SINGAPORE: They are too young to have beer. But the many youngsters who go to the Chomp Chomp Food Centre at Serangoon Gardens can still drink to their heart’s content from the popular tower dispensers at the hawker centre.
The quenchers on their tables are sugar cane towers, however, and not beer – drink stall owner Brendon Tan’s solution for his thirsty customers.
“We used to sell smaller cups,” he said. “Gradually we upsized from 700 millilitres to 1 litre, then 1.5 litres. People were looking for (a bigger) jug, so I thought maybe we can try a sugar cane tower.”
In the past year though, he had to raise the prices of the juice – for the first time in the two decades he has been selling the drink. A tower now costs S18, up from S$15.
In fact, the cost of sugar cane in Singapore has risen by much more. Between last November and this July, the price per box rose from around S$16.50 to S$29 – a 75 per cent increase.
With food prices rising by more than 10 per cent over the past five years, the series For Food’s Sake finds out what is behind the hikes in the prices of various foods and beverages.
In the case of sugar cane, it is a shortage like never before, said Mr Ray Sng, one of the co-founders of Daily Fresh Sugarcane Supplier, whose customers saw other drink stall owners experience a disruption to their supply.
“Some of my customers in other hawker centers (told me) they’re selling (sugar cane) three days in a week,” he said.
On the other four days, they’ve no supply to sell. Or even when they have, they sell it until lunchtime because they have one or two boxes only.
And the factors coming into play are not only short-term, but also long-term.
WHAT THE RAINS AND FLOODS DID
Singapore imports more than 99 per cent of its sugar cane from Malaysia, where the best areas for growing the plant are in the western states, such as Negeri Sembilan, Perlis, Kedah and Perak as well as in Muar, Johor.
Sugar cane’s water requirements are higher than other arable crops, yet too much water can also create problems, as presenter Lennard Yeong discovered when he travelled to Negeri Sembilan.
In the Jelebu district, being next to a river has helped farmer Mohammed Farid, whose family has been growing sugar cane since his father started in the 1970s.
But when it rained continuously for five days last December, the downpour flooded his farm, leaving his crop vulnerable.
“(Too much rain) damages the sugar cane. Some rotted and turned sour,” he said. “I wanted to cry and scream out loud. It was very frustrating and disappointing.”
In February, his farm flooded again, along with other farms in the low-lying area – an unprecedented recurrence.
“The flood was almost three to four feet high. So we had to cut the sugar cane in half (to save some),” he said. “I deployed all 20 of my employees from one area to the next.”
On both occasions, he was able to save only about 30 per cent of his sugar cane – a crop with a minimum growing period, ideally, of around nine months.
“The most difficult thing I’ve ever faced has been to recover (my losses) from the flood,” he added.
HEADING FOR CLOSURE
Even if the weather takes a turn for the better, Singaporeans might still have to pay more to get their sugar cane fix in the near future.
Many of Malaysia’s sugar cane farms are small family holdings, and that model of business may well become a thing of the past.
Take, for example, Mr Mohd Arif Majid, who runs his two-hectare farm in Negeri Sembilan with the help of only one person: His 50-year-old wife Simisah.
He takes pride in that fact, but also struggles to send freshly cut stems to his buyers. While sugar cane is best processed within 24 hours of harvest, he sometimes has to start earlier.
“If the request is for a lot of sugar cane to be available on Wednesday, maybe we’d have to start cutting on Monday. If the amount is less, then perhaps we’d start cutting on Tuesday afternoon,” he said.
Age is also catching up on the 55-year-old, who might not have much time left to run the farm. He has four sons, but none of them plans to take over from him.
“In the sugar cane business, you get your returns only after seven months (when you harvest),” he said. “My four sons prefer to be salaried workers and are working for the government. They feel more comfortable in office clothes.”
LARGER FARMS SCALING BACK
The time-consuming job of planting and cutting sugar cane means owners of bigger farms must rely on foreign labour. And that is also posing a challenge.
A shortage of workers is farmer Tan Wee Teck’s greatest problem, as the work “is too hot and too tough”. “You have to go row by row to look for the longest (stems),” he said by way of explanation.
The shortage extends to the labour-intensive task of processing the crop.
This includes removing the skin so the stems look cleaner, which is done manually because “not all sugar cane grows straight”, not to mention that “you have to leave some (skin) on or else the sugar cane would dry out”.
“It would be very difficult to use a machine,” he said.
In 2006, he had around 30 workers – many of whom were Indonesians – in his 40-hectare farm in Muar. Now he has a workforce of 14, which has forced him to halve the size of his farm to 20 hectares.
“Even if I raise the salary, the younger folks aren’t interested in farming. I can’t attract young locals. There would still be very few interviewees,” he added. “We aren’t able to produce more sugar cane.”
After spending three days meeting farmers, Mr Yeong also found that some of them have started to downsize because the Malaysian authorities have been cracking down on undocumented migrants in the past few years.
MIDDLEMEN GIVING UP TOO
As it turns out, even some middlemen are throwing in the towel.
For example, Mr Yap Siong Shee, who used to supply Singapore with sugar cane from farms in southern Malaysia, had to close his shop barely a year into operations because of the decreasing stock.
“We (had to) go to places farther afield to buy (sugar cane), like Pahang and Perak,” said the former supplier in Malaysia. “(Petrol costs and salaries) became more expensive.
“(For every) box, we were losing S$3 to S$4. So you can (calculate) that for 200 boxes … we were losing around $600 per day. So how much per month could I lose? So we couldn’t sustain this.”
In Singapore, two suppliers also called it quits and were absorbed by Daily Fresh, which delivers enough sugar cane stalks daily to make 50,000 litres of juice.
There are six other companies delivering sugar cane to Singapore daily, and it was initially not easy for Daily Fresh, incorporated in April last year, to gain the trust of the licensing companies across the Causeway.
Mr Sng said his company had to pay farms in advance to secure its share of sugar cane. And now its efforts to keep supply coming include a plan to start its own farm, if the land can be acquired.
“It wouldn’t cover everything, but it would counter part of the problem,” he said. “I don’t think there’ll be a day in Singapore when we … have no sugar cane juice at all.
Farms have closed down (but) there’ll always be somebody who’s going to come into the market.
However, with consumers footing only a fifth of the current price hike driven by the bad weather – according to the supplier – Mr Yeong could not help wondering whether prices may rise further.
“With an eye on the bottom line, whether (the big players) can keep the supply going may well depend on how much we’re willing to pay,” he said.
Watch the series For Food's Sake here. And read about why cockles are becoming costlier and harder to find.