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Two S’pore companies try new high-tech farming processes

Two S’pore companies try new high-tech farming processes
Desmond Khoo,29, Managing Director and, Sean Neo, 28, General Manager of Purely Fresh vegetable farm. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

Two S’pore companies try new high-tech farming processes

SINGAPORE — For the last 20 years, the crew at Eden Garden Farm has been growing and selling produce the old-school way, sticking to traditional methods of manually harvesting and supplying homegrown vegetables to markets here.

Now, with the agricultural sector being urged by the Government to keep pace with technology, the farm’s chief executive officer Desmond Khoo, 30, is looking to break away from this conventional mould and advocate new ways of farming.

In a sleepy corner of the Lim Chu Kang area, where limited agricultural land sit in the north-western part of Singapore, Mr Khoo and his team have been experimenting with a multi-tiered vertical farming system on their plot since March: Water is automatically sprinkled onto seedlings, which are kept at a controlled temperature, and light is continuously supplied to the plants for some 12 hours.

While this experiment is still in its early stages, Mr Khoo estimates that the pay-offs from automation could be tremendous. It could mean at least 30 per cent more harvests due to the space to stack plants skywards, as well as savings on manpower costs.

On Thursday (May 11), the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) announced that 36 plots of farm land, located in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah, are up for tender from August this year.

Using new land-tender methods, farmers will compete based on the best concepts proposed, with a focus on productivity gains rather than on land price, thus paving the way forward for farmers to adopt more technology and innovation.

Mr Sean Neo, 28, general manager of Eden Garden Farm, said that on a recent learning trip to various farms in China, the team saw first-hand how technology such as automatic sprinklers and automatic seed-sowing systems could be useful. Trucks that transported vegetable harvests were temperature-controlled and equipped with global positioning systems (GPS). “Other than the farming system, what we saw was a total ecosystem, including the logistics. It was not just (purely on production),” Mr Neo said.

Mr Khoo is also managing director of PurelyFresh, a Web platform started in 2014 that he dubs an “online wet market”, which delivers fresh produce such as fruits, seafood and meat straight to buyers’ doorsteps. This also helps them to spread awareness about homegrown produce.

Another game-changer in the field is Apollo Aquaculture Group, a consortium of companies that offer a range of services and solutions for the farming of marine finfish such as hybrid groupers and coral trout, for the import and export of ornamental fish, and for conducting research and development on commercial farming systems.

It first started in 1972 as an ornamental-fish trading company, but now, harnessing technology, the company is producing some 110 tonnes of food-fish yearly.

Helmed by Mr Eric Ng, 44, its group chief executive officer, the group is the first firm here to use a barcoding system for its tanks, to allow easy tracking and updating of fish stocks.

It has a three-storied vertical fish-farming system, and an automatic water filtration and recycling system for marine food-fish and more than 200 species of ornamental fish.

Mr Joseph Loh, 51, who leads the group’s department in aquaculture environment, said that other features of the system include probes in tanks to send real-time information on changes in oxygen levels, acidity and salinity levels, for instance.

To offset the cost of going high-tech, the group tapped the AVA’s Agriculture Productivity Fund in 2015 and received a S$700,000 reimbursement. In 2014, the Government pledged $63 million of this fund to help farmers boost productivity.

Mr Loh said that the company is looking at the potential of harnessing these technologies in bulk, such as building six storeys for the vertical fish-farming system, should the group secure a new site through AVA’s tender.

Given that the present agricultural landscape in Singapore is made up mostly of “small, family-like” farms, he said that there is still room for growth.

“Singapore is well-positioned to (use technology more). It is nimble, it has to put in the right resources to establish this knowledge and skills, so we can do farming better than others,” he added.

Mr Khoo, who is passionate about his role as a young farmer, believes that modernising farming methods and a greater application of technology are the ways to grow, to change the perception that farming is “not cool” among the young.

On the important role that farms could play, he said: “It’s not just about generating profits. If you can contribute to national (food) security at the same time, it’s more meaningful than any other business.”