Singapore food story: Past

Singapore's high-tech farms: From yesterday's pig farms to today's vertical veggie gardens

Farming has come full circle in Singapore. From being an agrarian society and an island blanketed in farms in the 1960s, Singapore is now exploring modern options to farm efficiently. One of these is 'growing vertically', to maximise the country's land use, while bringing farming indoors to protect crops against the ravages of climate change.

In the 1960s, Singapore was an agrarian society, with farmlands blanketing the north, west and east. The country was self-sufficient in eggs, poultry meat and pork.

Despite Singapore's urbanisation in the decades since, one of the children brought up on a farm back then is still a farmer today.

Mr Joseph Phua, 65, grew up on a 3ha mixed farm in Lim Chu Kang, home to chickens, ducks, papaya trees, chilli plants, orchids and pigs. As a farm boy, he built wooden chicken coops, fed the birds and cut banana peel for pigs that were being raised.

At 13, to earn pocket money, he worked as a licensed pig importer, delivering up to 100 hogs for breeding to various farms every month.

Every fortnight, the teenager and his brothers waited at Paya Lebar Airport for pigs to arrive from California. Sometimes, he got into tussles with the airport management and Primary Production Department (PPD) staff when they refused to release the pigs on time, causing the animals to suffer from heat stress.

Things are very different today. For a start, from the 1960s to the present, the size of farmlands has shrunk from 15,000ha to less than 600ha.

And produce and technology are a whole new world from the back-breaking work required in the past.

 
 
 
 

Mr Phua's journey as a farmer provides a fascinating glimpse into the changes.

He has gone from pig farming in the 1960s, to orchid farming when the country was the world's orchid capital, to experimenting with vertical farming now as Singapore ramps up production of home-grown food.

LAND ACQUISITION WOES

By the time Mr Phua was 30, he was an established farmer in his own right and had leased two thriving farms in Punggol - one with 20,000 pigs and the other with 12,000.

But one night in March 1984, a Parliament announcement broadcast on television caused his business to come crashing down.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee announced that all pig farms in Singapore had to go because the trade was no longer economically viable due to land scarcity and extensive water pollution from pig waste.

More land was also needed for urbanisation, public housing and industrial estates.

Mr Phua recalls Dr Goh's announcement: "It was like an atomic bomb had landed on the Punggol pig farms. I thought the phase-out was not true and I couldn't believe it because we had no warning.

"The first people who called me up after the announcement were the bankers and they wanted to recall my loans for farm technology within a month."

The news was a bombshell as in 1977, when most pig farmers were resettled in Punggol, former senior minister of state for National Development Tan Eng Liang had given an assurance that the farms would remain there for at least another 15 years. But all pig farms had to go by 1989.

Dr Ngiam Tong Tau, former chief executive officer of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority and former director of primary production at PPD, tells The Sunday Times that acquisition of farmlands is common.

He points out: "For all the farmers who are still continuing the trade, most of them have moved at least twice due to land acquisition."

Mr Phua had to move three times without completing the lease for any of his farmlands because of compulsory land acquisition. In 1990, he started a small orchid farm in Punggol before moving to a 43ha plot of land in Mandai Agrotechnology Park in 1993 - the biggest orchid farm in Singapore. He was given a 20-year lease.

But in 2011, the land was acquired to build Mandai Depot. Desperate to continue farming, Mr Phua placed a high bid for a 3.3ha piece of land in Sungei Tengah, with a renewable three-year lease, which he won.

 

Although he was compensated for the pig farms' phase-out and land acquisition, he said the amount was not enough to cover 10 per cent of the operating costs for his pig farms. The compensation he received for the orchid farm matched only 30 to 40 per cent of production cost.

Finding orchid cultivation not profitable on the small plot in Sungei Tengah, he switched to vegetable farming in 2017.

Although he has been able to renew his lease for the last seven years, Mr Phua remains on his toes in case the land is taken away again.

"I am constantly in fear. I don't feel secure on a three-year lease. It does not mean that with a short-term lease, the standards of my facilities and equipment are low. I am investing a lot, but only making enough to get by."

He adds that the short tenure prevents him from investing in cutting-edge farming technology.

According to Dr Ngiam, the maximum farmland tenure of 20 years is not enough for farmers to reap the benefits of what they have sown.

"After 10 years, farmers will start to make more money," he says. "At their 20-year mark, they are in their prime with maximum efficiency and optimum productivity. If their lease is not renewed after that, they will need to leave the land, which is a total waste of their 20-year effort. Farmland should be kept permanent."

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Following the phasing out of pig farms, the Government decided to consolidate farmlands in six agrotechnology parks in Lim Chu Kang, Murai, Sungei Tengah, Nee Soon, Loyang and Mandai.

The majority of farms were non-food farms, such as Mr Phua's 43ha orchid farm in Mandai Agrotechnology Park.

With fewer farmlands available then, it became clear that only commercial farmers who embraced automation and had a knack for making money had a place in Singapore's farming scene.

Dr Ngiam calls them "progressive farmers with an entrepreneurial spirit".

"In the 1990s, I asked Joseph why he went into orchid farming since it was very different from pig farming. He said, 'No, it's not different. For pigs, you need to choose the right pigs to grow, you have to feed them and look after them. Orchids are the same.'

He used the principles of farming pigs to cultivate orchids. Now, he applies that to vegetables."

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Singapore was the largest exporter of orchids and was known as the Orchid Capital of the World. Mr Phua's business flourished then, exporting species such as mokara and dendrobium to the United States and Europe, and decorating local hotels and Singapore Airlines lounges.

In 2012, when he had to move to the 3.3ha plot of land called Orchidville in Sungei Tengah, he continued to grow orchids for five years, but exports started dwindling.

He decided to venture into vegetable farming in 2017 when he heard that the Government was pushing for Singaporeans to buy more local produce. He set up 16 greenhouses and one traditional soil farm to grow Asian greens such as sweet potato leaves, chye sim and kailan.

To protect his tenure and remain relevant as a traditional farmer while the country was heading towards urban farming, Mr Phua created his own cost-efficient farming technology to grow cool-weather vegetables such as lettuce.

After much trial and error, he built a hybrid aquaponic farm in late 2017. In a 600 sq m space, he stacked handmade vegetable growing trays atop concrete fish tanks containing schools of tilapia, sea bass and jade perch.

The water had a cooling effect, allowing 8,000 rosa and romaine lettuce heads to grow at any one time. His vegetables are harvested daily and served in a zi char restaurant at the centre of the farm. The rest of the produce is sold at supermarkets and at a weekend farmer's market in Orchidville.

Not only is Mr Phua farming in an efficient way, but he also has an eye on the future. The only way to produce enough food for the growing population and stave off the impact of climate change is to grow upwards.

Taking the cue from urban farming, Mr Phua has now jumped on the vertical farming bandwagon. He is currently growing different species of lettuce on four-tier racks in the restaurant as part of a pilot. Each lettuce head - given a stream of nutrients and placed under an LED light - takes about 30 days to mature from a seedling.

If the trial is successful, he intends to apply for a Singapore Food Agency grant to set up 10-tier vertical farms outside the restaurant, resembling a showroom.

With farming in his DNA, Mr Phua looks forward to embracing new technology, while keeping in mind the principles of traditional farming he grew up with.

"I was born on a farm and farming is all I know. You can never stop needing food. It's an investment of your life into the business."

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