Innovation in the farming industry

While the farming industry has traditionally been associated with intensive physical and manual labour, urban-folk may be surprised to learn of the industry’s recent push for innovation and its embracing of technology.

Whether through the adoption of cutting-edge technology, or through simple adaptations of existing farming processes, Singaporeans are modifying conventional methods of food production so as to heighten productivity and remain competitive.

DJ Engineering, a local private engineering company, has tweaked the concept of vertical farming – which has taken off in Europe and Japan – for use in Singapore.

Vertical farming sees plants growing skywards in high-rise farms, which significantly reduces the need for large amounts of land – a plus in land-scarce Singapore.

While the concept of vertical farming isn’t new, DJ Engineering’s collaboration with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority has resulted in a successful prototype – the first in the world – that caters to growing tropical green leafy vegetables such as xiao bai cai, cai xin, and kai lan.

The six metre-tall device uses multi-layer troughs which rotate around an aluminium frame, providing the plants with uniform amounts of sunlight.

A patent-pending water-pulley system, which uses rainwater collected in overhead reservoirs, powers these rotations.

Higher productivity

According to the company, given the same land area, the vertical farming system is able to produce at least five times more vegetables than conventional soil-based farms.

But the pros don’t stop there. Jack Ng, owner, founder, and managing director of DJ Engineering, said that the vertically-farmed vegetables would be competitively priced to land-farmed ones, since the device allows for higher productivity and low operational costs.

‘Manpower and other operational costs of the system can be further lowered since many of the farm processes can be automated, with minimal human intervention,’ said Mr Ng, adding that each tower costs only 14 cents a day to operate.

While companies like DJ Engineering are teaming up with government agencies to experiment with new technology, others are partnering educational institutions to do the same.

Family-run Jurong Frog Farm (JFF) is currently in talks with a partner to develop new ways to manage the farm’s frog waste.

Said Chelsea Wan of JFF: ‘We are looking to incorporate new waste management technology at our farm. The idea is to convert and process frog waste to become frog and fish feed.’

The innovative technology will not only cut costs, but also help to manage the farm’s waste better.

While DJ Engineering and JFF work towards developing state-of-the-art farming technologies, other farms are showing that even the smallest forms of innovation can help to streamline processes and heighten productivity.

Farm 85 Trading is a soil-based vegetable farm in Lim Chu Kang. Each day, it produces more than 15 varieties of green leafy vegetables, such as kai lan, pak choy, and kang kong.

Even though Farm 85 Trading is not engaged in projects involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development, its director, Tan Koon Hua, has taken steps to heighten the farm’s technology in smaller – but equally tangible – ways.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Tan stressed how important it is for soil-based vegetable farms to maximise the land it has to grow its crops in the most cost-efficient manner.

To utilise scarce land space, seeds must be sown carefully with sufficient amounts of distance between each plant, to allow for unfettered growth and hassle-free harvesting.

The secret to Farm 85 Trading’s immaculate rows of plants boils down to the way seeds are sown.

To ensure that seeds are placed in optimal positions in each planter tray, Mr Tan built – from hand and from scratch – a contraption that allows seeds to be distributed evenly and error-free each time.

A planter tray is slipped under a hollow wooden block, which has a plastic top with neat rows of holes drilled into its surface. Each hole is just big enough for a single seed to slip through, into the planter tray below, thus allowing for an efficient and fool-proof method of seed-sowing each time.

The seemingly rudimentary wooden block saves farmers time not just during seed-sowing, but also during harvesting, since they are able to maximise the farm’s chances of growing well-spaced and healthy crops.

‘It’s not that we don’t want to move into more high-tech machines to increase our productivity … But it is difficult to calculate one’s return on investment when the path ahead is uncertain,’ said Mr Tan, adding that the wooden block cost next to nothing to make, requiring only the capital of one’s imagination.

Challenges ahead

Mr Ng of DJ Engineering also acknowledged that ‘high initial investment cost may be a challenge for existing farmers’, adding that ‘some form of financial assistance would be helpful to kick start the adoption of (new methods such as) vertical farming by traditional farmers’.

For Ms Wan, much of JFF’s uncertainty stems from not knowing whether the farm’s lease will be renewed.

‘The lease for our farm land is given for a 20-year period. Right now, we’re left with only three years on that lease, and there is no telling whether or not it will be renewed … That makes it very hard to confidently invest in more expensive machinery,’ she said.

Nevertheless, Ms Wan, Mr Tan, and Mr Ng are in agreement that the agricultural industry’s search for innovative ideas to heighten productivity stems from the belief that food security in Singapore cannot be ignored.

‘In the midst of growing climatic changes and rising food prices, ensuring food supply resilience is important to nations,’ said Mr Ng.

As co-members of the Kranji Countryside Association, of which Ivy Singh-Lim is president, both Ms Wan and Mr Tan agree that Singapore’s dependency on imports is unsustainable, especially in the event of a food crisis and inflationary prices.

Thus the push for higher productivity and sustainable farming practices.

‘After everything is said and done, there might come a time where we cannot import the food we need, even if we have the money to pay for it,’ said Mrs Singh-Lim, stressing that ‘we have to grow our own food’.

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