Bloom or gloom? Orchid farm owner weighs prospects

Growing up around orchids did not mean an instant affinity for the blooms for Woon Leng Nursery owner Teo Woon Cheng, 46.

Fresh from a three-year stint as operations manager in a logistics company, Mr Teo - who "didn't even know about pollination" back then - had to learn the trade from scratch when he joined in 2002.

"I wasn't involved much in the family business when I was young. I just helped to pack stuff."

Sixteen years later, he has proven himself to be more than qualified to run it.

In that time, he has seen the farm's staff mushroom from just two to the 40 workers it has today.

Despite his company's growth, Mr Teo may soon have to say goodbye to the farm in Jalan Lekar estate in Sungei Tengah when its lease ends in November next year.

The 43-year-old farm is one of 21 nurseries drawn into the National Parks Board's (NParks) plans to relocate the island's orchid nurseries to designated areas in about 20ha of land in Sungei Tengah and Lim Chu Kang.

The farm's first extension appeal was rejected last December. Mr Teo appealed again last month, but has yet to hear from NParks.

Although he hopes to keep the shutters up, a sluggish orchid market, coupled with burgeoning building costs, has made him think twice about fighting for a slice of the coveted 20ha.

"If you invest $3 million to set up operations, given a 10-year lease, you have to make a $300,000 net profit every year. I don't think any orchid farm can make that kind of money… The industry is not that lucrative," said Mr Teo.

He has invested $3 million in six technology-friendly greenhouses since 2009. But they will have to be torn down and rebuilt if the nursery relocates. "We did not build overnight; it was done over 10 years. (Regarding) the decision to move - we have to seriously consider that the return of investment may not justify having to set up all over again," Mr Teo said.

Yet another problem for the 2.5ha farm - which is about the size of 31/2 football fields - is having to pack up and move into a new place in 17 months.

"That's just an empty piece of land - we need to submit plans to be approved by government agencies; we need to get an architect to draw up plans; we need to ship in building materials… We're given too short a notice," he said.

"Shifting a nursery is not like shifting a house," said Mr Teo, who is in talks with NParks for more time to vacate the farm's current site, if he were to tender for the new land parcels in June.

Results will be announced about five months later, in November.

For now, Mr Teo is looking into robotics and grants to defray costs.

"It's a family business which I run together with my father and my wife. It's been around since 1975... We will try all means to keep it going," he said.

• Additional reporting by Lee Wen-Yi