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    Mar 14, 2016

    New crop of farms harvest rich pickings

    A NEW breed of farmer is appearing in Singapore.

    They are using high-tech and high-yield methods to transform their work from back-breaking labour into lucrative business.

    From running indoor vertical vegetable farms - which grow crops in stacked layers, to raising fitter fish that are robust against aquatic diseases, farmers here are finding ways to overcome the limitations of traditional farming.

    Sustenir Agriculture, for example, is an indoor farm which currently produces about 54 tonnes of vegetables a year - an output which its founders consider highly efficient for a 344 sq m space.

    Grown in rolling racks less than 3m tall, the plants are packed together allowing for maximum light absorption. The modular design means the racks can be moved easily.

    "Traditionally, when people look at vertical farms, they haven't been looking at them from an urban standpoint," said the farm's co-founder Martin Lavoo.

    "Especially if they are farms of gigantic size, most of them are in the outskirts of the city or in relatively rural areas. We wanted to look at how we can put this in the middle of city - say Raffles Place - delivering straight into the heart of demand."

    The farms' controlled conditions also allow them to grow imported varieties such as the Tuscan kale.

    "This means a lower carbon footprint - we won't have to air-freight them from the United States or Europe," said the other co-founder of Sustenir Agriculture, Benjamin Swan.

    Since 2014, the farm has been producing vegetables such as kale and arugula.

    Sustenir is based in an industrial facility in Admiralty.

    Its vegetables absorb light from LEDs and are tube-fed with nutrients while carbon dioxide comes through the air-con ducts.

    Before anyone can enter the area where plants are grown, they have to don a jumpsuit and take an air shower to remove dirt particles.

    Vegetables are grown at temperatures between 14 deg C and 22 deg C.

    It takes about two weeks for the produce to grow before it is harvested. This is about half the time needed for outdoor farms to grow vegetables under normal conditions, said Mr Swan. It is then sold to restaurants such as Salad Stop!.

    While the vegetables sell for $19 per kilogram - about 10 per cent higher than it would cost businesses to buy from wholesalers - Mr Swan, 35, and Mr Lavoo, 29, said the quality is worth the price.

    Mr Swan added that their vegetables can stay fresh for up to two weeks, as they are locally produced.

    According to figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority released last year, 10,848 tonnes of leafy vegetables consumed here in 2014 were produced locally.

    This means 12 per cent of Singapore's total vegetable consumption that year was produced locally, up from 7 per cent in 2010.

    Jonatan Lassa, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University who researches food and environmental security issues, said growing crops in a controlled environment can have several advantages, including a lower carbon footprint and less water wastage.

    "The beauty of vertical farming is that the multiple is infinite," said Mr Lavoo.

    "We can go as many storeys up as we like. The sky is literally the limit."