Farm Feature Series: Oh Chin Huat Hydroponic Farms (Oh’ Farms)

In this feature, Ai Ling (Project Manager) shared with us how hydroponic farming is carried out at Oh’ Farms and we also learnt about some interesting issues faced by her farm, as well as her take on the food production landscape in Singapore.

History
Oh Chin Huat Hydroponic Farms (aka “Oh’ Farms”) was founded by the Oh family in 1991. The roots of the Oh family in the Singapore agriculture business can be traced back to the 1980s, when they started off as pig rearers. However, when the government banned pig farming in Singapore in the 1980s due to water, land and noise pollution, the Oh family was faced with a decision to either shut down or look for an alternative business. The Oh family eventually decided that they will continue in the agriculture business. The bosses, who became vegetarians during that period, decided to go into hydroponic farming, as they wanted something that was environmentally-friendly and did not require slaughtering of animals.

Under the support and recommendation of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), two of the Oh’ Farms bosses went to Taiwan to learn about hydroponic farming from the Taiwanese experts. When they returned to Singapore, they started one of the pioneer hydroponic farms in Singapore in 1991, growing tropical vegetables initially and subsequently including culinary herbs.

With strong continued support from AVA and National Science and Technology Board (NSTB), the company’s continuous research and experimentation over the years has achieved significant results in adapting hydroponics technology to suit the tropical climate and in applying recent biotechnological innovation to dramatically improve agricultural quality and productivity.

This very well organised business has been managed and operated by a very closely knitted family group since its inception. Even though farming is not a very lucrative business, it has provided the family with enough money to spend and has helped to keep the family close. It remains one of the most successful high-tech vegetable farms in Singapore today.

About the Farm
Oh’ Farms is a high-tech hydroponic farm located at Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park. The farm has an area of 2.44 hectares, containing 220 greenhouses, which can produce about one tonne of vegetables each day. The farm specialises in high quality, pesticide-free tropical vegetables and culinary herbs. The hydroponics business is now run by the second generation of the Oh family and it remains a very tight family unit. Most of the employees are members of the Oh family, and the current bosses are also involved in daily operations on the farm. Oh’ Farms is very involved in educational programs, especially in targeting the younger generation to teach them to appreciate the different methods and benefits of hydroponics. Oh’ Farms is popular for school trips and Ai Ling, who usually conducts the tours, is great at getting the kids interested and excited during their visits. In addition to school visits, the farm also welcomes farm tours for the public.

Hydroponic Farming @ Oh’ Farms
Hydroponics is the soil-less cultivation of plants in liquid nutrient solutions. There are several different types of hydroponic growing techniques. Oh’ Farms has a dedicated greenhouse that showcases the various types of hydroponic systems for educational purposes. For commercial vegetable production, the Dynamic Root Floating (DRF) technique is used at Oh’ Farms to grow hygienic, quality and pesticide-free vegetable all year-round. We also learnt about how Oh’ Farms prevent pests, diseases and weeds without the use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Dynamic Root Floating Technique
This is a hydroponic method developed for use in a tropical climate. At Oh’ Farms, a closed nutrient circulation system recirculates the nutrient solution, which helps to reduce the build-up of heat in a greenhouse. A polystyrene board is fitted above the nutrient solution to anchor the plant. No root supporting media is used and the plant roots are partially immersed in nutrient solution. Over time, the plants develop an air root system (numerous fine roots) in the highly humid space between the surface of the nutrient solution and the underside of the culture boards. The air root system enables plants to overcome the shortage of dissolved oxygen in the nutrient solution in tropical climate.

The Farming Process: From Seed to Harvest
1. Germination
Vegetable seeds are sown in sponge and placed in the germination room for germination. It takes about 2 to 3 days for the seeds to germinate. After germination, seedlings are then transferred to the nursery for further cultivation. Seedlings are raised in the nursery house for 10 to 14 days. They are fed with nutrient solution suitable for seedlings.

2. Transplanting & Growing
Seedlings that are of optimal height and size are transplanted onto the culture panels. Once the plants are inside the production greenhouse, the netting is closed and will not be opened until harvest. Nutrient solution supplied to the vegetables is carefully monitored and adjusted for healthy growth of the plants.

3. Harvesting
After a period of about 24 days, the plants are ready for harvest. The culture panels are removed from the greenhouses and brought to the harvesting area for packing of the vegetables.

Irrigation
Oh’ Farms uses an efficient recirculated irrigation system, which saves water and minimises labour. The farm uses 6 times less water as compared to traditional farms. There is also more uniform distribution of the nutrients to the crops.

Water at the farm is stored in nutrient tanks in the ground. Nutrients in the form of dissolved salts are also added to the nutrient tanks. The nutrient solution is pumped into the greenhouses via connected pipes and run through the greenhouses to provide the crops with their nutrient and water needs. The remaining nutrient solution will eventually be channelled back into the nutrient tanks for recirculation. This circulation process also helps remove heat from the greenhouses as the nutrient solution from the greenhouses flows back into the cooler nutrient tanks in the ground.

In order to maintain the appropriate nutrient levels, meters are used to measure the nutrient levels in the system periodically to determine if the nutrient levels need to be topped up. This is an advantage over soil cultivation, where it is hard to tell if there are enough nutrients in the soil.

There are about a total of 40 nutrient tanks, whereby each tank can serve up to 6 greenhouses. The reason for such a decentralised irrigation system is to prevent crops on the farm from being destroyed all at the same time in the event of a disease breakout. If one system (comprising one nutrient tank and 6 greenhouses) has a disease infection, only that particular system needs to be isolated and disinfected. The other unaffected systems can carry on their production cycles. This minimises the loss in productivity and enables the farm to have a steady supply of vegetables.

