SINGAPORE, August 10, 2009 - Wong Kok Fah, one of Singapore's last remaining farmers, can finally see a future for his vegetable business after 30 years of back-breaking work.
Plans by the industrialised city-state to set aside more land for farming to boost food security have given him hope that the fourth generation of the Wong family can continue the business started by his grandfather.
"In the past, my thinking was I'll do it for as long as I can," Wong, a stocky 48-year-old with a face prematurely aged by too much sun, told AFP at his farm near an army base in the northwestern suburbs.
"How could I make any plans for my business when I could see no future in it?" he said in a mix of Mandarin and English. "It's difficult for the next generation to continue in this business if there's no help from the government."
Mah Bow Tan, the minister for national development, recently announced government plans to allocate more land for intensive farming in a country better known for banking, shopping malls, electronics and pharmaceuticals.
The established strategy of securing the city-state's food supply by keeping a rice stockpile, maintaining a small agricultural sector and diversifying import sources has worked well, Mah explained.
However, soaring food prices amid a global supply crunch in 2008, when inflation hit 28-year highs, highlighted the need to find new ways of reducing Singapore's dependence on food imports.
Food prices have since stabilised but will remain high going forward, said Mah, who added that local farming can serve as a "strategic stockpile".
A fund will be set up to help farmers and the industry expand.
The aim is to eventually raise local production of vegetables to 10 percent of local demand from five percent currently, eggs to 30 percent from 23 percent and fish to 15 percent from four percent, the government said.
"As Singapore is limited by its land resources, we cannot expect to be self-sufficient in all varieties of food as this can only be achieved at the expense of other developments," the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority told AFP.
It said technology will help maximise farm output despite limited land.
Singapore is among the world's most densely populated countries and currently sets aside just three percent of its total area of 710 square kilometres (284 square miles) for agriculture.
Its top fresh food suppliers include Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia. Thanks to rapid economic progress and rising incomes, Singaporeans can afford a full range of food products from all over the world.
The former British colony had a thriving agriculture sector in the 1960s, when there were an estimated 20,000 farms spread over more than 14,000 hectares (34,580 acres). Now it has only 228 farms occupying 708 hectares (1,749 acres).
Pressing economic and housing needs in the 1980s resulted in the government resettling farmers and using the land instead for industrial parks and high-rise flats to house its expanding population.
Farmers like Wong, whose farm produces a variety of vegetables like endives and water spinach, are eagerly embracing the opportunities offered by the new government policy.
"Now there is a chance to increase production if the government sets aside more land," said Wong, who sells most of his produce to the country's biggest supermarket chain. "I will want to expand my production if there is a chance."
His nephew William, 26, is also excited by the prospect of growing the family farm, which is leased from the government.
"If there is a very good opportunity to expand, why not?" said William, who has a diploma in civil engineering but has instead chosen to help with the farm's administration and business development.
"My family has already built a very good foundation for the business."
* * * * *
Published on 8/9/09