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Singapore sets a path toward food and water independence

Matt Hamblen | May 25, 2016
Sky Greens provides lettuce from vertical farms

singapore lettuce
Workers at Sky Greens in northwest Singapore clip off lettuce from special troughs used in the patented vertical farming system, then package it for market. Credit: Matt Hamblen

Singapore is both a city and a nation on a relatively small island in southern Asia near the equator. By area, Singapore is smaller than all five boroughs of New York City, but must supply basic needs, including food and water, to its 5.4 million residents.

One potential solution to Singapore’s need to grow crops on scarce land is vertical farming.

Sky Greens, a young company in Singapore, has developed a patented vertical farming system with rotating growing troughs that are mounted on an A-frame made of aluminum. A farm consisting of 1,300 A-frame towers, each up to 30 feet tall, is growing six varieties of lettuce in northwest Singapore.

The company estimates it can get 10 times the yield from such a system, compared to a conventional farming method on the same area of land.

singapore  verticalfarm
Matt Hamblen Sky Greens in Singapore raises lettuce in tall towers in a model designed to reduce the land needed for crops.

On a recent tour with other reporters, I got to see the operation first hand. The troughs rotate a full cycle over 16 hours, getting water at the bottom of the journey and then advancing higher to get sunlight from all angles. We sampled the end product, which was a sweet, slightly crunchy (and fresh!) salad, made primarily of mizuna and other greens.

The system takes advantage of a rich soil concentrate that includes fertilizer made chicken manure. It can also be set up for hydroponic operation, without using soil.

Sky Greens CEO Jack Ng and Roshe Wong Kok Leong, the company’s business development manager, said the company has a vision of operating three vertical farms in coming years to produce enough green vegetables that Singapore won’t need to import any.

So far, the operation in Singapore isn’t automated, other than using electricity to move the troughs up and down. In the future, it could be fully controlled much the same way as other manufacturing facilities. The labor is primarily provided by workers from Bangladesh, the company said.

In the fashion of many young Singapore tech companies, Sky Greens has a fairly utopian vision for its vertical farms. In one example, the company wants to put its growing towers atop urban high rises where parking spaces might be located. A longer-term vision is to build an “agripolis,” where towers growing a variety of crops would be paired with vertical hatching stations for chickens and other animals. Three such agripolises could supply nearly all of Singapore’s demand for green leafy vegetables.

 

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