Saturday, 28 Nov 2020

Urban farm leverages smart technology to produce highly nutritious and flavourful greens

SINGAPORE – An urban farm that aims to produce high yield greens without sacrificing any flavour by leveraging Internet of Things technology was officially launched on Thursday (Oct 22).

Commonwealth Greens took root in Jurong in May. The forest-like farm consists of over 6,200 pillars, each of them 2.4m tall, that are reminiscent of foliage bursting from trees.

Positioned in six different rooms the size of HDB flats, the pillars in each room support one type of leafy green: lettuce, kale, chard or herbs. Hydroponics is used to grow the plants.

The farm can grow up to 100 tonnes of vegetables a year, which is close to 1 per cent of vegetables grown locally.

During the launch on Thursday, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu visited the farm as well as Archisen, the agri-tech firm that set up and manages Commonwealth Greens.

The minister had discussions with Archisen’s co-founders, the Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) chief executive and the senior director of the agency’s industry development and partnership division.

Archisen co-founder and chief technology officer Sven Yeo said Commonwealth Greens is one of the highest-yielding indoor farms in Singapore and that it will support and contribute to the country’s goal to self-produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030.

The farm’s leafy greens are currently sold on online supermarkets such as RedMart and PandaMart under the brand Just Produce. Each 100g salad mix that costs between $4 and $4.50 comprises a variety of lettuce and kale, along with either mustard greens, sorrel or mizuna.

From mid-November, the farm will start selling speciality herbs – mustard greens, ice plant and sorrel – in 20g boxes which will cost between $4 and $5.


Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu (centre) viewing Just Harvest, the latest farm to table solution which will be announced soon for potential clients such as hotels, restaurants and cafes. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Archisen has also developed a mini version of its farming system. Shorter pillars brimming with full-grown veggies are stored in a glass cabinet and can be sent to restaurants for direct harvesting. From next month, the company will deploy those cabinets to five hotels, restaurants and food service companies.

It is not just its aesthetics that makes Commonwealth Greens unique.

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To ensure optimal yield, fast growth, and highly nutritious and flavourful greens, the vertical systems are powered by a smart cockpit that heavily leverages Internet of Things technology, data analytics and sensors.

Called Croptron, this cockpit creates a controlled environment – the basis of a typical indoor farm – by manipulating things like relative humidity and the pH of the nutrient solution that drips into the plants.

Data is continually stored in the cloud, in real time, for the scientists to analyse and to drive automation. For example, if the pH of the nutrient for lettuce reaches unhealthy levels, sensors will alert a device to automatically restore the acidity level.

“As we have more growth cycles over time, our datasets increase, and that enables us to construct mathematical models to predict the outcome of how we grow,” said Mr Yeo.

Archisen’s office, which is one level above Commonwealth Greens, also houses a research lab for conducting experiments and testing new high-tech solutions.


Mr Vincent Wei (left), chief executive officer and co-founder of Archisen, and Mr Sven Yeo, chief technological officer and co-founder of Archisen. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

In the near future, the company plans to build indoor fruit orchards or vineyards, and use hydroponics to grow them.

Currently, efforts are under way to grow black, red and green grapes in a controlled environment. In 10 months, the vines have started to bear clusters of grapes, each fruit about the size of a chickpea.

Through traditional farming, it takes about three years to fully grow grapes.

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Although immature and smaller grapes tend to be sour, the black grapes from the lab taste sweet.

Archisen scientists also found a way to grow lettuce – which typically thrives in cooler temperatures – at almost 30 deg C.

It was also found that when mustard greens grow in a higher ambient temperature, the plants grow faster, but their wasabi flavour gets muted.

“These findings enable us to manipulate the flavour of the crop to adjust to the preferences of the market,” said Mr Yeo.

Tasting the farm’s specialty herbs

ICE PLANT

The edible succulent is coated with tiny, crystal-like beads that give the unique vegetable a frosty, magical appearance. It typically grows in saline environments and its beads trap salt – hence its salty taste. 

Archisen grew different sets of Ice Plants using nutrient solutions filled with either table salt, sea salt or Himalayan pink salt. 

It was discovered that table and sea salt made the taste too sharp for comfort – but Himalayan pink salt was easier on the palate. 

The mildly salty succulent has a crunchy texture, is juicy and refreshing.

MUSTARD GREENS

The dainty-looking leaf with the frilly edges can be a healthier substitute for wasabi. 

The fierce wasabi heat hits you immediately, spreading down the throat and up the nose.

You may tear up a little too. R&D was used to intensify the wasabi flavour.

RED-VEINED SORREL

The leaves can replace lemon juice or dressing in salads.

On the second bite, the citrusy flavour explodes, giving a sour surprise.

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