Originally published in The Straits Times by Derek Wong

Photo: Farm deLight stacks its plants on multiple layers and grows them indoors using high-tech methods like artificial lighting to provide an optimal growth environment. Its combined proposal with KG Farm was one of the winning submissions for the land tender.

SINGAPORE – Ten vegetable farming land parcels in Lim Chu Kang have been awarded to eight companies based on their concept proposals rather than the amount they bid.

This means that the farmers did not have to worry about engaging in a price war for the land, but focused more on refining their ideas, having in mind Singapore’s push for greater productivity through technological innovation and efficient use of scarce resources.

It is the first time the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) has awarded a tender on such grounds, the authority said in a press statement on Friday (Feb 9). It was launched in August 2017.

The size of the plots are about 2ha each and sold for $273,000 to $317,000 with a 20-year term. They are located in Neo Tiew Lane, Neo Tiew Link and Neo Tiew Place.

There were 12 land plots put up for tender, but two remain unsold as there were no suitable proposals for them, said AVA. This land will be re-tendered.

The winning proposals feature productive and innovative farming systems. These include green houses with automation and smart controls, multi-tier hydroponic systems using LED lights and data analytics to optimise growing conditions, and multi-storey farms that use automated soil-less cultivation system and robotics.

One of the winning submissions was a joint effort by Farm deLight and KG Farm. They will be paying $288,000 for their 20,167 sq m land plot.

Farm deLight’s general manager Edmund Wong, 51, is looking forward to bringing his indoor-farming methods to a bigger space. Currently housed in a 600 sq m space in Boon Lay, it uses a soil-based growing method (geoponics) and organic fertilisers, with the plants stacked in tiers.

High-tech automation and artificial lighting allow Mr Wong to control the environment’s humidity and carbon dioxide composition, among other things.

He now mostly provides herbs for a niche fine-dining market via business-to-business transactions.

But with the new space, Mr Wong intends to extend the operations to produce leafy vegetables like lettuce for the mass market.

“We intend to start making sales on the new land within nine months to a year,” said Mr Wong.

Eden PurelyFresh Farm, another winning tenderer, is also at the cutting edge of farming technology.

Its chief executive officer Desmond Khoo, 30, will create a “hybrid” farm on the new space, with some sections using a multi-tier system and others using hydroponics in shipping containers. The farm will also harness solar energy and collaborate with Fresh Hub Vending to continually study technological improvements to the space.

Mr Khoo said even artificial intelligence or robotics are possible add-on options in future.

He hopes to kick off full-scale operations in less than a year.

“The work starts now,” he said.

Mr Melvin Chow, AVA’s group director for food supply resilience, said: “These proposals have the potential to optimise scarce land, reduce reliance on unskilled labour and bolster Singapore’s food security.”

Concept proposals were evaluated by a Tender Evaluation Committee (TEC) comprising external experts with deep knowledge in agriculture sciences and technology, as well as relevant government agencies.

It assessed the proposals using criteria such as production capability, production track record, relevant experience and qualification of the applicant, and innovation and sustainability.

Seven of the eight successful tenderers are local companies. AVA will be tendering more land for vegetable farming in the second quarter of 2018 and from 2019.