SINGAPORE: It was once an unthinkable feat - growing non-native temperate produce on Singapore soil. But a local urban farm has managed to do just that - growing strawberries, with the help of technology in a controlled hydroponics environment.
"We manipulate the environment to enhance the flavour profiles of our products, even down to the nutrients that run in the water," said Benjamin Swan, co-founder of Sustenir Agriculture.
"So even though it took two months to get the (strawberries) up, we spent the better part of six months understanding how we can best optimise the growth footprints we have to make the products the best we can be ... by controlling the environment."
Strawberries are the latest fruits of the vertical farm's labour, with other temperate produce in its basket including kale and arugula. The vertical farm also has plans to explore innovations in agriculture, by setting up a research and development lab in startup complex JTC LaunchPad @ one-north.
In a visit to the 1,000 sq ft facility on Wednesday (Jun 20), Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said the Government would continue supporting urban farmers in co-developing solutions with industry players, in light of challenges faced by the urban farmers.
"The industry gave feedback that they have two challenges. One is that there is a lack of plug-and-play, cost-effective solutions for automation they can use quite quickly," said Dr Koh. "The second challenge they face is that they may need to have more understanding of science of certain niche crop types they can grow in an indoor environment."
"Urban farming as a movement is still fairly new globally. Therefore some of these solutions may not be readily available off the shelf," Dr Koh said. "But we do see a lot of solution providers innovating solutions that can be adoptable."
"They being here in LaunchPad – where a lot of innovation and entrepreneurs are – this can be a place to catalyse cocreation of solutions. And I think that would not just meet needs, but create an entirely new pillar of exportable technology for our local companies as well," Dr Koh said.
He cited the example of Sustenir Agriculture, which partnered with robotic solutions company PBA Hanhwa Robotics to devise a robotic arm for its seeding and transplanting process.
Dr Koh added that the Government would continue to encourage collaboration between farmers and institutes of higher learning. "The NUS Environmental Research Institute (NERI) is already working with some of our industry to better understand the science behind growing niche crop varieties, and to look at agrotech they can co-develop together to meet those challenges."
The vertical farm, which is expanding into Hong Kong in the third quarter of 2018, is also looking at growing "indoor grapes" – and eventually even harvesting "made in Singapore" wine among others.
"All strawberries need to be pollinated – typically that happens with bees outdoors," said Mr Swan. "What we do right now is that we do it by hand with a forensic brush. It’s a little bit laborious and we don’t get 100 per cent success. But we are exploring bringing in bees to the room, which means we could have 100 per cent clean honey as well."