Singaporean firm's crop towers take vertical approach to solving land, water, energy issues

High-tech vegetable farms grow up



Singapore’s small but advanced vegetable farming industry is attracting Japanese firms that are eager to invest in or adopt its technology for use in Japan.

Singapore has in recent years become a test bed for high-tech farming as the government encourages farms to explore innovative methods to overcome the chronic shortage of land and to reduce reliance on imports.

One of the success stories is Sky Greens Farm, which has developed Singapore’s first vertical farm, said to be one of a kind.

The farm grows vegetables vertically in towers several meters high by means of a high-tech system that uses the movement of irrigation water to slowly rotate the plants, grown in trays of earth, so they get the right doses of sunlight and water.

The system, invented by the farm’s founder, is patented and the farm has been approached by farmers from many parts of the world.

Singapore imports more than 90 percent of its food and has only a tiny farming industry that occupies about 200 hectares, less than 1 percent of its land area of 71,000 hectares.

The farms focus on producing leafy vegetables, fish and eggs for local consumption.

“We can make better use of our land by consolidating activities that require large amounts of land, such as military training, golf courses and farming, to release more land for other uses,” according to a document on future land use plan released by the government last year.

Hence vertical farming makes sense for Singapore, where the majority of people live in high-rise apartments.

Locally grown vegetables account for about 8 percent of the vegetables consumed in the city state, with the rest imported from neighbors like Malaysia and China.

“Every step of farming is controlled. It’s run like a factory floor,” said Ong Geok Chwee, chief operating officer of Sky Urban Solutions Holding Ltd., which operates the farm.

“The output is more than 10 times that of traditional farming,” she said in an interview at the farm in northern Singapore. Due to its controlled system, the farm uses less water than traditional farming and also consumes less electricity than other high-tech indoor farming systems that use artificial lighting, she said.

Even the power to rotate the trays in each tower comes from the hydraulic forces created by the irrigation water.

And since it is enclosed in a structure like a greenhouse, it is less vulnerable to weather, which allows the farm to produce up to 12 crop cycles a year.

It has test-grown 30 types of crops successfully, including rice, and is focusing on growing as many as six crops, including Chinese cabbage and spinach, commercially to supply local supermarkets.

The 3.65-hectare farm, which started up in 2012, is one-third completed and produces a ton of vegetables a day. It is expected to be finished next year and its output could reach 6 tons a day.

“This farm is more like a base for our model R&D work, and proves our concept. It can be used as a model in countries where they want to do it on a bigger scale,” Ong said. “We are not limited to Singapore because we see ourselves as a solution provider, not so much as a farmer.”

She said the company’s vertical farming system is appealing to farmers overseas who would like to overcome the lack of arable land, especially around urban areas, boost productivity, overcome harsh weather or shortages of water and workers, and transform farming into a more attractive job to the young.

“We do have a number of potential partners we are talking to from Japan. They have actually told us they are interested, so now we are exploring more in depth, on scale, and how to do it and where,” she said. “They are urban farmers. Some of them, they already using indoor LED lights, indoor farms; so they are talking to us and looking at improving it.”

“Our plan is looking at regional expansion (to provide) our urban farming solution regionally,” she said.

Aside from Japan, China, Australia and countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia are also keen on the technology.

Singapore’s push for high-tech farming has motivated at least one Japanese firm to set up an indoor farm. Last month Panasonic Factory Solutions Asia Pacific, a subsidiary of Panasonic Corp., started up an indoor vegetable farm in Singapore.

Panasonic converted part of factory previously used in factory automation into an indoor farm that maintains highly controlled indoor conditions. Its LED lighting is used to grow Japanese vegetables that normally cannot survive Singapore’s tropical climate and must be flown in from Japan.

The company aims to expand production to supply 5 percent of Singapore’s leafy vegetable production by 2017.

“From a business perspective, we foresee agriculture to be a potential growth portfolio. Panasonic hopes our indoor vegetable farm can contribute effectively to the nation’s food self-sufficiency levels,” said Hideki Baba, managing director of Panasonic Factory Solutions Asia Pacific.

“Indoor farms, such as Panasonic Factory Solutions, could optimize the use of the land and allow for more consistent crop production,” a representative of Singapore’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said, adding, “local production is an important secondary strategy in ensuring Singapore’s food security.”