Vertical farm produces 5 times more vegetables

There is now a new way to farm vegetables in land-scarce Singapore: farm skywards.

A private engineering company, D.J. Engineering, has teamed up with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) to come up with a device that can grow at least five times as many vegetables as conventional farming methods are able to given the same land area.

The device is 6m tall with tiers of planting troughs which rotate around an aluminium frame to provide the plants with uniform sunlight.

A water-pulley system, using rainwater collected in overhead reservoirs, rotates the troughs.

Harvests - of leafy vegetables like xiao bai cai and bayam - have already been made at a prototype 1,000 sq m vertical farm set up a year ago at AVA’s Sembawang Research Centre. The farm employs 19 of these structures.

None of the vegetables is sold at supermarkets or restaurants here yet but will be at year end, if all goes as planned.

The project is budgeted to cost about $1 million, an amount borne entirely by D.J. Engineering, which set up a company, Sky Greens, to produce the vegetables commercially and market the vertical farming system.

With the turbulence in food supply and prices in recent years exposing the island state’s vulnerability, such moves should mitigate supply shortages and hoarding in the long term.

‘We cannot depend totally on imports. We are a land-scarce country and therefore we need to be able to maximise use of our land in the area of food production,’ said National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan at the launch of the prototype farm yesterday, adding that local production acts as a buffer against severe disruptions in food supply.

‘Farming leafy vegetables tends to be very land-intensive so innovative systems like this can improve the productivity of local farms,’ the minister said.

Such projects, he said, would also help the Republic meet its targets for local food production.

The target is for the local supply of leafy vegetables - produced by 37 vegetable farms here - to hit 10 per cent of local consumption in three years, from about 7 per cent currently. Local production stood at 9,800 tonnes in 2009.

Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food from suppliers from over 30 countries.

Mr Jack Ng, the owner of D.J. Engineering, said he has been sending samples of the leafy vegetables to restaurants and supermarkets. Feedback, he said, has been positive.

‘They say the vegetables are crunchier,’ he said, adding that plans are under way to start a 3.5ha vertical farm in Lim Chu Kang and to sell the structures to other farmers and individuals.

The 48-year-old, who also designs buildings, is in the process of patenting his invention. The father of two, who dropped out of school after Secondary 4, came up with the idea during the financial crunch in 2009.

‘Food prices were going up because of supply disruptions overseas, so I had the idea of growing more food here,’ he said, adding that he was also friends with some farmers who helped him to develop the idea. It took him two years.

The vertically farmed vegetables, he said, would be priced at the same levels as those grown at conventional farms due to increased productivity and low operational costs.

Operational costs include raw materials like soil and seed and electricity to pump the water driving the structures. But electricity costs will come to only $3.50 per month per structure, he said.

The owner of restaurant Da Pao in Amoy Street serving home-grown food, Ms Christina Crane, 39, said she was hooked once she tried a sample of the vegetables: ‘I looked at it and the vegetables looked really green. The taste is beautiful and it doesn’t wilt in sauce.’

Others, like vegetable farmer Wong Kok Fah, 49, are excited too. The owner of an 8ha farm in Choa Chu Kang growing cai xin and xiao bai cai said he has appealed to the Government numerous times for more land to expand.

‘We are always looking for more land, and we will definitely consider anything that can increase our productivity,’ he said, adding that his farm is operating at maximum capacity.

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