Singapore’s Last Remnants of Horticulture
By Miyuki Leong, Editor
Small Business in Trouble?
As COVID-19 has impacted most local businesses, I was curious about how they were holding up. Thus, I interviewed Patricia, one of the owners of Golden Hill Landscape, about the current trials and tribulations of working in the horticultural scene in Singapore, and the future of her business.
Business Challenges and the Impact of COVID-19
Patricia and her three other siblings run a business that sells ornamental plants for offices, indoor commercial buildings and private residences. Her family has been well-versed with agricultural-related business for generations - from her great-grandparents growing vegetables and rearing livestock to her father venturing out into commercial orchid cultivation. Now, the family focuses on ornamental plants and landscape designing.
When I first asked Patricia about the impacts of COVID-19 on her business, she did not delve into the financial losses that her business faced, but instead talked about the great importance of workplace safety. Fortunately, her workers could stay in dorms on-site. However, to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 and other possibilities of workplace injuries, her workers were careful to monitor the latest regulations concerning workplace safety for manual labour job sites.
She valued all of her workers as they each played a vital role in the cultivation and delivery of plants. However, finding reliable manpower was often the greatest issue for Golden Hills and other businesses in her industry. She explained how it was getting harder to find and retain competent, interested employees. Due to the inconsistent headcount, her family remained largely independent and was heavily involved in every aspect of the business.
Unfortunately, the hard truth was that despite their dedication to the business, if there were not enough clients to sell their plants to, their hard work would be futile. That became the case when there were a lot less clients due to COVID-19. As a result, her business became heavily reliant on contracts.
Apart from the direct effects of COVID-19, Patricia cited the rapid changes in usage of social media as factors for the shift in their business strategy. In her line of business, the survival of her farm can often be attributed significantly to marketing. In this day and age where online mediums define brand awareness, she detailed that it was necessary to adapt and remain competitive vis-a-vis other similar businesses by forming a distinct brand image to increase brand loyalty.
Nonetheless, what social media may fail to fully capture is Patricia’s passion and extensive knowledge of botany. When I inquired about what set her business apart from her competition, she proudly explained that compared to other vendors, she invested in the maintenance, patience and care to make her plants long-lasting. Their nursery takes a relatively longer cycle to ensure that their plants grow out healthy roots and stalks.
Patricia also credited the success of her business to her father, who had been a great mentor to her with his vast experience in horticulture. He advised on using traditional horticulture maintenance techniques, so much so that the use of automatic irrigation systems are probably the only advanced technology that their farm currently employs. These techniques have stood the test of time, as there is currently no automatic way to harvest these plants without damaging them.
As we took a tour around her farm, I was amazed at the large variety of plants they offered. She proudly told me that all these plants come from her farm in Malaysia where they germinate. Afterwards, these plants are exported to her farm in Singapore for sale.
The Rise of Urban Horticulture and Agriculture
Halfway through the tour, she pointed out the neighbouring farm not too far away. It was Sky Greens, the first-ever experiment and research into vertical farming. Set up by engineer Jack Ng, it was a hydraulic-driven vertical farm that sought to minimise land usage, water and energy resources.
With the overarching objective to reduce carbon emissions, Sky Greens represents the future of urban farming and food sustainability. However, on top of technology costs, Sky Greens still relies on manpower to maintain the overall farming structure. This was an interesting point to consider as the Singapore government has pushed the initiative of urban farming as the solution to food sustainability. Yet, when we look at media coverage about the potential of urban farming in Singapore, a lot of these research initiatives have a long way to go before it can be commercially viable.
The Master Plan’s Involvement
According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore’s scarce land has instigated endeavours into finding solutions for food sustainability, including research into productivity through farming technologies and innovations.
Patricia’s farm and other agricultural and horticultural businesses in the area are located at the heart of the future “high-tech agri-food cluster” in Singapore, according to the Singapore Food Agency. This initiative is part of the overall Master Plan 2020, a map that houses all the latest plans of land development and guides Singapore’s physical development and urban growth.
