NParks plans to help nurseries produce new orchid varieties, revitalise ailing industry

The hardy orchid may have taken a beating of late, with exports out of Singapore falling by close to half in the past decade.

But the National Parks Board (NParks), which took over the management of orchid nurseries from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority on Jan 1, has grand plans to help the national flower blossom again. It plans to offer its expertise to nurseries and help them produce new varieties of orchids.

"The National Orchid Garden is happy to work with the industry to produce new hybrids that will meet the needs of the export market and Singapore home owners," said Mr Chong Whye Keet, NParks' director for industry and the Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology, adding that some nurseries have been exporting the same variety for the past few years.

Details are still being worked out, but this collaboration, which would be the first between the two sides, could see nurseries working with horticulturalists and scientists from the Singapore Botanic Gardens' National Orchid Garden.

The Botanic Gardens has registered 630 orchid hybrids since 1932, including new strains named after and gifted to heads of state and other VIPs, akin to China's "panda diplomacy", where Beijing loans its giant pandas to other countries. This makes the Botanic Gardens one of the world's most prolific places in the breeding of new orchid hybrids.

The collaboration offer is one of the measures NParks plans to roll out to revitalise an industry that has seen the value of Singapore's orchid exports fall 45 per cent - from US$16.1 million in 2007 to US$8.9 million (S$11.7 million) in 2016, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database.

Formerly the world's third-largest orchid exporter, the Republic fell to fourth place in 2016 after it was overtaken by Taiwan.

The collaboration offer also spells a more optimistic future for the trade, after an announcement last week left some of the 21 growers here wondering where the industry was headed.

Last Wednesday, NParks said that to promote more efficient use of land, orchid nurseries that are now dispersed in various locations will have to move to designated areas in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah.

They will be allocated about 20ha of land in these new areas - about half the area being occupied by orchid growers now.

This means nurseries operating outside the designated areas will have to shut when their current leases end, though NParks said it is looking into allocating more land to meet the needs of the industry later.

But while noting the space constraints in land-scarce Singapore, Mr Chong said NParks was by no means giving up on the industry.

In fact, it remains a matter of national pride, he said. "The goal in the short term is to stabilise the export levels. The next phase is to grow it, and go back to No. 3 or higher."

Besides promoting the production of higher-value orchids, NParks is also encouraging nurseries to use technology to shorten growing cycles or increase productivity. This includes the use of greenhouses, which control factors such as temperature and humidity, and multi-layered growing decks.

"We will trial these internally in NParks, and share the formula on how to do it," said Mr Chong. "We hope (the nurseries) say 'yes'."

With orchid nurseries now part of the landscape sector, growers are eligible for the Landscape Productivity Grant, which co-funds investments in machinery and technology by up to $300,000.

But Dr John Elliot, vice-president of the Orchid Society of South East Asia, said there could still be capital losses for several growers. Besides moving costs, they would also have to fork out capital investment for equipment. And if they are steeped in traditional methods of growing orchids, it would involve a new system they are unfamiliar with. "It's a big disruption of the business. I can understand their hesitation," he said.

Another step in the journey to lifting the industry is to increase awareness and desirability of the orchid plant. With local demand for orchids restricted mainly to hotels and offices, Mr Chong wondered: "We give roses during Valentine's Day. Why not orchids?"