals were targeted as well, including the social mobilization of resources for community building and national development by optimizing the small space in the Kranji Countryside for agricultural purposes. Well-known for its technological parks management, the stakeholders also started the Agrotech Park to provide green leafy vegetables for local consumption, especially for Singapore's most recognizable chain of supermarkets that is run by its largest trade union. There is a socioeconomic contribution in this as the trade union-run supermarket chain makes fresh green leafy vegetables available to the ordinary Singaporeans at non-exorbitant prices while Singaporeans are assured of quality and pride in their local products. Singaporean farmers are well-mobilized and armed with scientific approaches to carry out their activities while imbued with incoming global farming talents from all around the world. Overall, the rationalization of Singapore’s farming industry has produced visible results for its consumers who now have a diversity of choices of vegetables including those produced locally.

Keywords: Kranji, technology, Singapore, innovation, world class, vegetables

INTRODUCTION

Historically, Singapore had a thriving agricultural sector. Singapore’s historical rural farming areas like Orchard Road gambier plantation (now a busy shopping area), Punggol pig farms (now a major housing estate) and kampongs with organic free range chickens and organic vegetables (only one is left today at Kampong Lorong Buangkok) with 60% of domestic vegetable production, 80% of pig meat supplied domestically (with some for exportation), 100% domestic egg supply, even published an agricultural journal and ran a large agricultural show at the time of independence in 1965 (Eng, 2017). Such traditional farms are giving way to high tech farming in Kranji which is discussed in detail in the writing. In Kranji, green shoots growing in flat land gradually give way to indoor crops farming on tiered racks with sunlight-substituting light emitting diodes (LEDs) (Wong, 2018).

The weather condition in Singapore is tropically hot, humid and wet/rainy and the island falls within the monsoon seasons (Northeasternly monsoon blowing from December to March and the Southwesternly monsoon from June to September) while inter-monsoon months are often peppered with afternoon/early evening thunderstorms (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, p. 4). Singapore’s retail and wholesaling platforms are generally straightforward and structurally basic, focusing on domestic consumption with Singaporean urban farmers open to the use of high tech equipment like active chillers and storage refrigerators to keep their vegetables fresh and affordable while the high tech farms are operated optimally and are highly coordinated (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, p. 4).

As a recognition and showcase of best practices, the Good Agriculture Practice (GAP) farms are accredited by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) demonstrated by their abilities to produce hygienic quality vegetables much desired by the local consumers and their willingness to adopt to technologies like Oh Chin Huat farm which cultivates vegetables without the use of soil by implementing the Dynamic Root Floating (DFT) hydroponics technique in modular greenhouses (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, pp. 4-5). A number of local vegetable farms are found in the Agrotechnology Parks that takes up 133 hectares of space and above 80% of the domestic produce is grown in soil covered by protective net to maintain their quality standards for supply to domestic customers, including well-entrenched farms like the 2-hectare netted compound of Wong Kok Fah Farm (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, pp. 4-5).

POLICY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF KRANJI AREA

Singapore is a highly built-up city state with a small area hosting a large population. These attributes are considered ideal for vertical farming with less than 1% of the surface area available for agriculture (Wood, Wong and Paturi, 2020, p. 229). This 1% is concentrated in the Kranji area. The Kranji rural farming eco-system intends to introduce both upstream and downstream services for Singapore’s urban farmers, including skills and services like enterprise practices, product value creation, destination marketing strategies, enhanced productivity, commercial viability knowhow, value-added jobs creation, artisanal processing, augmenting visitors’ experiences, concept innovation, lifestyle businesses, events management, landscaping in collaboration with state agencies like the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), SPRING (Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board) and Singapore Tourism Board (STB) (Eng, 2017).

