“I never thought about farming much, growing up in Singapore when I was younger,” Ray Poh tells TheHomeGround Asia.
And it was during his teenage years going to school in Australia that he became exposed to a variety of farms and agricultural activities.
Years down the road, this would prove the inspiration for his current research into futuristic agricultural technologies, resulting in his modern take on farming. “That’s when I stumbled upon hydroponics, and I thought that indoor farming was not only interesting, but also the way ahead for Singapore’s food security issues,” he added.
Ray’s radical career switch came after he had spent five years in Macau’s casino gaming industry.
His new vocation is Artisan Green, a three-year-old pilot farm of about 3,000 square feet in Kallang which currently generates about 100 kilograms of fresh greens per week. By the end of this month (October 2021), the mid-sized farm is looking to double its output by upgrading its water pumps to accommodate the sheer amount of crops it is growing.
And its growth, pun intended, has not gone unnoticed. “We’ve had many investors who were interested in doing a round of fundraising for us, but prior to this point, we wanted to focus more on developing and understanding the operational and cost aspects via our pilot farm,” says Mr Poh. “But now, after three years of research and development (R&D), we realised that we actually have pretty much everything in place.”
Artisan Green is projected to break even by the end of 2021 — and could perhaps even begin to generate profits. Moving forward, Mr Poh and team are looking to relocate in order to be able to scale up – by a targeted 60 times – with the support of several strategic investors. “With a larger farm, what we’re growing will be quite different. Instead of just baby greens, we will be complementing our produce with a mixture of fully grown vegetables as well,” he adds.
Mr Poh believes that the government’s “30 by 30” goal — to produce 30 percent of the nation’s needs by 2030 — is “rather ambitious, but that it’s good for us to have this moonshot of a target”. He hopes for Artisan Green to contribute up to 5 percent of this 30 after scaling up.
The farm’s products are currently on Redmart, Amazon, NTUC Fairprice online, and Grab supermarket, among many other local grocery stores. While currently having a 10 to 15 percent online audience, Mr Poh foresees a greater shift into brick and mortar retail stores as they start working with larger players with bulkier demands.
Join TheHomeGround Asia in finding out more about the intricacies behind urban indoor farming, Singapore’s agricultural scene, and how it compares to traditional farming methods — in terms of ecological footprint, price, and taste.
TheHomeGround Asia (THG): What kinds of produce is Artisan Green currently rolling out, and why did you choose them?
Ray Poh (RP): We don’t view other local farms as competitors; we view the imports as our competitors. So we wanted to find a type of produce that no other farms were growing in Singapore, but that still had strong demand and scalability. That is why we first started out with baby spinach.
Now, we’ve got baby spinach and baby red kale. On our herb line, we’re producing lemon basil, dill, coriander, and chives. In about a month’s time, we’re rolling out a mixed salad product. It’s a spinach and red kale mix and we’re calling it the “Kallang Raw” — an ode to Kallang Roar, since we’re based in Kallang right now!
THG: Was the learning curve steep?
RP: Definitely, especially since I did not have a science background. When you think about farming, you might not think it’s a science. But in fact, agricultural science is really important for not just indoor farming, but outdoor farming as well. It took me a year to do in-depth research before I started Artisan Green, and about three years before we got to the point we are at now.
For example, every time we research a new crop, it takes us about two to three months to finalise and optimise our farming processes for maximum yield. For baby spinach, germination might take up to seven days with traditional farming methods, especially under Singapore’s climate. But we found a way to prime our seeds such that germination rates are close to 100 percent within three to four days. We’re also looking to cut down the life cycle of our spinach from three weeks to two.
THG: How do your products compare with traditionally farmed products, in terms of taste?
RP: Spinach itself is touted as a very nutritional vegetable. Everyone thinks about Popeye when they think spinach. But whenever I taste regular spinach, it just seems very bland. So I’m pretty sure people are eating it for its nutritional claims.
Growing up, I’ve eaten a lot of spinach — even more so over the last few years. When we try our own produce, the taste is so much stronger that it almost feels like a completely different vegetable. So some people get a shock when they taste our spinach because it’s nothing like the spinach they taste that they purchase off supermarket shelves.
THG: How about price? How does it compare to imported produce right now?
RP: In terms of pricing, we’re a little bit more premium at the moment, But we’re pretty much on par with organic imported produce. As long as we’re not at 100 percent production, it’s going to be hard to cover our costs and keep our prices low. It took us three years of research to be able to hit this level, but we will be able to match imported produce prices once we scale up with our new farm.
THG: How do you deal with ugly produce?
RP: Every time we harvest, there’s definitely a portion of it that doesn’t meet the supermarkets’ standards. Currently, we’re working with food suppliers to upcycle these crops into pesto, so we try and reduce food waste as much as possible.
By optimising our process for shorter life cycles, we are able to be more flexible when supplying to supermarkets. So within a month, we can actually grow to demand, changing our production output to gear towards supermarkets’ demands, sometimes even cutting out a certain line of product completely.
THG: How does the carbon footprint of your indoor farm compare to that of traditional farms?
RP: We definitely use more electricity than outdoor farms because we use LED lights in place of sunlight, but we’ve tried to conserve as much energy as possible over time.
When we first started off we were using 28-watt LED lights, but after doing a bit of research, we actually decreased the voltage to 20-watts. That’s about 20 percent savings in electricity, which also translates to us using less air conditioning, because less heat is generated.
THG: What about other ecological impacts to which traditional farming is often privy to?
RP: Since ours is an indoor farm, we ourselves don’t want to be breathing in pesticides. So we don’t use any pesticides at all.
In terms of our water footprint, we use 90 percent less water than traditional outdoor farms because we use a recirculating method to feed nutrients to the plants. And since all our nutrients are recirculated into the system, we don’t cause nutrient runoff into the surrounding lands, which may cause other environmental issues overseas such as algae bloom. Our water bill is less than $100 a month.
THG: What do you think of the urban farming scene in Singapore currently?
RP: The rollout of government grants have sprouted a lot more urban farms within the last three years, us included. I think it will be a very interesting scene, but I also hope that most, if not all, of them, survive. It’s not a very easy market based on our last three years of experience.
We definitely want to see more farmers around in Singapore, because that gets us closer to the 30 by 30 goal that the government has set for Singapore. This goal has actually encouraged a lot of young Singaporeans to reach out and collaborate with us, either by having internships or working at the farm itself.
THG: How does Singapore’s (urban) farming scene compare to those overseas?
RP: In many European countries such as the Netherlands, they have agriculture as a big part of their economy and even history. They’re very good at greenhouse technology, so it will take us a little bit of time to catch up. It’s a very nascent industry and we do have good talent in Singapore, but we need to complement it with consultation, partnerships, and education from overseas. I would say that it will still take us about five to 10 years to get there; we have much to learn.