5 Practical Farming Questions with Lionel Wong of Upgrown Farming

One of the new features that we’re introducing at Indoor Ag-Con Asia in Singapore on January 15-16, 2019 is mini workshops that allow our participants to add some hands on experience and practical learning to their Indoor Ag-Con experience. The 90 minute workshops will be hosted by local Singaporean firm Upgrown Farming. We spoke with its co-founder, Lionel Wong, about what participants can expect from the sessions.

How did Upgrown Farming get started? What do you do?

We founded Upgrown Farming in Singapore in 2013 out of an interest in finding solutions for sustainable food ecosystems. We are a wholesale supplier of agri consumables and supplies, and an agritech solution provider. We design and develop controlled environment agriculture (CEA) farms and offer agri-business consulting. Most of our clients are in Asia.

How has the southeast Asia indoor ag scene changed over the past five years?
We’ve seen many new indoor farms established in Asia over the last 5 years. A few have ceased operations along the way. Indoor agriculture in Southeast Asia is a tough business for several reasons. Production costs and cost of produce from indoor farms are mostly still unable to compete with greenhouse growing from major production areas such as Genting Highlands.

In Asia, we recommend that indoor farms develop their own niche crop and market strategy; it’s the only way to ensure that your customer gets a unique differentiated product and that you do not have to compete with commodity suppliers. The industry is constantly evolving, so there’s plenty of opportunity to introduce new crops into indoor systems or to adapt a farm to the needs of a specific group of clients, such as high end restaurants or a supermarket chain looking for an exclusive product.

What should we expect from your workshops at Indoor Ag-Con Asia?
Our main aim is to give participants a good understanding of the criteria they should use in selecting growing systems for their indoor farms. There are so many options on the market that it can be confusing to know which are worthwhile investing in, which work well in tropical climates and which are best suited to each crop. We hope that participants will also take the time to share their opinions on grow system options, we’d like the sessions to be as informal as possible.

What’s the biggest mistake that you see new growers making as they plan their first farm?
Starting a farm can be a daunting proposition, especially if it’s your first build. We often see new farmers underestimate the time and resources required to get up and running in a commercial farm, it’s an all-consuming exercise. It can be tempting to do too many things in the farm, trialing all kinds of crops and grow systems without a clear focus.

With the excitement of planning the farm, it can be easy to neglect the need to develop a clear go-to-market strategy. It’s important to spend time understanding market demand for the range of crops that you can grow, and to meet with potential customers ahead of time. Commercial buyers usually have fairly high minimum volumes for veggies, so it’s also a mistake to build a farm that’s too small to meet their needs once you’ve secured a contract. There’s a lot to consider!

Which indoor agriculture tech is poised to have the greatest impact in farms over the next five years?
We’re seeing larger and more sophisticated farms begin to implement their own machine learning programs, so we’re excited for the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) as that technology matures.

More immediately, we’re seeing farms install Smart Farm management systems that enable better control over inputs and costs and give growers more real time information at their fingertips.

In larger plant factories, we’re seeing process automation implemented, and expect to see a good deal more automation in the next generation of these farms as technologies are adapted from manufacturing industries amongst others.

And, of course, the holy grail for many growers is better use of crop sciences, whether that’s developing seeds specifically for indoor grows, or better understanding the impact of light recipes on plants.

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