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First vertical farm to boost supply of local greens

Land-scarce Singapore has its first vertical farm on a plot of land in Lim Chu Kang the size of about five football fields.

Vegetables - Chinese cabbage, nai bai and xiao bai cai - grow on 120 towers and the harvest is sold at five NTUC FairPrice Finest outlets.

The innovation is also a boost for the country’s efforts to widen food-supply sources.

Each 9m-tall tower, made of tiers of planting troughs rotating around an aluminium frame, produces five to 10 times more vegetables than conventional methods in the same land area.

A water-pulley system, using rainwater collected in overhead reservoirs, rotates the troughs so that the plants get a uniform amount of sunlight.

A prototype of the tower was developed in 2010 by private company Sky Greens, which owns the farm, and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

The farm, which officially opened yesterday, produces 500kg of greens daily.

At FairPrice Finest, a 200g bag of xiao bai cai from Sky Greens costs $1.25 while a 250g bag of Pasar brand xiao bai cai from Indonesia costs 75 cents.

Although the local greens cost more, the supermarket chain hopes to leverage on their freshness. It takes three hours from harvest for Sky Greens produce to hit the shelves. Imported vegetables take three days to three weeks.

Sky Greens plans to have 300 towers by early next year and 2,000 by end-2014. By then, $28 million would have been spent on the project - an amount funded with the help of investors like Spring Singapore.

Interested parties, say, local farmers, can also buy the 2m-by-3m tower for $15,000.

Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan, who toured the farm yesterday, said: “We are always looking at ways to increase our sources of food supply; our vegetables are mostly imported. If we can produce some in Singapore, it can go some way to meet local demand.”

Such devices, he said, make it possible to farm in other areas, such as industrial spaces, and they will also help Singapore meet its targets for local production.

The goal is to raise local output of leafy vegetables from the current 7.2 per cent to 10 per cent.

Singaporeans ate 131,000 tonnes of leafy vegetables last year and a large proportion of it came from China, Malaysia and the United States.

The director of Sky Greens, Mr Jack Ng, 49, said the farm will soon grow other produce such as Shanghai greens, lettuce and kailan. He added that farmers from the US and China have expressed interest to buy the towers.

“But we want to cater to the local market first. We need to ramp up volume. We will see what happens after we meet FairPrice’s supply demands,” he said, adding that other chains like Cold Storage have also contacted him.

NTUC FairPrice’s managing director of group purchasing, merchandising and international trading, Mr Tng Ah Yiam, said some of its outlets started selling Sky Greens vegetables in April.

“Response has been very good. Store managers call to ask for more,” he added, noting that the cooperative also wants to support local farms. The plan is to roll out the produce to more outlets when there is enough supply.

Consumer Rosalind Tan, 72, is not fazed by the higher cost. “The prices are still reasonable and the vegetables are very fresh and very crispy,” she said. “Sometimes, with imported food, you don’t know what happens at farms there.”

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