Welcome to the tale of 3 plants. -coughs- Before we start the story proper, let us introduce to you this magical place where the three plants spent most of their lives at.

It is known as the world’s first low-cost hydraulic powered commercial vertical farming system. Named as Sky Greens, it found in a tiny corner (Lim Chu Kang) tucked away in this little red dot. Vertical farming requires minimal and use and harness natural energy such as natural sunlight and rainwater to grow the plants. Moreover, water is reused for irrigation in a closed loop system and precision farming reduces the number of input materials.  

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A bottom-up view of the vertical farms
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Close-up shot of the plants in the vertical farms

Sky Greens is founded by Mr Jack Ng who have a rich experience in engineering as we can clearly observe in the ingenious design of the vertical farms. By exploiting the laws of gravity and gear ratio, the vertical farming system is designed to have rotating tiers fixed onto an “A”-shape aluminium frame.

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Wheels driving the movement of the tiers. The tiers are rotated so that the plants receive a uniform amount of sunlight and water.

This frame is a whopping 9 meters in height with a total of 38 tiers which accommodate a wide variety of growing medium and plants. The building structure is very robust as it is made of aluminium and steel. The farms were also covered with transparent polyethene sheets but the growth of algae have reduced the visibility of the sheet after some time.  

In addition, each plant is harvested by hand. There is no need arable land in the whole process! However, after each harvest, new soil will be added to make up for the loss of soil. Lime will also be added to neutralise the soil as the soil will turn slightly acidic when plants have previously grown there.  

However, some of the issues faced by conventional farms still remain for vertical farms. Weeds have to removed from the tiers and pesticides are used for pest control. Insect traps are also placed to trap and monitor the type of insects that visit the farms.

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Insect traps used for insects monitoring

 

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Spot the weed!

 

Life Story of Mr NaiBai

It was bright. That was the first thing that Naibai noticed as he broke through the surface of the soil, stretching his thin frail stem and unfurling his leaves. He grinned, excitement coursing through his veins as he took in the world for the first time.

However, he was not alone.

His patch of soil was dotted with other plants, all around the same height as him and regarding him with curious eyes. Realisation dawned on him. Ah, my siblings! He gave them a friendly wave, but they all turned away from him. One of the plants nearer to him narrowed his eyes and growled at him, “Don’t even think about stealing all our nutrients!”. Naibai shrank within himself, and spent the next few weeks in complete silence, without companions.

On the 5th day of his life, Naibai woke up to find himself in a dark place. The floor was shifting underneath him and he was practically bouncing up and down. Looking down, he noticed he was in a pot. A voice suddenly echoed out of nowhere, “Don’t worry about it too much little one.” He looked around, finally landing on a plant nearby. The plant smiled reassuringly, “we’re just getting transported! I heard we’re going to stay in a really good hotel called Sky Greens. It’ll be fun!” Before Naibai could respond, the truck came to a halt and once again, he found himself flooded in light. When his eyes got used to the brightness, he saw huge towers surrounded by glass all around him. “Wow…” he breathed.

Soon enough, he found himself in a box with other saplings. It was much less crowded, with only 6 of them to one box. Yet, he still couldn’t help but feel apprehensive with this new environment, especially as he was right at the bottom of the tower, with his soil soaking up water from the water tray.

“Hey there newbies!”, a voice called from the neighbouring tower. He looked up to see another plant waving at him. “I’m Caixin! Who are you?”

He responded, “Hello, I’m Naibai. But how did you get on a tray so high up? Can we appeal to live there too?”

Caixin roared in laughter. “Don’t worry kid, you’ll reach this level soon enough. Just sit tight and wait!”

So NaiBai did just that. Soon enough, he realised that his plant box was inching upwards. By the time he reached the top, about 8 hours had passed and the sun was about to set. However, he was treated to an incredible view of the entire farm.


“Pretty cool, eh?” Looking down, he saw Caixin smirking back up at him. “Humans are pretty ingenious I must say. Do you know how they manage to move all the trays up? They use a water wheel, so they just harness energy from the water to move that huge chain which rotates the tower.”

“That’s amazing!” Naibai exclaimed. “There don’t seem to be many bugs here too…”

“That’s right!”, another voice popped up below Caixin, revealing another plant. “Hey, I’m Xiaobaicai. Look down there, they have this special lamp that attracts moths and traps them in a bag!”

“Wow, they sure do grow many types of plants here too.” Naibai mused.

Caixin laughed, “Besides the two of us, there’s still Chinese Cabbage, Mao Bai, Lettuce, Bayam, Kai Lan, Kang Kong and Spinach. They’re even trying out this new plant from Japan, but he doesn’t talk much.”

“Woah, how long have you all been here?”

Caixin’s smile turned wistful. “It’s been 28 days. In 2 days, I’ll be gone.”

Naibai gasped. “What do you mean?”

Caixin sighed, gesturing around. “All of us will be harvested after 30 days. You too, kiddo. Then a new batch of plants will come in 2 days after we leave.”

“Oh..” Naibai deflated. ‘But where would we go after this?”

