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Turning multi-storey car parks into farms

Jul 31, 2022

Urban agriculture, urban farming, or urban gardening is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around urban areas.[1] It encompasses a complex and diverse mix of food production activities, including fisheries and forestry, in many cities in both developed and developing countries. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Urban farmer Eyleen Goh farms among high-rise buildings.Eyleen Goh runs a farm from the top deck of a car park in Singapore.

This is not a small operation - it supplies nearby retailers with up to 400kg of vegetables a day.

Singapore is quite small but there are many car parks. It is pretty much the dream to have farms to meet the needs of residents in the community.

At least a dozen of these rooftop farms have now sprouted up across the South East Asian city state.

The government started leasing out the unusual plots in 2020 as part of its plans to increase local food production. The country of 5.5m people currently imports more than 90% of its food.

But space in this densely populated island nation is scarce and that means land is not cheap. Singapore has some of the world's most expensive property.

One farmer mentioned that the high cost of his first car park plot meant that he had to give it up and move to a cheaper location.

When BBC News visited Ms Goh's farm, which is about the third of the size of a football field, operations were in full swing.

Workers were picking, trimming and packing choy sum, a leafy green vegetable used in Chinese cooking.

At the other end of the facility meanwhile, another employee was busy re-potting seedlings.

According ot Ms Goh, they are harvesting every day. Depending on the vegetables they are growing, it can range from 100kg to 200kg to 400kg per day.

Also according to her, starting the farm cost around S$1m ($719,920; £597,720), with much of the money being spent on equipment to help speed up harvesting.

Although she has received some subsidies, but her business is not profitable yet.

She has 10 employees and pays a rent of around S$90,000 a year for the space and another car park site, which is still being set up.

According to MS Goh, their setting up period happened during the Covid pandemic, so logistics were way more expensive and took a longer time.

Moreover, this was the first rooftop car park tender awarded [by the government] so the process was very new to everyone.

Singapore's rooftop farmers are also finding other ways to make money.

According to Nicholas Goh, he has managed to turn a profit by charging people a monthly fee to harvest vegetables at his urban farm.

The idea is particularly popular with families who live nearby as "it is a community kind of approach, rather than a commercial approach.

However, another urban farmer, Mark Lee, mentioned high costs have driven him to move to an industrial building that charges a "negligible" i.e. lower rent.

Vegetables are ultimately just vegetables. You can get it at the freshest and best quality but there is limitation to how much one would pay and are not talking about truffles here.

Existential issue

Rooftop farms are not the only way Singapore aims to increase the amount of food it grows.

Most of the country's home-grown produce comes from high-tech facilities that are heavily subsidised by the government. It had 238 licensed farms in 2020, according to official figures.

Some of the farms are already profitable, and can expand their production to increase profits, according to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA).

Food security is an existential issue for Singapore. As a globally connected small city-state with limited resources, Singapore is vulnerable to external shocks and supply disruptions.

This is why it is important that we continuously take steps to secure our essential resources.

Earlier this year, the issue of food security came into sharp focus in Singapore when several countries in the region banned or limited exports of key foods.

Governments reliant on imports tried to protect their food supplies as the Ukraine war and the pandemic pushed up the cost of everything from staple foods to crude oil.

By 2030, Singapore aims to produce 30% of the food it consumes itself - more than three times the current amount.

There are measures in place such as productivity grants from SFA, and regular farmers' markets to encourage consumers to buy more local produce," accoding to Prof Chen, who is a director of the university's food science and technology programme.

Singapore is offering a lot of subsidies and financial support to entrepreneurs who are working in this space.

The question is whether these farms will be able to operate and be commercially viable when the government support stops flowing.

Acxording to Goh, "Giving up is not an option. The more challenging it is, the more rewarding it will be."



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