Singapore's impossible farms

With technology and determination, farmers have found a way to harvest some unusual plants and animals which wouldn't normally thrive in the tropics. Vanessa Liu finds out how they succeeded.

Mr Ng Sze Kiat (above) with some of the mushrooms he grows at home. These include the lingzhi mushroom, a medicinal species thought impossible to grow locally. Mr Ng has grown thousands of mushrooms of at least a dozen varieties.
Mr Ng Sze Kiat (above) with some of the mushrooms he grows at home. These include the lingzhi mushroom, a medicinal species thought impossible to grow locally. Mr Ng has grown thousands of mushrooms of at least a dozen varieties. ST PHOTOS: CHONG JUN LIANG
Mr Ng Sze Kiat with some of the mushrooms he grows at home. These include the lingzhi mushroom (above), a medicinal species thought impossible to grow locally. Mr Ng has grown thousands of mushrooms of at least a dozen varieties.
Mr Ng Sze Kiat with some of the mushrooms he grows at home. These include the lingzhi mushroom (above), a medicinal species thought impossible to grow locally. Mr Ng has grown thousands of mushrooms of at least a dozen varieties. ST PHOTOS: CHONG JUN LIANG
Crab Lovers Farm co-founder Sam Chua with the crucifix swimming crab, so called for the cross-shaped marking on its shell. The farm hopes to rear the rare crustacean in numbers with the help of technology.
Crab Lovers Farm co-founder Sam Chua with the crucifix swimming crab, so called for the cross-shaped marking on its shell. The farm hopes to rear the rare crustacean in numbers with the help of technology.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Wasabina mustard greens being harvested at the container farm in Jalan Penjara last month, under a partnership between local farm Edible Garden City and Japanese agritech firm Farmship
Wasabina mustard greens being harvested at the container farm in Jalan Penjara last month, under a partnership between local farm Edible Garden City and Japanese agritech firm Farmship. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Home-grower's vision mushrooms

It was in an office toilet of an industrial building that Mr Ng Sze Kiat, 39, succeeded in growing his first batch of oyster mushrooms in Singapore six years ago.

"With duct tape and plastic sheets, I made a lab out of the toilet," said Mr Ng, who grew the mushrooms using a mixture of sawdust and coffee grounds as a soil base.

Since then, the home-grower has grown thousands of mushrooms of at least a dozen varieties, including lingzhi mushrooms and cordyceps - medicinal species that were thought impossible to grow in the local climate.

Both species - which are usually imported from China - are believed to have a range of health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory properties. They are often sold at a premium at traditional medicinal halls.

But not many people are aware that certain species of the fungi can be found in the wild here.

"There's a huge shroud of mystery around growing mushrooms in Singapore," Mr Ng said, adding that it was "not rocket science".

That said, mushroom growing is no child's play either. In order to cultivate mycelium - or fungal tissue - sterile conditions are necessary, said Mr Ng. To this end, he set up a "clean lab" in one of the rooms in his Bukit Timah home, where he has a laminar flow hood installed.

The device filters out contaminants and generates clean air, creating an environment "clean enough to do surgery in", he quipped.

There, he cultivates tissue samples taken from live mushrooms in petri dishes containing agar.

 
 
 

The tissue is then transferred into liquid cultures where it grows and multiplies, and then into a mixture of grains such as millet, which it will feed on and colonise within a span of two to three weeks.

Lastly, the mycelium is placed into bags of sawdust where it develops its fruit bodies - what we familiarly call mushrooms.

Mushrooms require very specific conditions to grow: the right amount of light, sufficient airflow and a high relative humidity.

To facilitate this, Mr Ng set up a fruiting chamber in his yard - a three-tiered shelf complete with LED lights to provide the right amount of light, a humidifier, a fan to generate airflow, and plastic sheets to keep moisture in.

A humidistat fixed to the humidifier regulates the amount of moisture inside the chamber.

It took years of trial and error before Mr Ng figured out the optimal growth conditions for the different types of mushrooms, and now he wants to share this knowledge.

"The lingzhi mushroom is so beautiful, and the structure is so alien-like," he mused.

"It struck me that this thing is part of nature. Are we the alienated ones because we've been so disconnected with nature?"

Mr Ng now helps re-acquaint urbanites with nature via workshops he conducts at his home under his own brand, Bewilder, where he teaches them how to create their own mushroom grow kits.

He hopes that his workshops can be a platform for people from different walks of life to come together and generate new ideas.

"I wish to create a more inclusive world that brings the interconnectivity of all things to the fore - something that the mycelium symbolises," he said.

Mr Ng's vision is to see his grow kits and live mushrooms on display for sale in local medicinal halls some day, so that more people will get to know about the mushroom growing culture.

"This is my life - I eat and breathe mushrooms.

"I feel that if you want to create this kind of change in this world, you kind of have to be like that - you need to be a bit crazy."


Plans to rear rare crab by recreating its habitat

Every once in a while, a rare gem of a crustacean species is hauled up with hundreds of flower crabs from the waters near Batam.

The crucifix swimming crab, named for the distinct cross-shaped marking on the centre of its shell, can fetch up to five times the price of a common flower crab in overseas markets.

Spotted only once in a blue moon, these elusive creatures are usually found in clean, deep seawater regions, reaching depths of 20m, near countries such as Indonesia and Australia.



ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Now, Crab Lovers Farm has plans to breed the crustaceans in numbers here, by replicating the conditions of their deep seawater habitats. The farm rears crabs in individual boxes stacked on shelves.

To do this, it uses a recirculation aquaculture system, which wields a range of technology to get rid of impurities like waste material and bacteria.

Waste water is channelled from the crabs' individual boxes into a tank, where mechanical filters such as granite rocks, sponges and sand sieve out solid waste.

Next, waste particles that are small enough to escape the filters are taken out using a process known as protein skimming.

Protein skimmers work by generating a large number of air bubbles in the water. The bubbles stick to waste particles and take them up to the surface where they can be easily removed.

Probiotics - live "good" bacteria - are also released into the water to metabolise nitrates in the waste.

Lastly, harmful bacteria is removed using ultraviolet light.

Currently, the farm uses the system to purge its mud crabs of impurities that might be present in the habitats they had come from, such as polluted mangrove swamps, said the farm's co-founder, Mr Sam Chua.

The crucifix swimming crabs are housed with some 600 crabs of other species in locker-like stacks that Mr Chua affectionately calls a "crab condo". Each crab lives in a separate unit. This is necessary as they are territorial, said Mr Chua.

"If you put them together, they will fight and eat one another, and the mortality rate is very high. So we have to isolate them like in a prison - one cell, one crab."

The farm plans to set up a hatchery for the crucifix swimming crabs so that they can mate, spawn, and multiply - but increasing the amount of broodstock will take time.

It is a risky business, as crucifix swimming crabs usually have a survival rate of less than 1 per cent in the wild, said Mr Chua.

Still, he feels that it is worth a shot. "We know that stocks in the wild are depleting alarmingly fast. We hope to breed 2,000 of these crabs per month in a year's time."

Vanessa Liu


Unusual greens thrive at container farm

Red leaf lettuce, wasabina mustard greens and Karashina leaves - these speciality baby greens typically grow on the other side of the globe, in the fields of the Japanese countryside.

Since August last year, they have found a way to flourish here despite the relentless heat of Singapore's tropical climate - finding refuge in a 20 ft container in Queenstown.


ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

It feels like springtime in Japan inside the climate-controlled container farm, where the temperature is kept at 23 deg C to 25 deg C and relative humidity is 65 per cent.

Rows of baby wasabina mustard greens are grown on two four-tiered racks in hydroponic nutrient solutions. The vegetables have a spicy taste that is reminiscent of wasabi, or Japanese horseradish.

Local farm Edible Garden City has teamed up with Japanese agritech firm Farmship to test-bed the growth of rare vegetables like these here using an arsenal of tools, including sensor technology and data monitoring systems.

Sensors keep check on conditions such as the carbon dioxide level inside the container, and an alarm alerts staff when, for instance, there are too many people inside the container farm and the carbon dioxide level exceeds the optimal range.

The levels of acidity and electrical conductivity of the nutrient solutions are also kept at preset quantities with the help of sensor technology. Staff can also track the growth of the vegetables in real time using Web cameras installed inside the container.

A cloud control system also allows Farmship to adjust controls remotely from its headquarters in Shizuoka, Japan.

The partnership, which is supported by the Shizuoka prefecture government, sees Farmship lending its expertise and technology to make the container farm possible.

Its co-founder Mizuki Yasuda said the company had long searched for opportunities for expansion in South-east Asia, and Singapore seemed a good fit.

Mr Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Garden City, said the exchange of expertise with an established farming industry like Japan's could help develop the local farm scene and contribute to the Republic's goal of growing enough food locally to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030.

The farm is in discussions with local Japanese restaurants, such as Noka and Caffe B, to sell the speciality produce directly to them.

At full capacity, the farm can produce an average of 4kg of baby wasabina mustard greens each week. The farm also plans to grow mature green varieties such as green komatsuna and red komatsuna in the near future to possibly supply restaurants here.

Vanessa Liu

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2020, with the headline 'S'pore's impossible farms'. Subscribe