From local farms to the table

From lettuce to lobsters, home-grown producers are eyeing a bigger harvest for local consumption while fending off challenges posed by the pandemic

Mr Wong Jing Kai, partner of Ah Hua Kelong, with a lobster that the company rears along with pearl garoupa, seabass, snapper and pomfret at its floating farm off Pulau Ubin and a kelong off Sembawang. Barramundi at the Kuhlbarra fish farm off Pulau S
Chief executive officer Peter Barber at ComCrop's greenhouse on the rooftop of a JTC building in Woodlands.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

When countries closed their borders earlier this year as the Covid-19 pandemic spread, food security became a very real issue for Singapore.

Fortunately, the import channels stayed open and there was no food shortage, but prices crept up.

The Government has set a "30 by 30" goal to produce 30 per cent of the country's nutritional needs locally by 2030 - the figure now stands at less than 10 per cent. The aim is to boost the production of vegetables and protein sources.

But the pandemic has caused disruptions and created setbacks for many local food producers, with business plummeting overnight after restaurants and hotels closed during the two-month circuit breaker. They also had to deal with bad debts when some restaurants folded.

Three major food producers here share their experiences and their plans to meet the "30 by 30" target.

ComCrop

Affordable, pesticide-free veggies in Singapore's only hydroponics greenhouse

When the Malaysian border shut and panicked customers rushed to the stores, hydroponics farm ComCrop received frantic calls from the supermarkets.

Chief executive officer Peter Barber recalls: "So we pre-harvested everything. The vegetables normally take six weeks from seed to harvest, but we were harvesting what was one to two weeks old just so we could give them everything we had.

"That meant we had nothing left and had to struggle through two months without income. We had rental rebates from our JTC landlord, but still had to pay salaries.

"Covid-19 made people understand how important local production and food security are. You can store rice and freeze meat, but vegetables have to be fresh."

In 2012, ComCrop was the pioneer in rooftop farming when it started in *Scape in Orchard Road, which is now closed for redevelopment. It opened another farm in Woodlands three years ago with Singapore's only hydroponics greenhouse on the rooftop of a JTC building.

The efficient farming method uses sunlight in a controlled environment. No pesticide is used. The greens are seeded in small cubes made with biodegradable waste and grown in water that is continuously recycled, which Mr Barber says is 90 per cent more efficient than soil-based farming where the water runs off into the ground.

A computer monitors the water quality and PH and nutrient levels, and adds liquid fertiliser from a tank.

ComCrop sells its vegetables and herbs at FairPrice supermarkets and on Redmart at no more than $3 a pack.

Mr Barber says: "We don't have food security unless we have affordable food. Our goal is to have prices on a par with Malaysia's. Singaporeans want to support local produce, but we can't expect them to pay double for it. But if we have a similar price point and ours has no pesticide and is grown locally, they'll buy."

The company will set up another greenhouse at the Woodlands farm next year with more advanced technology for growing Asian vegetables like caixin. That will add another 2,000 sq m to the current 800 sq m space and boost output from 20 to 200 tonnes a year, says Mr Barber, who is also doing research on crops like rosemary and different lettuce varieties.

But he feels the "30 by 30" plan is not ambitious enough.

"You are only asking everyone to produce three times more in 10 years. I took over the company three years ago and we're already doing 20 times more volume. A year from now, we will be doing another 10 times as much," he says.

"If all the producers in Singapore can do this, we can exceed the '30 by 30' goal, but it has to be done affordably. I believe we can get there and not just for vegetables. There are also exciting things happening in fish and egg production."

Kuhlbarra

Sustainable barramundi direct to homes

Mr Wong Jing Kai, partner of Ah Hua Kelong, with a lobster that the company rears along with pearl garoupa, seabass, snapper and pomfret at its floating farm off Pulau Ubin and a kelong off Sembawang. Barramundi at the Kuhlbarra fish farm off Pulau S
Barramundi at the Kuhlbarra fish farm off Pulau Semakau. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Barramundi Asia, which owns the Kuhlbarra fish farm, saw more than half of its sales disappear during the circuit breaker. It had depended heavily on sales to hotels such as Marina Bay Sands and Grand Hyatt, as well as restaurants like Labyrinth, Candlenut and Naked Finn.

To stay afloat, it turned to home deliveries of its fresh barramundi sold mainly through its online store.

The product also retails at most Cold Storage stores, Huber's Butchery, The Fishwives and online grocery store Redmart.

Online sales spiked during the bouts of panic buying sparked by the move to Dorscon orange in February and when Malaysia imposed its movement control order the following month.

