Singapore, Part 2: Thoughts of a Greenhouse Grower

One of the people I met in Singapore was Jeremy Ng, a pianist who makes a living sharing his music online. Jeremy and I both read the fantastic blog StartGainingMomentum, which is how we were introduced. When I met Jeremy, he mentioned his friend, Brent Tan, who runs a greenhouse in Lim Chu Kang.

A few weeks later Brent and I had lunch together near Orchard Road. I learned about his background and the greenhouse. It was my first encounter with a grower in Lim Chu Kang, which before had seemed anonymous and mysterious to me. Unfortunately, the greenhouse is not open to visitors, but Brent agreed to answer a few questions about the greenhouse and Singaporean agriculture in general. Here are his thoughts:

After finishing your degree in environmental biology, what made you decide to help set up a greenhouse in Lim Chu Kang?

My degree exposed me to various aspects of nature, including many different plants and animals. While my main interests would be in animals, plants are of interest to me as well. Also, I was not at all interested in a fully desk-bound kind of job, so when I saw there was an opportunity to be an urban farmer in Lim Chu Kang, I seized the opportunity and applied for the job in an instant. I have to say that the simple, rustic nature of the job also appealed to me.

Why is it a good idea for Singapore to produce more food?

I think it’s born out of the idea of being self-sufficient. The same can be said about water too, with more reservoirs/desalination plants set up. The government never wants to be completely reliant on exports if they can help it. I think over here, the industry really wants to speed up the process, and things like freshness are maybe even overlooked to some extent.

Your company, Sumitomo Chemical Asia, is a large Japanese chemical company. Why have they decided to start a greenhouse in Singapore? What do they see in it?

There are already many large greenhouses operating in Japan. I believe my company is looking into whether they could bring these technologies over to Singapore and feasibly grow large amounts of local, popular Chinese vegetables, along with some Japanese varieties. Also, since my company has already been in the fertilizer/pesticide industry for a long time, we believe that we can use our knowledge and expertise in this area to greatly complement the growing process. Land scarcity and food security are two issues my company has considered in the process of setting up the greenhouse as well.

It seems as though most of the new generation of farmers in Singapore have no practical experience with agriculture. What was it like to start running a greenhouse, and did you run into any unexpected hurdles?

Haha well, of course at the beginning I found it quite difficult. Within the greenhouse, sometimes temperatures can reach up to 44 degrees Celsius. It took some time for me to get acclimatized to that. I guess other difficulties include having to react quickly to problems that arise. This job forces you to think on your feet a lot. Let’s say all of a sudden you find that the roots of the plants are rapidly browning. What would you check for? How would you rectify the problem? These are things that demand lightning quick reactions, because browning roots can lead to dead plants in a matter of days. Being constantly on your toes due to the unpredictability of planting/growth problems makes the job challenging, but also fun and exciting in a way.

What crops do you grow?

My company currently has two growing sites, one in Sembawang and one in Lim Chu Kang. At Lim Chu Kang, we have a few varieties of Japanese lettuce, while over at Sembawang we focus more on popular Chinese greens such as Kangkong and Xiao Bai Cai.

What is your business model? Who are your customers?

Because the project is still in the pilot phase, we have not actually sold our produce to any consumers, but we have done some form of market testing. In the near future, we hope to probably sell the more expensive Japanese varieties to high-end restaurants and hotels, and the Chinese varieties to local, commercial grocers.

What technology do you use to grow your crops?

A pretty traditional hydroponics method is used to grow the crops, whereby the roots of the plants are constantly submerged in a nutrient solution.

Resource usage is crucial. What are the main inputs and outputs of your greenhouse?

Large amounts of water are required to keep the system up and running. Every 2 to 3 weeks the water in the system needs to be replaced, and this will require thousands of litres of freshwater. Also, the nutrient solution is kept at a cool 25 degrees Celsius so that the plant roots do not die off or decompose. The cooling system that chills the nutrient solution is probably the largest consumer of electricity within the greenhouse.

Note from Alex: Before coming here, I thought the Singaporean climate would be ideal – lots of sun and lots of rain; what more could one want? It’s actually quite challenging, because there is too much sun and too much rain. Not to mention the pests.

Who are your main competitors?

Panasonic also has a few greenhouses set up, along with a few other local companies (pardon me for not being able to name any at the moment haha). I believe some of the local ones have already polished up their growing methods to the point where they are able to consistently supply local grocers.

What do you see as the next crucial steps – technical, regulatory, or other – required to take Singaporean urban agriculture to the next level?

I guess it’s gotta start from the government freeing up and designating more land space for agricultural use, and also relying less on imported products. More money could be poured into research too. Agriculture is certainly also not too popular among young people nowadays, so some effort needs to be put in to change the perceptions of the younger generations, perhaps showing them that food scarcity is a very real and apparent threat.

The AVA is promoting local produce, yet it seems like there isn’t enough land to grow everything locally – even if that may not be the goal. How do you see the future of Singaporean agriculture?

I would say that urban agriculture is still a rather new thing in Singapore, and it would probably take about another 5 to 10 years for this thing to properly take flight and expand into something substantial. As the local population size increases gradually, there could be greater emphasis placed on local food production. I believe this could fuel the urban agriculture market in Singapore. Startup costs are high and that explains why there are not many who have ventured into this business in recent times. Current agricultural businesses need to shift from being overly reliant on government subsidies, to becoming independent, self-sufficient, profit-generating companies. When this happens, the industry will become more attractive to the public.

Closing thoughts

Although these answers are only from one person, Brent raises a lot of issues other Singaporeans seem to raise – promoting local food, land scarcity, and food security. For Singapore, (peri-)urban agriculture is much more a way to increase the country’s security than in other countries. Of course, that’s because it’s the only agriculture they’ve got on their soil.

Thanks, Brent!

After watching Ah Boys to Men 4, a funny film about Singapore’s National Service. From left to right: Brent, me, Jeremy.

Although few Singaporeans practice agriculture on the scale that people like Brent do, I have met plenty of people growing food in their apartments. Or at least, trying to. It’s tricky. More on that in a future article.

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