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This veggie garden is basically an organic server farm of kale

Commentary: Sustenir's vertical garden is literally a concrete food jungle, and it's one of the coolest things I've seen all year.


Surrounded by concrete walls that were until recently home to industrial tooling machines, thousands of kale plants are stacked in a vertical hydroponic garden. It is literally an organic server farm of kale.

I plucked a leaf from the wall of green and popped it in my mouth.

Absolutely delicious. And I'm not what you'd call a salad guy.

This is Sustenir, a 668 square meter farm located in a concrete estate, in an industrial suburb of Singapore that wants to grow hydroponic (the method of growing plants without soil) food crops in the land-scarce country to feed more people and keep import costs down.

Trust me, this all-grey temple of manufacturing is the last place you'd expect to find a thriving farm, let alone anything living and green. That contrast is exactly how Sustenir's founders, construction manager Benjamin Swan and accountant Martin Lavoo, like it.


Sustenir's founders Martin Lavoo (left) and Benjamin Swan.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Before you can appreciate the scale of the project, you have to understand Singapore's relationship to farming.

An island nation about half the size of Los Angeles, Singapore imports 90 percent of its food from around the world.

In 2015, local farms produced about 13 percent of the vegetables consumed locally (PDF), using about 1 percent of the island to grow crops. Most of Singapore's produce comes from Malaysia and China, but some is flown in from as far as the US or Australia -- like Tuscan kale and curly kale, two varieties that Sustenir grows.

Singapore currently has 10 indoor vertical vegetable farms.

As Sustenir doesn't want to compete with the few local farmers, it works on non-native produce instead. By growing the crop here, Sustenir's imported, organic kale can stay fresh for two weeks longer compared to imported kale, which loses part of its freshness in the shipping process.

Given Singapore's smaller land size, the ingenious use of space and hydroponics could set an example for urban farmers everywhere to produce clean, pesticide-free vegetables faster and more abundantly than in the ground.

Starting fresh

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Starting in a basement, Sustenir's initial setup cost $150, but the company went through 18 lighting vendors and numerous indoor configurations before deciding on the right recipe to grow kale efficiently in such land-strapped space.

"The way we wanted to look at technology was [from] a value-engineering standpoint," said Lavoo, the engineer. "We wanted to take all the ideas around vertical farming, and boil it down to the basics."

In this case "the basics" include a combination of red and blue LED grow lights (sprouting kale and growing kale use different spectrums), and hydroponics, a nutrient solution, instead of soil, as some indoor farms do.

Consumers tend to prefer soil-grown produce, said Fadhlina Suhaimi, a senior scientist at Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), and it's easier to grow a wider range of vegetables and herbs in soil.

But the old-fashioned way using soil requires more manpower and planting materials, and kale can take longer to grow, so yield is lower.

Grow Sustenir's kale did. It takes this concrete jungle kale garden two weeks to go from seed to harvest, compared to about a month for outdoor farms, according to Lavoo.

"We [don't] think we can grow a plant in our environment that would compete with the best of what nature is able to provide," said Lavoo. "But what the best nature is able to provide is becoming more a constricted reality for mankind."

Room to grow

A healthy harvest is one thing, but what really sets Sustenir apart from other hydroponic farmers is a patent-pending system that lets it store more growing racks in a smaller enclosed space, while still giving workers enough room to harvest and replant.


Harvested kale at Sustenir's farm.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Remember when I compared Sustenir's farming operations to an organic server farm? With racks and racks of kale stacked next to each other, that's a pretty close description.

Because Sustenir uses hydroponics and an air-conditioned indoor facility, the company says it doesn't need to use pesticides to keep the plants bug-free. There's no soil harboring little bugs and no stretches of open air for their migration.

However, this kale farm takes precautions anyway. I did have to endure an air shower and put on a sterile jumpsuit before heading inside the facility.

The company currently takes up about half of its rented space, with plans to expand to its other half in the coming months. Besides kale, the company is also looking into cherry tomatoes, having successfully cultivated a test crop so far, and strawberries.

Growth-wise, Sustenir is looking to spread its gospel to other land-scarce urban environments, such as Hong Kong or even Colombo, Sri Lanka, where its already-established model of locally growing high-end, high-value crops could also work.

In Singapore and elsewhere, Sustenir's LED lights and server farm-style plantings would help keep the cost of imported produce down.

With access to tasty, locally-grown produce like this, I might even learn to become a salad guy after all...

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