Ecologically-correct activists are keen to use farming to conserve local agricultural crops, cope with climate change through environmentally-friendly cultivation (to prevent soil erosion and environmental deterioration), augment farmer revenues, while entrepreneurs are keen to ramp up the numbers on output, institute greater productivity, carry out scientific research on crops (e.g. the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s), and tap into high density farming (Eng, 2017). All these progressive measures are sometimes described as part of the ‘new waves of agricultural thought’ that is keen to tap into high technologies like biotech gene editing, creating ecosystem for cultivated plants and animals, working with nature instead of against it, having inclusivity to incorporate all stakeholders (including small-scale tenant farms), introducing rural lifestyles to consumers, awareness of local conditions for agriculture (Eng, 2017).

Chronologically, since 2004, Kranji farmers were conscious of adapting to exorbitant property prices and manpower costs in a highly-urbanized metropolitan city, just as small-scale farms (peri-urban farms) in the periphery of other cities have done, tapping into the highly-developed logistical infrastructures found in the urban environments with their products, services, expertise and agricultural experiences (Eng, 2017). A mere 30 minutes away from the city center, the associated facilities complementing the Kranji farms include classrooms, museums, cafes, farm-stays (capitalizing on Singaporean desire for staycays or stay in hotel vacations), lifestyle facilities, bed and breakfasts, vineyards, popular retail outlets like the Kranji Countryside Farmers' Market, heritage tours to the historic Kranji War Memorial, nature hikes in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, private shuttle tour buses to farms for the 20,000 visitors per month with some even advocating Kranji conservation as a national treasure (following the examples of advanced economies’ peri-urban farms in the Netherlands, Japan and Australia (Eng, 2017).

After 2004, the next date to highlight is 2009-2011. AVA assistance resulted in the inaugural hydraulic vertical vegetable growing system constructed by Singaporean farm Skygreens in 2011, SPRING’s grants assisted Singaporean egg farmers with the acquisitions of mechanized high-productivity processing technologies, STB promoted the Go-local campaign in 2009 and the 27th Commonwealth Agriculture Conference that brought 300 global delegates/thought leaders/entrepreneurs/journalists to Singapore in 2016, increasing Singapore’s global exposure (Eng, 2017). With increasing wealth and environmental awareness, the Kranji Countryside Farmers’ Market quarterly event drew 12,000 customers interested in dedicated farmers’ produce, exposing their family members to nature, supporting farmland conservation for education, and interested to see the cultivation of farm products like baby goats, nurseries-grown plants, kai lan (jielan) seedlings and other organic vegetables (Eng, 2017).

2017 was the next milestone year. Spotlight was once again thrown onto Singapore’s high tech farming during this year. Stakeholders in this sector is keen to look at high tech farming in Singapore’s Kranji rural areas for economic benefits but Kranji Countryside Association President Kenny Eng wants to move beyond just economic benefits to maximizing space limitations technologically, utilize resources more productively and cultivate a whole new batch of agri-specialists, particularly with the use of policy means (Eng, 2017). This was also based on the outlook that Singapore has to consider its indigenous food supply carefully (it imports 90% of their food from overseas sources) due to climate change and supply chain challenges through the use of highly efficient technologies like vertical farming, climate-controlled systems and robotics while training skilled technicians (engineers, architects, researchers, and entrepreneurs) (Eng, 2017).

Singapore’s progressive and enlightened government came to the rescue in 2017 with a 30% grant to purchase an equipment, instilling people-oriented business goals and cultivating multi-disciplinary expertise with a clear vision and roadmap, with an eye on associated benefits for education, tourism, community bonding and nation building through the 1% of valuable land allocated in the Kranji countryside for agriculture from 2014 onwards (Eng, 2017). The international food shortage in 2007 created a 12% hike in the prices of Singapore’s food imports leading to a policy focus in strengthening some limited form of self-sufficiency in core food products (such as vegetables, eggs and fishes with some stakeholders advocating extension to native root vegetables, fruits, herbs, goat’s milk and frog meat) to manage any supply disruptions, taking into consideration the country’s limited available space for agriculture (Eng, 2017).

