SINGAPORE: With around a year to go before the relocation of 62 farms in the Kranji area, some of their owners said earlier this week that a lack of clarity from the authorities has left them concerned about their future.
The farms - part of a roughly 400-hectare, 100-strong cluster at the northwestern tip of Singapore - were first informed in 2014 that their land leases would not be renewed upon expiry in June 2017. They will make way for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), which needs to replace training land used to develop the upcoming Tengah New Town. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) will then open up new, albeit smaller, farm sites in nearby Sungei Tengah and Lim Chu Kang areas for public tender.
But as quail farmer William Ho, 50, explained, much uncertainty remains. “In the first place, the tender is no longer about just being the highest bidder, because AVA said they will also assess certain criteria like experience and development plans. But it’s still not entirely clear.
“Now it’s going to be (next) June and there still has been no exact allocation of which part of the land we are going to; no exact size of the land up for bidding; no exact benchmark of how much rental will cost, and so on,” he said.
Added Mr Ho: “AVA also said they won’t chase us out in June 2017 - but then when? One day later? One week later? One month later?”
Kailan seedlings at the Fire Flies organic vegetables farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
Having a clearer idea of the long-term vision for the agriculture industry would also help the farmers plan their future, said Mr Kenny Eng, 42, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), a non-profit group of 40 member farms.
“Just like how you can have a Singapore masterplan for 30 years, you can have one for the agriculture industry,” he stated. “We understand that land is scarce, thus we’ve already made it clear to the Government that we are not just after land. We are after certainty.”
“When we engage and can’t get feedback, it makes us very jittery. It means you are not sure what’s in store for us,” Mr Eng continued.
In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, AVA and the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) issued a joint statement on Friday (May 27) indicating “the Government is mindful that farmers will require time to move from their current sites to the new sites should they bid successfully for land”.
“We communicated as early as we could so that farmers have ample time to make business plans,” said the two statutory boards. “AVA is also in the midst of preparing (the) new sites… and will inform interested parties when the sites are ready for tender. Farmers can take this opportunity to revamp their model of farming and make longer term investment plans to improve production yields.”
Meanwhile Member of Parliament (MP) Yee Chia Hsing of Chua Chu Kang Group Representation Constituency (GRC), whose Nanyang ward covers the Kranji farms, told Channel NewsAsia: “If more time is needed for (the farms) to make alternative arrangements, whether the appeal comes through me or directly to AVA or SLA, I am sure the authorities will consider each case carefully and to help if possible.”
‘ALL WILL BE LOST’
Even as the affected farmers called for more light to be shed on their big shift, it was also clear that the information they have already received has caused some concern.
One particular issue was the length of the 10-year lease for the new sites, with the possibility of a 10-year extension if the land is not required for development, and if the farm “meets prevailing minimum production level and other criteria”, said AVA in 2015.
“When they asked me if I can halve the size of my two-hectare farm, I said ‘No problem, I can go multi-storey’,” said goat farmer John Hay, 61. “But investing in three to four storeys will cost me about S$1 million, and in 10 years you think I can make back the money? For farming, you need at least 30 years. That’s why some of us farmers have said that if the new lease is 10 years, we might not accept it.”
Mr John Hay, owner of the Hay Dairies goat farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
Vegetable farmer Alan Toh, on the other hand, expressed more concern over the limited time he would have to grapple with the farming feasibility of the new site.
“I’m worried about the land near Kranji Marshes being reclaimed and non-arable, which will compromise the quality of my crops,” said the 52-year-old, whose four-hectare Yili farm counts the Fairprice and Sheng Siong supermarkets as clients.
Mr Alan Toh, owner of Yili vegetable farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
“Vegetable farms need forward, long-term planning up to 30 years - about five to six years to invest in infrastructure and make adjustments before producing proper output. Very quickly it’ll be seven to eight years, and then we cannot invest any further with the lease ending in 10,” said Mr Ho in Mandarin.
Kangkong crops being watered at the Yili vegetable farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
He further pointed out that moving his vegetable farm was not the same as moving a house or a factory and its machines, explaining: “You plant something, move it - it gets damaged.”
Chye sim vegetables at the Yili farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
A handful of farms said they may not even opt to make the move. Their businesses are not categorised under food staples, unlike the egg and vegetable produce of Mr Ho and Mr Toh, who have been allocated pieces of land and can bid for as many plots as they want.
AVA and SLA noted it was “critical to prioritise agricultural land for strategic food farms producing leafy vegetables, food fish and eggs”.
This has resulted in eight non-food staple farms having to wrangle over just two assigned plots of land, according to goat farmer Mr Hay, who insisted: “I will never step in because you are making us fight one another.”
Jurong Frog Farm director Chelsea Wan, 33, said the same. “We decided we’re not going to bid. We shouldn’t be going against each other. We are all friends and now they want us to do this. Just close lah, don’t do anymore,” she laughed.
Ms Chelsea Wan, director of Jurong Frog Farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
FAMILY LIVELIHOODS AT STAKE
Some of the farms told Channel NewsAsia that they are already preparing for the curtain to fall on a decades-long family business.
“If there’s no land for me, I will clear out,” said Mr Hay, who added that he might set up shop in Malaysia. “But I’m more worried for my son, who’s nearly 40 and wants to take over the farm. As a parent, I’m very happy because you can’t find youngsters keen on farming these days - it’s dirty, 24 hours, 365 days a year work. What will my son do now?”
Said Ms Wan, who holds a social sciences degree from the National University of Singapore: “Farming has been my first and only job for 10 years. I’m already past 30. If I were to look for a job, I don’t know where my expertise is besides running around.”
At any point in time, there is an up to 20,000-strong frog population on Jurong Frog Farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
“Younger generations like us have to be told,” said Mr Eng, who is also a director at Nyee Phoe group, the oldest garden nursery in Singapore at 105. His farm is not part of the 62, but its lease expires at the end of 2017 with no word on an extension so far.
“Can you imagine all the young farmers who will be structurally unemployed? Who is going to look at graduates with farming portfolios and employ you for other purposes?”
“We’ve put (it) across to the ministries. What we need is really just clarity. Even if you say agriculture is not important, I will accept it - but you let me know soon because then we will stop our family business and just do trading, manufacturing or go into another industry altogether,” said Ms Wan. “Just tell us. Don’t keep us uncertain.”
Baby frogs and tadpoles on the Jurong Frog Farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
In response, AVA and SLA said they “have been taking steps to minimise the impact of this development on our local agricultural sector”.
FARMING INDUSTRY SHOULD BE NURTURED
In spite of their misgivings, the farms were unanimous in arguing for their industry’s continued relevance on both practical and intangible levels.
“Even though farming doesn’t contribute much to KPIs or GDP - and we also lose out to our neighbours whose produce is definitely cheaper than ours - in crises we play a little part, like how we survived SARS and the bird flu by having our own farms,” said Mr Ho.
AVA and SLA agreed, stating that the local agricultural sector, “though small, plays an important role in Singapore’s food security as it helps to buffer against sudden supply disruptions”.
“Farms can help to achieve greater food security when they operate sustainably for higher agricultural yields,” the agencies said. “Technology can be a game-changer in achieving greater food security for us. We envisage our future farms to be highly productive, while maximising land use and resources, and operate on minimal manpower.”
Added the area’s MP, Mr Yee: “We hope to increase production of farm produce by allocating land to farmers who are willing and able to commit to producing a certain quantity of food. This will help to reduce our dependency on imported sources of food.”
On the other hand, Ms Chai Sheau Shi of organic vegetable farm Fire Flies noted: “It’s sad when you ask children where vegetables come from, and they say NTUC, or when you ask them where chickens come from and they say the fridge. Is there space for small niches in Singapore where we are not always referring to textbooks for knowledge, where we can see and touch something and be informed that way?”
Lizards form part of the ecosystem at Fire Flies organic vegetables farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)
“We are opening up a place where children and their families can come enjoy nature,” added Mr Ho. “I dream that one day we can partner the Government, for them to (provide) seed funding for our farms. If they want, they can come up with guidelines for us to not squander their money.
“But above all, them having a stake in us will show that farming is important. And it is important.”
A wasp rests on a winter melon grown on the Fire Flies organic vegetables farm. (Photo: Justin Ong)