Greenhouses
The roof of each greenhouse is covered with a plastic sheet that shields off rainwater, which contains dirt, dust and bacteria from the atmosphere. The entire greenhouse is also covered by netting to prevent pests from entering the growing area. Black netting is also used to shield off 50% of the sunlight during the seedling stage. It is removed to provide more sunlight as the plants grow. After each harvest, all greenhouses, growing beds and culture panels are washed clean and sterilised before they are used again.

Waste management
While Oh Farms’ does not practise composting, since they rely on soil-less growing methods, they minimise wastage by donating waste plant matter to other farms for composting, and/or to aviaries for bird feed.

Crops
A wide variety of crops are grown on Oh’ Farms. They include chinese cabbage, chye sim (choi sum), kang kong (water spinach), bayam (amaranth), xiao bai cai (baby bok choy), butterhead lettuce and herbs such as sweet basil, rocket, mint, oregano, dill, rosemary, tarragon, Italian parsley and thyme. From the sowing of seeds to the time that the crop is ready to be harvested, kang kong is the fastest (25 days), while butterhead lettuce takes the longest time (45 days). After harvest, the vegetables are stored in the cold storage for one day before they are delivered, so that they will stay fresher for a longer period of time. The farm produce will reach retail shelves the following day. There are 3 cold storage facilities on the farm premise.

In addition to their own farm produce, Oh’ Farms is also involved in wholesale distribution of imported produce from their foreign suppliers (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Netherlands etc.) to the local market. Diversification into other businesses like import and wholesale distribution is important for Oh’ Farms’ survival in the farming business, as farming alone is not a sustainable business for Oh’ Farms.

Retail Information
The farm relies on both direct-to-consumer and wholesale distribution models to sell their products. Customers can purchase farm produce either directly from the farm or from NTUC and NTUC Finest retail outlets across Singapore. They sell potted herbs too!

Oh’ Farms also supply local restaurants and hotels with its products. Generally, Chinese restaurants mainly order the tropical fruits and vegetables, while Italian/Western restaurants prefer the culinary herbs. Notable supporters of Oh’ Farms products include the Four Seasons Hotel and Resort World Sentosa.

Challenges
One of the challenges faced by Singapore farms is that the mainstream consumer still prefers the cheaper foreign imported produce rather than those produced locally. As Ai Ling (Project Manager at Oh’ Farms) explained, “Most Singaporeans don’t really care where their vegetables come from. Since locally produced vegetables are more expensive than the foreign imported ones, majority will just look for the cheapest option, as cost is still the main consideration when people buy vegetables. However, for people that are aware and conscious about what they eat, they will support local farms that do organic or hydroponic produce. I wouldn’t say that locals would prefer our vegetables, but those who understand the production process, they will appreciate our products, as they are cleaner.”

Singaporean mindset on food selection…
She added, “In order to understand the Singaporean mindset on food selection, we have to look at the person who does the cooking in the family. It is usually the elder person in the family, such as mothers and grandmothers, who are the ones buying the vegetables. Since they have gone through the hardships earlier in their lives, they are very careful with spending money and have to make every cent count. However, when the younger generation takes over the kitchen, they have gone through better education and are not exposed to the hard life as their parents and grandparents, so younger people look at things differently. In terms of weighing the importance of costs over health benefits, younger people place more emphasis on health. There are quite a lot of younger consumers that support our farm.”

Education and raising awareness is crucial…
Education and raising awareness on local food production is a continuous and necessary process to engage people to find out more on their own accord so that they can truly believe that the conveyed message is indeed important and trigger a mindset shift in the majority of consumers to favour locally grown products despite of the higher prices. The farm plays its part by conducting regular tours and educational programs for schools to teach people about the process of producing vegetables. The farm also builds greenhouses for schools to teach kids the process of hydroponics and to let them know this is an alternative way of cultivating plants.

Other issues
Ai Ling shared that another major problem that the farm faces is the lack of interest among locals to choose farming as a career, “Passion in this line is required. There’s a lot of effort and hard work required but the financial rewards don’t necessarily justify the amount of effort put in. For younger Singaporeans, the typical person needs to spend a lot on the current standard of living in Singapore (house, family, car etc.) and farming is just not a practical career choice for most of them to achieve their life objectives.”

Many family-run farms in Singapore will likely disappear in the future. Oh’ Farms is no exception and will probably become history in 10-20 years time, unless someone from the younger generation of the family decides to take over the business or if someone else acquires the farm. While Oh’ Farms is a high-tech farm and receives good support from the government currently, it needs to be able to ensure its continuity as a business in order to receive further support.

The inability to own farm land in Singapore and the vulnerability to redevelopment of farm land for other purposes are other challenges that the farm faces. One might think that relocation of a hydroponic farm to a new location should not be too difficult given that it doesn’t rely on soil and should be relatively easy to move to a new location as compared to a traditional field-cultivated farm. However, this is not the case for a large commercial farm like Oh’ Farms, as the existing infrastructure (ground tanks, plumbing, warehousing etc.) is not easy to remove and relocate. It will also cost a lot to set up new infrastructure on a new farm. Oh’ Farms is currently in the third year of their 10-year lease, which expires in 2021. Conditions of the lease include meeting minimum production targets, and the type of farming activity carried out has to comply with the designated purpose (e.g. hydroponics, nursery, chicken) for the specific plot of land.

Ai Ling is optimistic that hydroponic farming will have a future in Singapore. She hopes to see more hydroponic farms in Singapore and have more people accept hydroponic produce. She also hopes that more local farms being will be open to new technology that can help their farming operations; and also, to have greater cooperation among farms to share information and knowledge for the benefit of the whole industry.

Refer to Oh’ Farms’ Profile page for its contact information.

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