High-tech farmers cropping up

Sustenir Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Swan (top) and Martin Lavoo. Mr Swan (left) and Mr Lavoo showing off the produce from their high-tech vegetable farm in Admiralty. The farm maximises efficiency by growing crops in rows of vertically-stacked
Mr Swan (left) and Mr Lavoo showing off the produce from their high-tech vegetable farm in Admiralty. The farm maximises efficiency by growing crops in rows of vertically-stacked racks. The vegetables absorb light from LEDs, and nutrients are fed to them through tubes. Vegetables such as kale and arugula are grown at the farm.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Sustenir Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Swan (top) and Martin Lavoo. Mr Swan (left) and Mr Lavoo showing off the produce from their high-tech vegetable farm in Admiralty. The farm maximises efficiency by growing crops in rows of vertically-stacked
Sustenir Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Swan (left) and Martin Lavoo.

Local farmers using high-yield methods to ramp up Singapore's food production capabilities

A new breed of farmer is appearing in Singapore.

They are using high-tech and high-yield methods to transform their work from back-breaking labour into lucrative businesses.

From running indoor vertical vegetable farms that grow crops in stacked layers, to raising fitter fish that are robust against aquatic diseases, farmers here are finding ways to overcome the limitations of traditional farming.

Sustenir Agriculture, for example, is an indoor farm which currently produces about 54 tonnes of vegetables a year - an output which its founders consider highly efficient for a 344 sq m space.

Grown in rolling racks less than 3m tall, the plants are packed tightly together, allowing for maximum light absorption. Their modular design means the racks can be moved around easily and the concept can be replicated elsewhere.

"Traditionally, when people look at vertical farms, they haven't been looking at them from an urban standpoint," said the farm's co- founder Martin Lavoo.

"Especially if they are farms of gigantic size, most of them are placed in the outskirts of the city or in relatively rural areas. We wanted to look at how we can put this in the middle of the city - say, Raffles Place - delivering straight into the heart of demand."

The farm's controlled conditions also allow them to grow imported varieties such as the Tuscan kale. "This means a lower carbon footprint - we won't have to air-freight them from the United States or Europe," said the other co-founder of Sustenir Agriculture, Mr Benjamin Swan.

Since 2014, the farm has been producing vegetables such as kale and arugula.

Sustenir is based in an industrial facility in Admiralty.

Its vegetables absorb light from LEDs and are tube-fed with nutrients while carbon dioxide comes through the air-conditioning ducts.

Before anyone can enter the area where plants are grown, they have to don a jumpsuit and take an air shower to remove dirt particles to ensure that the vegetables are not contaminated. They are grown at temperatures ranging from 14 to 22 deg C.

It takes about two weeks for the produce to grow before it is harvested - about half the time needed for outdoor farms to grow vegetables under normal conditions. It is then sold to restaurants.

While the vegetables sell for $19 per kilogram - about 10 per cent more than it would cost businesses to buy from wholesalers - both Mr Swan and Mr Lavoo say the quality is worth the price.

"The usability of our product is actually much higher because ours contain less stalk than those you see in supermarkets, for instance," said Mr Swan, adding that their vegetables can stay fresh for up to two weeks as they are locally produced.

According to figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) released last year, 10,848 tonnes of leafy vegetables consumed here in 2014 were produced locally - 12 per cent of Singapore's total vegetable consumption that year. This was up from 7 per cent in 2010, meeting the AVA's long- term target of 10 per cent.

Dr Jonatan A. Lassa, a Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, who researches food and environmental security issues, said that growing crops in a controlled environment can have several advantages, including a lower carbon footprint and less water wastage.

Both Mr Swan, 35, who used to work as a regional project manager for Citibank, and Mr Lavoo, 29, a former regional sales manager, said the concept of sustainability encouraged them to set up Sustenir Agriculture.

Half of the company's 688 sq m facility is currently unused and there are plans to grow spinach and strawberries.

"The beauty of vertical farming is that the multiple is infinite," said Mr Lavoo. "We can go as many storeys up as we like. The sky is literally the limit."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'High-tech farmers cropping up'. Print Edition | Subscribe