The final session of WIEF Idealab 2020 Series in September, focussed on agribusiness and how to make agriculture an attractive venture for young people. Here are some highlights.
Darren Tan begins the final session of WIEF Idealab 2020 Series on 29 September by ensuring the continuity of knowledge to the next generation of farmers. ‘Also, to help farms stay relevant and supportive of the community they’re in,’ he adds. Darren was awarded the young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative professional fellowship by the American Department of State. Back in 2017, he represented Singapore on an exchange focusing on environmental sustainability. ‘I work for ComCrop. It’s the first and only AVA-licensed rooftop greenhouse farm and focuses on converting underutilised land into productive areas and in the process, engage the community,’ he explains. This creates a need to engage youth in agriculture.
More importantly, according to Darren, it’s not that the agricultural industry is at a standstill. Instead, there’s a sort of revival happening for agriculture, ‘Advancements in growing techniques and AI mean we’re no longer bound by location and crop.’ Between 2012 and 2017, the asset size of investments specialising in food and agricultural jumped from USD27 billion to USD73 billion – about 25 per cent jump each year and this has led to innovations such as LED lighting as well as solar panels.
Case Study: Singapore
The majority of land in Singapore is allocated to either residential or industry and only about one per cent of Singapore’s land is dedicated to agriculture, producing about 10 per cent of its total food consumption. ‘This leaves us with a unique situation where it’s a question of carbon footprint since food need to travel to reach us due to limited land and production capacity,’ explains Darren. ‘So, to address this, ComCrop tries to operate multiple farms across the country to feed the community.’
ComCrop, according to Darren, focuses a lot on producing leafy vegetables because it’s the key concern of Singapore’s food security, ‘Generally, leafy vegetables have a very short shelf life. We work with people with dementia who take on tasks such as transplanting or seeding.’ ComCrop partners with organisations to tailor work for people with disabilities and raise awareness through workshops. In this way, it also engages youth and gives them a chance to learn about the industry while giving them the opportunity to influence policy change.
‘I’d say that youth today are really more attracted to the sense of urgency, the feeling that they can make a change, rather than high salaries. I think they do want something different,’ observes Darren.
‘We, as a society, have placed a lot of importance on money,’ says Darren. ‘Unfortunately, the continuity of food is something that people have yet to see. We’re only starting to see the shift now with climate change affecting food production with issues like the pandemic that’s highlighting the importance of food. There’s nothing glamorous about getting down and dirty, and really making the effort to produce food for people because when you think about it, the amount of food that we consume nowadays is amazingly a lot.’ So, it’s no wonder that investments are pouring into the agricultural industry. There’s a lot of potential for growth. With the dedication to grow food, combined with the ability to look at technology and say, how can I leverage this technology and change as well as improve some of the processes that we’re already doing?
Darren believes that opportunities in agriculture lie in areas such as academic research and automation that includes figuring out controlled environment, programming using AI as well as inclusivity in the agricultural industry that could afford people with disabilities jobs.
For those who’d like to venture into farming, Darren advises, ‘It’s always good to just start small and allow yourself to learn from other people. Then expand from there. Cost is still a big issue. Start small with a few plots of land. Technology will, of course, cost money but costs are coming down. More importantly, don’t be too seduced by technology because you do need a spectrum of experience. So, it’s really good to just learn from different sources.’
A lot of investments tend to focus on the tech companies involved in agriculture. However, tech companies may not have experience in actually growing crop. On the other hand, agricultural entities tend to focus on keeping things consistent and running. Thus, Darren reminds how there needs to be a midpoint between the mechanism and the end product.
Is Farming Lucrative?
‘It is,’ Darren replies. ‘The price of food will not always stay the same, it’s very fast growing. The need for fresh and healthy vegetables will start to increase. Soon, you’ll start to see cost of living and average vegetables will rise as well. Traditional farming costs are lower. Its operating costs are lower and what you earn will also be lower. However, when you go into urban farming you can shorten the timing of from farm to consumer. Generally, there’s a premium on fresh and healthy vegetables. So, it works out in the end.’
Agribusiness is just like any other business. ‘It’s a lot about common sense, about understanding as well as being willing to try and learn. There’s a lot of perseverance needed,’ Darren says. ‘ComCrop’s trying many different approaches. At the moment we still stick to what’s common in most countries where there are already developed networks to sell the produce to restaurants through a distributor or directly to supermarkets. Eventually, as decentralised farms become more commonplace, there may then be another network where you can sell directly to the community.’
As for turning a farm into an organic one, Darren says it depends on the country that you’re in. ‘Because different countries have different organic standards. Most of the time, productivity of an organic farm is a little bit less by around 70 or 80 per cent. Also, there’s the complexity of making sure that you meet the organic standards every other year. The idea of being a farmer is slowly changing. It’s a growing opportunity that’s worth exploring.
Main photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash.