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Costs, tight timeline among farmers' concerns over tender

SINGAPORE — For the last two years, food producers such as Mr Eric Ng have been going back to the drawing board to see how to expand their facilities and go high-tech or fully automated in their operations.

A farmer gathers rush for livestock. AP file photo

A farmer gathers rush for livestock. AP file photo

SINGAPORE — For the last two years, food producers such as Mr Eric Ng have been going back to the drawing board to see how to expand their facilities and go high-tech or fully automated in their operations.

Mr Ng, who is chief executive officer of Apollo Aquaculture Group, has been looking at extending his three-tiered vertical fish farm to six-tiers.

He is also ambitious in his goal, looking to raise 110 tonnes of fish production to more than 4,000 tonnes yearly.

Now, his plans can finally be set in motion, following an announcement on Thursday (May 11) by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).

The authority said that new agricultural land for food farming would be up for tender from August this year, with 36 plots of farmland in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah to be tendered on 20-year leases.

However, the entire process might be “a bit of a rush”, Mr Ng said, taking into consideration the work involved in filing a tender proposal, waiting for approval, and relocating everything to the new site.

Building new facilities might also set him back S$40 million, he estimated. “It’s been a long wait for the entire industry, and everybody is anxious … We’re just worried about having enough time to (get everything settled) in time for the deadline,” he added, referring to the uncertainty faced by some 62 farms in the Lim Chu Kang area when their tenures expire by end-2019.

Another producer eager to jump on the technology bandwagon is Mr Desmond Khoo, chief executive officer of Eden Garden Farm.

He recently visited China to see how high-tech farms are run, and said that new land could offer him the chance to invest in new technologies for his vegetable farm, such as putting more resources into vertical farming, automatic sprinklers, and online monitoring systems.

“Even though the plots of land offered (by the AVA) are smaller, it is okay as long as we embrace technology,” he added.

Some other food production firms are still uncertain about the future, telling TODAY they need more time to mull over business plans.

Mr Jack Ng, founder of Sky Greens, is waiting for more information from the authorities, such as the requirements needed for proposals.

The land-tender methods now focus on farmers competing on best concepts proposed, such as how productive the business will be.

Mr Ng said that this change might offer a chance for companies to change their “traditional mindsets” and usher in new ways of farming for the younger generation.

He suggested that government agencies could look into creating a centralised water-treatment and waste-processing plant in the new areas up for tender, to help cut costs and to ensure that “farmers can just concentrate on production”.

Ms Chelsea Wan, director of Jurong Frog Farm, is concerned that her family-owned facility could face competition from new entrants or land bidders.

She said that the AVA has tried to make the process easier, but there would still be “hefty costs” involved in redeveloping the whole business, and wondered if there could be more funding, or a low-interest loan to help farmers make the switch.

It would be a pity if “serious, veteran farmers” have to fold their operations, she added. “You won’t get another generation of (such) farmers.”

Mr Kenny Eng, president of the Kranji Countryside Association, which promotes homegrown agriculture and food security agreed.

He said that with the tender, more traditional farmers — the country’s “key growers” — are forced to “re-compete again in the arena”.

“The (new) entrants may have fresh ideas … but farmers who have been producing faithfully not only have to worry about the everyday problems (such as meeting) production levels … they now have to write a paper to compete in the open market.”

The rich heritage and educational value of longstanding farms should not be lost with the emphasis on productivity, he added.

“Does Singapore want the existing growers to be there, or just for a person to sell systems? To shift a farm, it’s not just shifting the assets, but shifting a whole livelihood… I just hope this exercise is looked at seriously and with deep thought and strategy, because any mistake... (would mean we) lose our existing growers, and there (will be) no such community anymore.”

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