One of the goals of this agri-food initiative in the Master Plan is to have every household play a role in farming for their own food. The public reception of this responsibility seems to be positive, as Patricia has noticed more customers requesting home designs for vegetables or herbs for urban farming. At this stage, Patricia believes that with the right knowledge and commitment to grow their food from home, more people would try out urban farming.
On the other hand, the Master Plan has also caused a lot of challenges for businesses like Patricia’s. In terms of the impacts of the Master Plan on Golden Hill Landscape, the government is now leasing land in Lim Chu Kang on a 3-year extension basis, compared to an original arrangement of a 20-year lease.
This lease revision is meant to encourage businesses in the LCK to move onto newly renovated land designated for local agricultural businesses. However, this arrangement does not benefit these businesses for two reasons.
Firstly, there is now a high cost to bid and tender for the new land, and if they do successfully bid for the land, they would need to invest a lot of capital to build new water irrigation sources and infrastructure.
Secondly, as Patricia recounts, there is a new criteria for bidding for land, which requires businesses to reach certain productivity minimums, calculated based on sales, profit and manpower costs. These minimums are harder to achieve when there is a lot of uncertainty in future earnings for businesses like Patricia’s, especially during a pandemic like COVID-19.
Considering both factors, there are no short or long-term incentives for Patricia to move her farm to a new plot of land. However, she believes that the government may postpone any action related to the Master Plan or the status of her current lease due to COVID-19, rendering business continuity to be fraught with uncertainty.
Though Patricia has expressed some ambivalence about her business’ survival, she remains optimistic on the whole and continues to run her business with vigor.
The End of Her Business?
When I asked Patricia about how traditional family businesses like hers could survive in the current age, she replied that they often needed to react promptly to the ever-changing and globalising business environment. A particularly interesting point that was brought up as a result of the discussion was the strong support for local businesses in parts of Europe, Australia and Japan (previous business market).
Despite governmental strategies and public encouragement aimed at supporting small local businesses in Singapore, Patricia has not seen noticeably positive impacts on her business. She said, “Unless you have strong support from locals, it is difficult to sell these products to Singaporeans when Malaysians can sell for cheaper.”
She also realised that if she wanted to keep her business running, she would need to implement new technological changes. However since most farms are small or medium enterprises (SMEs) managed by families, these requirements may pose big financial challenges. As such, much of their success may depend greatly on how the government supports these businesses.
Currently, there are government land redevelopment initiatives for farms like Patricia’s, but they have also experienced pushbacks regarding this option. Ultimately, it comes down to this dilemma: the Singapore government wants these businesses to tend for cleared land, but these businesses realised that it will be more financially viable to maintain infrastructure on their current land than to purchase a new but smaller plot of land.
Combining all these factors, it is no wonder why she and other farmers in the area are reluctant to comply with this new change, as the majority of them are still struggling to sustain their businesses.
When we consider all of these new regulations and setbacks, it is difficult to see how local family businesses like Patricia’s are able to survive especially during COVID-19. When I asked her why she should keep her family farm in Singapore when it seems much cheaper to have it in Malaysia, she said that she had established a significant group of loyal Singaporean clients and her company in the Singapore market over the years.
Only after talking to Patricia, it became much clearer why she would want to continue her family’s business in Singapore. It is the unspoken bond and commitment to uphold a familial generation and legacy, the people and the connections she has made throughout the years that has made the family business worth keeping. Other than having a business out of necessity, her business represents a time and memory in the past of how Singapore used to be.
Hidden in the shadows of large multinational corporations, there are still local businesses like Patricia’s who have kept their family tradition alive by maintaining these businesses while adapting to the ever-changing currents of business and affairs. With Patricia’s father as her mentor, her family and staff have developed an even closer bond, overcoming countless challenges as a team.
Miyuki is a Year 3 sociology and communications major, and an Editor for The Convergence. She is interested in global politics, more specifically issues concerning development and sustainability of countries, from socio-economic, political and environmental perspectives. She hopes that her articles create interest and bring a new angle to life in Singapore in the minds of her fellow university students. She is an avid consumer of murder mysteries, British comedy, traveling and experimental cooking. She likes snuggling with her dog while watching 90 Day Fiancé. Youthful, spunky and lots of fun, this reporter has a nose for news and a taste for tea. And if that tea has bubbles, it makes it even better.