These efforts saw fruition in 2018 and 2019. Singapore attained the top place in the Global Food Security Index that evaluates and measures food affordability, physical access to food, safety and nutrition levels of the available food in 2018 and 2019 with the capability of supplying a vast array of foods including those imported from foreign sources (Wood, Wong and Paturi, 2020, p. 235). In addition to coping with slightly greater self-reliance on domestic food supply and profit-making, the Singaporean stakeholders in the farming sector emphasizes its benefits to the entire ecosystem in Singapore but any urban farmer entrepreneur will have to overcome business risks, shortage of funding and restrictive farm tenures (Eng, 2017).

Distribution to consumers

The Agrotech Park farmers supply vegetable products like Bayam, Caixin, Kailan, KangKong and XiaoBaiCai every day, packed, branded and retailed with the “Pasar” (‘Pasar’ means ‘bazaar’ or ‘market’ in the Malay language) brand by NTUC FairPrice (one of Singapore’s largest supermarket chain that belongs to the state-affiliated umbrella trade union organization) (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, p. 6). Bigger scale clients with bulk orders will acquire their vegetables directly from the local farms without going through the intermediary of NTUC FairPrice, eliminating middlemen commission or intermediary costs while smaller businesses (hotels, retail markets and restaurants) continue to tap into wholesalers for their vegetable needs, enjoying additional services like credit terms and cold chain services which may be absent in buying direct from farms (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, p. 6). For individual consumers, the supermarket chains provide convenience, especially for busy career women who are also keen to see price-competitive products and diversity of choices offered by NTUC Fairprice, French hypermarket Carrefour, Malaysian Giant, Dairy Farm Group and Cold Storage (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, p. 6). Local vegetables order in bulk and the wholesalers deliver their goods and products directly to institutional clients like hotels, restaurants and cruise ships with cold storage spaces to accommodate time-sensitive vegetables (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007, p. 7).

Marketing channels such as supermarket chains, wholesalers and those that are into direct-marketing are all common in other countries but perhaps the distribution activity in Kranji area is unique for three reasons. First, a major customer is the country's largest trade union whose supermarket chain sells vegetables affordably to the masses. Therefore, there is an egalitarian element in this food supply process. Second, wholesalers provide credit terms to smaller businesses, again proving a valuable small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) service. There is again an egalitarian element in this aspect since bigger institutional clients can just simply skip the wholesaler intermediary. It levels the playing field for SMEs. Third, there is a concerted rationalized system of branding, building up the 'Pasar' brand of vegetables with consumers for reliable, quality and recognizable food supply reputation.

Technology and funding

With success, comes funding and technological acquisitions. It is possible to look at case studies related to the Kranji area in this section. Meod farm was supported by a publicly listed firm Edition to purchase additional 2-hectare plots of land at a cost of S$836,000 (US$630 905) in 2018 (in addition to its one-hectare plot at the D’Kranji Farm Resort where lettuce and tomatoes are grown) in the AVA’s first fixed-price tender while others bid for lands in Lim Chu Kang (Wong, 2018). In Meod, fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and melons are cultivated in trellis lines for agriculturalists to string up crops and track their growth up to 4.5 m tall (a technology that originated from Israel and set up with Dutch specialists), leafy greens are grown in their trademarked hydroponics equipment and stackable modular plant beds (up till 3-4 m), data collection will help them with their cultivation of lettuce, Asian greens, herbs and Swiss chards (Wong, 2018). In addition to climate-control, humidity and light-controlled greenhouses, the farm records the growth of seedlings/crops, time needed for plants to attained certain weight and growth systematically in a science-based approach to build: “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…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 (Wong, 2018).”