Since September, the company has been selling its fresh fish maw online, previously sold only to hotels and Chinese restaurants like the TungLok Group. It also launched cooked products like teriyaki barramundi and stock made with fish bones.

Overall sales have since picked up about 10 per cent from its lowest point, says chief commercial officer Charis Chua. But direct consumer sales continue to make up half of the business as sales from hotels and restaurants remain slow. Before the pandemic, direct consumer sales was 40 per cent.

Another revenue stream that was hit was the exports - to the United States, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia. The market, which Kuhlbarra has built up in the past three years, is only just reopening.

Kuhlbarra, which farms only barramundi for economies of scale and because it finds the fish more sustainable than other varieties, has three farms in the open sea south of Singapore.

"The water temperature there is optimal for barramundi," says Ms Chua. "And the strong currents in the deep sea mean waste doesn't collect at the bottom. The fish also have to swim harder, so the meat gets firmer."

The farms now span 19.5ha, compared with just 7.5ha when Barramundi Asia started in 2008.

The annual harvest has also grown to 700 tonnes, compared with 400 tonnes three years ago.

With production growing and demand sinking during Covid-19, a surplus surfaced.

"We had to think of new ways to fully utilise the fish and be very nimble," Ms Chua says.

One method is freezing the fish but only for export. A big customer is Sun Basket in the US, which sells home delivery meals.

Ms Chua says the biggest challenge is keeping prices competitive with those of imports from Malaysia and Indonesia as production cost is high.

"We farm our barramundi ethically and sustainably without compromising on quality. We are the only farm in Singapore with an in-house veterinarian science team that monitors the health of our fish daily."

On the "30 by 30" goal, she reveals that Barramundi Asia plans to farm more than 5,000 tonnes of fish locally by 2030 - equivalent to the total volume currently produced here.

The company has another farm in Australia and is planning one in Brunei.

"Assuming that fish consumption in Singapore plateaus at around 90,000 tonnes, 5,000 tonnes of barramundi will be equivalent to 6 per cent of the total consumption here," she adds.

Ah Hua Kelong

Reeling in more with technology

Mr Wong Jing Kai, partner of Ah Hua Kelong, with a lobster that the company rears along with pearl garoupa, seabass, snapper and pomfret at its floating farm off Pulau Ubin and a kelong off Sembawang. Barramundi at the Kuhlbarra fish farm off Pulau S
Mr Wong Jing Kai, partner of Ah Hua Kelong, with a lobster that the company rears along with pearl garoupa, seabass, snapper and pomfret at its floating farm off Pulau Ubin and a kelong off Sembawang. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The supplier of seafood to restaurants such as Labyrinth, Humpback and Salted & Hung, as well as to the Swissotel and Conrad hotels, saw that side of its business plunge by 90 per cent because of Covid-19.

Some restaurants that closed down also refused to pay for stock delivered before the circuit breaker. "Our bad debts came up to more than $60,000 - a huge blow for a small company like ours," says the farm's partner Wong Jing Kai.

He started the Ah Hua Kelong brand 61/2 years ago with Mr Teh Aik Hua, who has owned the farm for more than 15 years.

The company runs a floating farm off Pulau Ubin and a kelong off Sembawang, each taking up 0.5ha. They rear pearl garoupa, seabass, snapper, pomfret and lobster, and also sell wild-caught mussels, clams and flower crab.

Mr Wong says: "Covid-19 caught us with our pants down, and we scrambled to stay relevant and pivot. We suddenly saw many competitors for home delivery, which made us look at marketing our products differently."

For instance, it organised a home cooking competition where consumers came up with recipes using its seafood. The top three entries won vouchers.

Ah Hua also runs seafood restaurant Scaled in Lavender, which offered home delivery for the first time during the circuit breaker.

When phase two kicked in, home delivery sales plummeted by about 70 per cent, Mr Wong says. This was offset by a 15 per cent jump in demand from restaurants that reopened as well as new eateries such as Laut and Avenue 87 that are dedicated to using local produce.

Mr Wong is tapping technology to increase productivity, by installing solar panels on the farm's roof and using a water jet machine to remove barnacles instead of doing it manually.

His constant challenge, he says, is educating customers on why local produce is priced slightly higher than those from neighbouring countries (higher costs is the reason) and why they should support local producers.

He says of the "30 by 30" target: "While it is important Singapore does it for food security, production is not the only issue. We need to look into demand as well.

"We will continue to reach out to households and chefs and also use Scaled to highlight why local produce tastes just as good as, if not better than, imports."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2020, with the headline 'From local farms to the table'. Print Edition | Subscribe