A Visit to a Pioneering Urban Farm

7 min read

Amidst the concrete heartlands of Singapore, you might be surprised to find an oasis of luscious green and a source of freshly grown produce. This unconventional farm is a product of a $1.6 million outlay in R&D, a ton of patience, and passion. It looks like no other, missing the pesticides, magenta LED lights or workers in white overalls working found in the typical humid greenhouses. Could this be a better formula for bringing wholesome vegetables to healthier consumers, perhaps?

Our intrepid guide for the day at Citiponics was the co-founder of the Agri-tech start-up, Ms Danielle Chan. Braving the afternoon sun, me and other STEM INC and MOE educators toured Singapore’s pilot carpark rooftop farm.

The commercial-scale farm is built atop a HDB multi-storey carpark, occupying two carpark levels. We were met with towers of water and nutrient solution, accompanied by zig-zag piping with custom-machined cutouts containing fired-clay pebbles. Citiponics’ growing technology is actually considered to be a soilless process rather than hydroponics – instead of water as a key growing medium, a solid-based soilless culture is used. “These are not the usual LECA (lightweight expanded clay aggregate) balls,” Danielle informed us, “these are imported from Europe, and specially designed for our grow system.”

Making sustainable use of the available space on two levels of the multi-storey carpark, while providing a healthy, reliable supply of salad greens.

Their biggest unique selling point? No pesticides – frankly, that claim was intriguing enough to me. Indeed, there was not even a ‘sticky sheet’ in sight, which are commonly found in commercial greenhouses and vertical farms to trap aphids and other winged pests. Danielle explained that their corporate philosophy to maintaining plant health without pesticides lies in strengthening the plants’ own immune systems. Through employing a comprehensive nutritional package and optimal growing conditions, the plants are better equipped to ‘fight off’ insects and pests much in the same way a healthy human immune system staves off viruses and harmful bacteria. 

Of course, this approach is not completely failsafe, she continued. Plants may be inadvertently damaged due to mishandling during transplanting, affecting its root system. These injured plants would then become weak and susceptible to infections – and routine staff inspections would filter them out.  This way, with healthier plants, there is zero reliance on any pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. 

This was the only ‘spotty’ leaf I found amongst the seedlings, which will soon be removed by volunteers.

While other types of salad greens retail for between $4 to $6 a packet, Citiponics’ produce is competitively-priced at S$3.50 for 80 grams. Sold exclusively at the local NTUC Fairprice supermarket, Danielle shared with us how they developed their salad brand Leafwell. “We did the market research, and that’s how we arrived at that price point.” I gave a wry smile in acknowledgement. “For that price I’d buy,” I admitted, “except I can’t seem to get them before others do!” 

Laughter.  

Citiponics is well able to grow up to 25 different types of pesticide-free vegetables, including Georgina lettuce, Cai Xin, Nai Bai, Amaranth, Sweet and Thai Basils. Danielle reveals what’s in the pipeline (no pun intended) – to grow strawberries and ice plants using a custom-made water curtain within a curved-roof greenhouse to bring temperatures down in a more economical way.

Amaranth in the foreground; sweet basil in the background. Not only beautiful but also delicious leaves!

The educators in the group probed further. How do you procure labour? Mustn’t the electricity bill be exorbitant? Some educators wonder whether Citiponics would consider using solar cells to power their pumps. Danielle pragmatically believes that given the current state of solar technology, the efficiency of solar panels today is to low to prove as a feasible solution.  At present, their monthly electricity bill – mostly to power the water pumps – merely amounts to the electricity footprint from 5 HDB units. And what’s really in their hydoponic nutrient solution? Some of the educators were couldn’t help but ask. Danielle simply replies, “Ah, but that is a trade secret.” 

Another new paradigm in the Agri-food industry is in involving the local community in food production and sharing about sustainable farming. At Citiponics, polytechnic students and seniors from the nearby AWWA Community Home are also involved in the seeding, thinning and harvesting processes. “For the elderly residents, it’s like their hobby, they don’t think of it as a job,” Danielle shared. Harvested vegetables are also donated to the needy residents at Citiponics’ Taman Jurong facility.

As Singaporeans increasingly make more informed food choices, the demand for hydroponically grown salad greens is certainly rising in Singapore. Over 90% of Singapore’s food is currently imported; and with this reliance on overseas imports runs the risk of food supply disruption. Therefore, this is an issue of national food security, particularly in the face of climate change and current uncertain times. As Singapore works towards a ‘grow local’ strategy, having 30% home-grown food by 2030, it is indeed encouraging to see more local agriculture start-ups like Citiponics.

Citiponics also designed their very own Aqua Organic System, which is less labour-intensive compared to traditional farming practices, while producing less waste. The reusable fired-clay pebbles replace the need for disposable sponges used in traditional hydroponics. In her opinion, Danielle believes that “the current traditional farming methods are simply not sustainable”, and what is needed is frugal innovation to improve them. She describes this as “a solution that works with the resources you have”. For Citiponics, their high rise set up fully utilises the use of gravity and sunlight, wielding them to their advantage. 

As I brought home a bag of fresh lettuce after the visit (compliments of Citiponics!), I contemplated of the meaning of the Chinese proverb, yin shui si yuan (translation: [when] drinking water, think [of its] source). Indeed, it made so much sense now: Hydroponics from the Greek hydro for water and ponos for labour, and these vegetables are truly the product of moving water. 

True to their claim of no pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, Citiponics’ lettuces really look healthy enough to beat off their pests!

I paused to imagine a future where high-rise market greens are not just a novelty, or an iffy nice-to-have, but a solid reality. I envisioned entire housing estate rooftops converted to agricultural spaces as a mainstay of our Singaporean society, with its origins completely traceable. I feel confident in such a progressive food production process that is safe and wholesome for all. After all, I had just visited a growth facility; I had even tasted the vegetables – all fresh from the farm! Having witnessed a part of this much bigger grow local movement, I could not help feeling excited about what the future holds for Singapore’s agricultural landscape.

*Update: Since COVID, Citiponics produce is now also available on their website E-commerce shop and GrabMart, ranging from $2 to $6 a packet dependent on vegetable type. For Cai Xin, it is $2 for 200g while their Georgina Lettuce is $6 for 200g.

Written by Samuel Eio
Photos by Samuel and Danny
Illustrated by Daphne Li
m

Leave a Reply