Other local Singaporean farmers are equally scientific, rational and high tech in their approaches. Farm Delight utilizes its two-hectare plot as an extension of its 600 sqm operation in Boon Lay producing farms herbs and microgreens utilizing red and blue LED lights and smart controls for air-conditioning and adjustments of amount of carbon dioxide (Wong, 2018). Highly-experienced farmer Wong Kok Fah (56 years old)’s Kok Fah Technology Farm manages 9-hectare seven plots in Sungei Tengah that are extendable on three-year leases with an output of 100 tonnes of leafy vegetables like bayam (local spinach), kailan and xiao bai cai monthly cultivate using a combination of soil cultivation and hydroponics (Wong, 2018).

Singapore has even attracted farming tech talents from afar. Even Taiwanese entrepreneurs like scholar Wu Yu-Chien (who has a patent in LED technology for computerized illumination tuning without utilizing bulky magnetic components like transformers and inductors applied in their farm) of Sunpower Grand Holdings are participating in this sector with his Johor-based agriculturalist collaborator, daughter of a herb/caixin farmer and former banker Jean Ee (Wong, 2018). The technology accelerates vegetable growth like kailan and xiao bai cai from the average 45 days to harvest only in 15 days, housed in building structures that accommodate a maximum of 15 tiers of plants without worries or anxieties about weather conditions (Wong, 2018). Cameron Highlands agricultural outfit Vegeasia partnered with beansprout producer Tan Teck Tiang (55 years old) to establish a S$1 million (US$752,259) Malaysian outdoor hydroponics system utilizing PVC panels, pumps, piped supplies of nutrients and water in 100 hectares of farmland that produces 40 to 50 tons of vegetables such as lettuce, caixin, kailan, and tomatoes daily (Wong, 2018). Tan’s 15-year experience at his relative’s farm Chiam Joo Seng Towgay Growers (which has a 4-tons daily output) allows the joint venture to avoid lessons already learnt in the past (Wong, 2018).

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the Singapore authorities show clear trends in (1) technological progress in Singapore and (2) continued work with Kranji farms as a showcase model for general application. Government and private sector investments in the research and development of high tech agri-food output through “hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical and rooftop farming” is heading towards innovative, climate-resilient technologies to boost its production sustainably, accelerated by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic (Wood, Wong and Paturi, 2020, p. 236). Singapore has a pandemic-era S$30 million (US$22.6 million) grant that invests in urban farms with the view of boosting production (Wood, Wong and Paturi, 2020, p. 236). The accent is placed on vertical farming solutions. Kranji Farms will be a role-model in other Singaporean spaces as well. Kranji-type densely cultivated high-tech farming using techniques such as hydroponics and greenhouses can also be replicated in other densely populated built-up areas in Singapore too. Wood, Wong and Paturi mentioned that vertical farming roof-top greenhouses can make use of top sundeck of HDB (Housing Development Board) public housing as greenhouse space heated by waste heat from the building structure for heating while carbon emissions from the building can be channelled for optimal crop growth while they are nurtured by rainwater which can be stored (Wood, Wong and Paturi, 2020, p. 234).

REFERENCES

Eng, Kenny. Commentary: Can farming be a success story for Singapore? Channel News Asia (CNA), 19 March 2017. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/commentary-can-farming-be-a-success-story-for-singapore-8577514 (link is external) (1 January 2021)

Menkhoff, Thomas, Patrick H. M. Loh, Sin Bin Chua and Hans-Dieter Evers. Riau Vegetables for Singapore Consumers: A Collaborative Knowledge-Transfer Project across the Straits of Malacca. Singapore Management University Institutional Knowledge at Singapore Management University Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School Of Business Lee Kong Chian School of Business, June 2007. (link is external) (June 2007)

Wong, Pei Ting. For new breed of local farmers, the sky's the limit. Todayonline, 18 February 2018. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/new-breed-local-farmers-skys-limit (link is external) (18 February 2018)

Wood, Jacob, Caroline Wong and Swathi Paturi. Vertical Farming: An Assessment of Singapore City. eTropic: electronic journal of studies in the tropics, 2020. Retrieved from https://journals.jcu.edu.au/etropic/article/view/3745/3643: 229-248.

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