Growing Crops On Rooftops: Pushing Frontiers With Urban Farming

Urban farmers from Comcrop are working to change the way public officers and the community think about how food is grown.
Farm The Rooftop
Mr Allan Lim (third from left), Comcrop’s Chief Executive, with his volunteers at the farm.
Amid the skyscrapers and shiny malls on Orchard Road, a group of farmers are hard at work. They are picking eggplants and basil atop *SCAPE mall, in what is Singapore’s first commercial rooftop farm.

The size of nearly two basketball courts, the farm currently produces about 60kg of food a week that is sold to nearby hotels and restaurants, at prices below that of organic imports.

On weekends, it transforms into a community farm. Students and elderly volunteers come to tend to the produce and learn how to grow their own food, knowledge they go on to share with smaller aquaponics farms in the heartlands.

The farm is the brainchild of social entrepreneur Mr Allan Lim and his three friends, who all have agriculture-related backgrounds. They set up social enterprise Comcrop to run the farm, a six-figure investment they expect to recoup this year.

Their goal was to tap the potential of “marginalised land” – land that people don’t see as useful – to bring communities closer together and to their food source.
Plant roots help to filter the water
Plant roots help to filter the water, which is recycled from the fish tanks. The fish in turn provide nutrients via their waste.
“We want to bring a farm into the city to help strengthen community bonding and boost food sustainability, which is what Singapore needs,” says Mr Lim, Comcrop’s Chief Executive.

With more food grown locally, Singapore will be better able to withstand food supply disruptions caused by trade restrictions or bad weather overseas, such as drought.

Although the farm is hardly visible from the road, it has already attracted attention for its social mission and agricultural innovation.

The crops are grown in vertical racks that draw water and nutrients from fish waste in water tanks containing tilapias. This creates a self-sustaining aquaponics system that can yield eight to 10 times more than traditional land-based farming.
Plants are grown in water pipes that can be stacked under tents for shade.
Plants are grown in water pipes that can be stacked under tents for shade.

Journey to the rooftop

Getting to this point was not easy: it took the team almost two years to get the farm off the ground.

They were running a small test farm outside the National Youth Council Academy in 2012 when they were invited to meet the inter-agency Garden City Action Committee (GCAC) to discuss how to further green Singapore.

The GCAC’s chairperson, Ms Chang Hwee Nee, Deputy Secretary (Planning) at the Ministry of National Development, liked their idea of bringing communities together through urban farms. Her support led them to the vacant *SCAPE rooftop in 2013.

Despite securing a space, the team knew they had their work cut out for them. With no precedent, they had to figure things out as they went along.

As early as the design phase, they hit a roadblock: The team found that the building’s official roof load, or the maximum weight the roof could take, was only 50kg per square metre.

Mr Lim, who studied civil engineering, pored over the building plans and realised the figure was grossly underestimated. So he recalculated the roof load, had it endorsed by a professional engineer and eventually received approval from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the mall to go ahead.
They asked me, will the farm be a fire hazard? I told them we would have thousands of litres of water so we’d likely be putting out fires instead.
Other government agencies also needed convincing. Mr Lim recalls being peppered with questions at a meeting with officers from the Building and Construction Authority.

“They asked me, will the farm be a fire hazard?” he says. “I told them we would have thousands of litres of water so we’d likely be putting out fires instead.”

But the water could breed mosquitoes, said the officers. “After we told them we are rearing fishes that would eat up the larvae, they told us the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority Singapore (AVA) needs to be involved since we have fishes in the farm. We [would] also need to get clearance from the PUB for water drainage,” recounts Mr Lim.

While he admits the questions seemed “pesky” then, in retrospect he says they show that the Public Service “has gotten more interconnected and agencies can pre-empt the concerns of other agencies”.
Mr Lim inspects the growth of the mint plants.
Mr Lim inspects the growth of the mint plants.
It helps that the Comcrop team has always been clear and transparent with the authorities, and willing to work out solutions together. For example, knowing the mosquito risk, they are “very conscious” to avoid waterlogging.

Since then, the farm has opened its doors to many public officers and won their support. AVA officers, for one, have been helping to improve the farm’s operations by teaching the farmers about food hygiene and pest management, and checking on its produce.

More than just aquaponics

Still, Mr Lim feels it will take time for urban farming to gain traction among public officers.

A case in point: Comcrop’s recent application for the Productivity and Innovation Credit (a scheme under IRAS) was rejected. Mr Lim feels that the rejection could mean that not everyone in the Public Service is involved in the conversation about urban agriculture and thus some may not understand how his farm is innovative.

The hurdles, however, are not stopping Comcrop from pushing the frontiers of urban agriculture in Singapore.

It is preparing to build another rooftop farm in Woodlands, which will be 10 times bigger than its current space at Orchard Road. It aims to produce 2,000 tonnes of food over a two-to-three-year period.

Basil sprouts growing in soil.
Basil sprouts growing in soil.
Success is important because it will “allow society to learn about the potential of marginalised land like rooftops for farming in land-scarce Singapore”, says Mr Lim.

He is also trying to get Singapore’s traditional farmers to embrace urban farming: “What I’ve been doing is to be humble and to learn from them so that we can improve.

“Hopefully through this, we can create a better system. Then the government will be more convinced that urban farms work and will give more land in Singapore to all farmers.”
    Jul 1, 2015
    Jamie Ee
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