Xiaobaicai shrugged, “I guess we can only find out.”

Days passed really fast after that. Naibai saw both Caixin and Xiaobaicai be plucked by the humans from their soil and placed in baskets before being wheeled off. He enjoyed the sunsets, talked to new plants that came in and introduced them to sky green’s just like how Caixin and Xiaobaicai did to him. After 30 days, he was ready to find out what was in store for him.

The humans came, pulling him from his home for 30 days and putting him in a basket. He was placed into a plastic container and sealed before he felt everything become colder. He realised he was back in a truck, travelling, and soon arrived at his destination: the supermarket. Satisfied, he nodded his head. At least he knew where he was going.

Food sustainability in Singapore

From the late 1970s, fragmented small farms around Singapore were either phased out or relocated to designated farm sites in the North or Northeast of Singapore to make way for housing estates. This relocation however led to a decrease in farm lands and decline in food production. By 2014, only 1 percent of land (700 ha) was used for farming —  there are 117 coastal fish culture farms, 5 poultry farms, 56 vegetable farms and 9 land-based food fish farms. Singapore imports over 90 percent of our food supply to sustain the demands of the population, hence is vulnerable to fluctuations in food supply and prices, as well as food safety incidences overseas. Despite this reliance, Singapore was ranked second in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Global Food Security Index, just after the United States.

The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) launched the Singapore’s Food Security Roadmap during its inaugural Food Industry Convention in 2013. The core strategies of AVA are to diversify sources of food imports and diversity local production. The AVA has been sourcing missions to different countries to build stable networks with potential suppliers and controlling the supply and quality of food from our suppliers through the sharing of technology. AVA has been helping local farms to improve productivity through the Food Fund while supporting them with technical know-how and capability in agricultural R&D.

During the 2014 Conversations on Sustainable Singapore Food Security, several suggestions were raised by the audience that can be employed to make Singapore more self-reliant in terms of food source. While it can be agreed that local food production needs to increase, many felt that more help can be provided for local food businesses and farms through means such as subsidies and grants. Rental and land costs, lease of farm land and scarcity of land for agricultural purposes were also amongst the concerns raised. Better labelling and branding can be set in place to promote local products in the local scene. The other topic of interest was to encourage community and urban farming. More rooftop farms and community gardens can be set up, while upscaling current ones, with the aim of increasing the supply of vegetables locally.

At Sky Greens, 9% of the vegetables grown are imported to restaurants and Fairprice. However, the main challenge faced by them would be the unfamiliarity of its brand to the local consumers. At a price of $2 per packet, it might appear to be just a more expensive option than the imported vegetables grown the conventional way. Many consumers are not aware of vertical farming in Singapore, not to mention Sky Greens! Hence, it is important for local consumers to get to know the agricultural scene in Singapore, before slowly introducing to them our local farms and their products, building up the local support for these farms. Approaches such as campaigns can be used in neighbourhoods to raise awareness and interest in these local products, which targets mainly the consumers. Using mainstream and new media, such as television and social media, can be utilised for publicity. Interviews over the news or even a short documentary can be made to introduce these local brands to fellow Singaporeans. As Singapore moves towards a future that is increasingly self reliant, food security is an aspect that should not be neglected and it is important that both the Government and fellow Singaporeans give our local farms the support and help that they need!

We hope you have enjoyed the tale of three plants, narrated by three girls. Hope to see you again for our next trip!

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Our thoughts and reflections

Uh-oh

We admit guilt that we are just like other stereotypically known millennials -that is we take our resources for granted and rarely question their sources, and our concerns regarding the vegetables in the supermarket is limited to their tastes and costs. Before we have embarked on this field trip, we did not know about the food sustainability issues and the new technology that is being developed to resolve them. Learning about Sky Greens has exposed us to the horticultural field and its relevance in the world today. In addition, we also learnt not to take the vegetables in our supermarkets for granted.

Although this is a Biology Module, we also learnt about a combination of all three sciences during our visit to Sky Greens. Biology focuses on the type of plants grown in vertical farms, Physics and Engineering emphasizes on the design and structure of the buildings while Chemistry provides insights into the composition of fertiliser used for optimal plant growth. In schools where bits and pieces of information specific to a subject is printed in notes and textbooks, field trips allow us to see how science is applied across various fields. It was indeed an eye-opener for us to see how different branches of science and how different specialists come together to refine the design of the vertical farms.

After the field trip, we also gained a deeper appreciation for the innovative technology used to solve real-life problems. In this case, we examine how vertical farms can be used to grow edible vegetables with minimal land usage, a problem that is highly pertinent especially in land scarce Singapore. It was amazing to see first-hand how research translates into real-life applications, especially since some of us do not even have the opportunity to witness the same for our research projects! *chuckles* 

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Bonus photo of our classmates! (Taken with permission)

 

References:

  1. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2017, from https://www.ava.gov.sg/files/avavision/issues3-4_2013/food-security-roadmap.html
  2. Conversations on Sustainable Singapore (Food Security). (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2017, from http://www.greenfuture.sg/2014/06/26/conversations-on-sustainable-singapore-food-security/

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