Parliament: More help given to farmers to boost productivity, manpower

The first vertical farm in Singapore, owned by Sky Greens, is on a plot of land in Lim Chu Kang the size of about five football fields.
The first vertical farm in Singapore, owned by Sky Greens, is on a plot of land in Lim Chu Kang the size of about five football fields. PHOTO: ST FILE
Mr Leon Hay, business director of Hay Dairies.
Mr Leon Hay, business director of Hay Dairies.PHOTO: ST FILE
Chelsea Wan, director of Jurong Frog Farm, with an American bullfrog.
Chelsea Wan, director of Jurong Frog Farm, with an American bullfrog.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Farmland makes up less than 1 per cent of the Republic's land area, but farmers here will now be getting some help to maximise yields from their lands.

This will be done through initiatives such as a revamped grant system which disburses funding upfront instead of on a claim basis, and by building a generation of "agri-specialists". These efforts, announced on Tuesday (March 7) by Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon during the debate on his ministry's Budget, will be guided by a new Farm Transformation Map.

The map has four prongs: maximising space, spurring innovation, building manpower capabilities and nurturing the entire farming ecosystem. These were identified by a new industry consultation panel comprising farmers and academics, formed in January 2017 by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), an agency under the National Development Ministry.

Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food, but the 200 food farms here help to buffer the nation against global supply disruptions due to factors such as climate change.

Despite their critical role, local farmers have long struggled to cope with challenges, such as the lack of local skilled labour. Buying equipment could help boost productivity with less labour, but such technology is costly.

AVA's new map aims to help farmers navigate these challenges.

 

A key focus is how farms can overcome space constraints. As Dr Koh put it: "We need to go upwards into the sky, downwards into the ocean and inwards within our buildings."

 

There are already farms doing this, he said. Fish farm Barramundi Asia, for one, is growing seabass in deep underwater net cages just off Pulau Semakau. On land, Panasonic and Sustenir are growing vegetables in climate-controlled, multi-tiered indoor spaces.

 

Innovation is also important to ensure food supplies are safeguarded in a climate of erratic weather patterns and natural phenomena that could affect crops. For example, the algae bloom in 2015 wiped out more than 500 tonnes of fish stocks in Singapore, and the oil spill in January clogged Singapore's shores after two vessels collided in Malaysia.

"We have to adapt our solutions to protect against climate change that affects yields. For instance, technologies like the closed containment aquaculture system can reduce the vulnerability of our coastal farmers' fish stocks to environmental risks," said Dr Koh. Such systems protect the fish from external environment conditions and are equipped with water treatment systems to maintain good water quality for breeding.

On improving manpower capabilities, Dr Koh said Singapore needs to build up a generation of "agri-specialists" with expertise in multiple areas. This could involve polytechnic students doing internships at local farms, or getting universities and other institutes of higher learning to collaborate with farmers on research.

On boosting the farming ecosystem, AVA will continue to promote local produce to shoppers. The authority will also be making changes to its Agriculture Productivity Fund, which co-funds investments in technology. Currently, this is done only on a reimbursement basis, which requires the farmers to foot the entire bill first before claiming from AVA later. But from April 2017, the fund will be tweaked to disburse up to 30 per cent of the approved funding quantum upfront, to facilitate the adoption of technology.

However, to the disappointment of some farmers, Dr Koh did not give updates on alternative sites for the 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang that will have to move out by the end of 2019 to make way for the Defence Ministry's new training grounds. The farmers were hopeful that more details on alternative sites would be given, as AVA had said in 2016 that the first tranche of land sales "will be launched from early 2017 due to the extensive land preparation works needed at the sites".

Those interested in learning more about local produce can visit the Kranji Countryside Farmers' Market this weekend, which will feature products grown and made in Singapore, whether quail eggs or goat's milk. The event, now in its ninth edition, will be held from noon to 6pm on Saturday (March 11), and from 10am to 4pm on Sunday (March 12), at D' Kranji Farm Resort located at 10 Neo Tiew Lane 2.