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The New Hong Kong Farmers

Hong Kong farms may be few and far between, but a new group of farmers are rising up to revive our city’s agrarian past. Grace Tsoi gets up close and personal with the entrepreneurial agriculturalists who are looking to introduce a little local flavor to your dinner plates. Photos by Cyrus Wong.

By Grace Tsoi | Aug 23, 2012

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  • The New Hong Kong Farmers

In a tiny city like Hong Kong, our precious land is more often thought of in terms of how many apartment blocks can be built on it, rather than how it might be able to feed us. Increasingly, however, people are starting to till the fields once more. Proper, working farms have been set up that produce organic crops with a low carbon footprint. From rice to guavas and strawberries to leafy greens, these entrepreneurial ecological heroes are bringing back the Hong Kong farm.

 

Going green

Two vegetable farmers take very different approaches to make their dreams of turning organic farming into a viable business a reality.

Wong Ling is one of the pioneers of organic farming in Hong Kong, having opened 616 Farm in Pat Heung in 1999. When he first dabbled in organic farming, he had no idea that the venture had such potential. “No one believed that customers would pay so much for organic vegetables—traditional farmers could not accept that someone would pay more than $20 for a catty of lettuce or tung choi,” says Wong. “Even now, I still can’t quite believe it. But yes, such customers do exist.” A former insurance agent, Wong takes pride in his business acumen and is determined to do the impossible: turn local agriculture into a real money-maker.

In order to run a sustainable operation, a farmer has to guarantee a steady supply during different times of the year. “It is not difficult to get harvests in winter, but a farm’s success very much depends on whether it can produce a harvest in summer,” explains Wong. Hongkongers are picky eaters, and they often demand certain vegetables that are not in season during summer months—winter vegetable choi sum, for instance, is the most popular. But it is difficult to grow choi sum in the summer because it attracts too many pests and the weather is too hot.

So Wong scratched his head and tried to think of ways to grow quality choi sum in the hot summer months. He came up with the idea of using protective netting to shield vulnerable choi sum seedlings from rain and strong winds. Over three years, he has created a few designs. “I’ve been waiting for a powerful typhoon for years to test out my netting,” he adds. “Each set only costs 3,000 RMB—I think we should introduce this equipment to the southern China region.” Typhoon Vicente’s recent visit proved that the netting is able to withstand strong winds—and Wong’s choi sum, unlike many other farmers’ crops, managed to survive the storm.

While Wong attempts to grow local vegetables through unconventional means, Ng Ping-leung from Zen Organic Farm has tried to carve out a niche for himself by prioritizing unique, foreign vegetables.

“We grow the vegetables other farmers don’t grow,” says Ng. Zen Organic Farm is largely different from other farms—as it has a number of greenhouses and has been carefully divided into different zones. In the summer, the farm produces hot weather vegetables such as European cucumbers and Okinawan bitter melons. The winter harvest is of a wider variety, and includes salad greens, carrots and tomatoes of varying shapes and colors.

Zen Organic Farm was founded by Ng and his sister three years ago. But before the official opening, the brother-and-sister team spent a year doing market research and sampling with a range of produce. “I am friends with some French chefs and gourmands. They told us the latest dining trends and what the European farmers are doing. So, we did not choose to grow certain crops arbitrarily,” Ng says. For instance, Ng tried growing more than 100 species of tomato before settling on the types he currently produces.

Because Hong Kong customers have been quite eager to buy organic vegetables, the potential for Wong’s and Ng’s businesses is growing. The two farmers may have very different visions, but the revival of Hong Kong agriculture very much depends on their shared values: business sense, innovation and, most important of all, perseverance.

616 Farm: Tai Wo Village, Kam Sheung Rd., Yuen Long, 9658-1400, www.616.hk.
Zen Organic Fram: Ping Che, Ta Kwu Ling (Near Lei Uk Village), 9729-2903, www.zeno.com.hk.


Hong Kong Farmer Markets: Where to Buy The Freshest Produce


Suppertime staple

For local green groups, rice farming not only feeds local villagers—it helps enrich the natural environment by providing sustenance for rare birds.

It is hard to imagine that, only a few decades ago, rice paddies were a common sight in the New Territories. There was even a special variety of local rice—Yuen Long long-grain rice—which was known for its fragrance and chewy texture. It’s the same old story: as Hong Kong’s economy took off, urbanization kicked in. Yuen Long’s special rice disappeared and our agricultural past was forgotten. But in recent years, a group of green activists have succeeded in reviving rice cultivation in Hong Kong. In fact, rice farming has a dual purpose: In addition to being a source of food for humans, it helps to protect the environment and provides a habitat and food source for endangered animal species.

Situated in Sheung Shui, Long Valley is the largest wetland in Hong Kong. An ecologically sensitive zone, it serves as a stop for migratory birds and is also home to frogs, fireflies and other wildlife. In 2005, with funding from the Sustainable Development Fund, the Conservancy Association teamed up with the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society to launch the Nature Conservation Management Project for Long Valley. With the goal of maintaining freshwater habitats, the groups jointly transformed 12 out of 50 hectares of the wetland (the rest is still privately owned) into a natural habitat. Some of the site was turned into marshland to provide worms for birds to eat. Other parts were set aside to cultivate freshwater crops, including Chinese arrowheads, water chestnuts and lotuses. The crops are looked after by 25 farmers who receive economic subsidies and support from volunteers, allowing them to continue their work. Then, in 2006, green activists decided to experiment with rice farming in an attempt to attract rice-eating birds to the area.

Commercial rice production is actually an unexpected by-product of the conservation plan. As the green activists gained more experience, they found that not only could they feed the migratory birds, rice production had also increased so much that they had surplus crops to give away and sell. “In the beginning, we couldn’t even collect one grain because the birds ate them all. The next year, we had some but not much. My colleague and I had to sweep every grain from each plant. We saved the seeds for next season,” says Katie Chik, conservation manager of the Conservancy Association. “We found that rice cultivation is good for the ecological system, so we grew more and more. In 2009, we had our first real harvest, which yielded over 100 kilos of rice.”

Indeed, the rice has drawn more birds to the area. “Before the scheme was launched, about 220 bird species were sighted in Long Valley. Now, we can see more than 280 species,” says Hong Kong Bird Watching Society’s senior project officer Vicky Yeung. Thanks to the project, rare and endangered birds can now be seen in Long Valley, including yellow-breasted buntings and black-faced spoonbills.

Apart from creating a hospitable environment for birds, Chik also sees the potential for real rice production in Long Valley. “We have two harvests a year, and we can produce three tons of rice each year,” Chik estimates. “Rice can be processed into a variety of by-products, such as rice biscuits, cakes and snacks. It is also a staple food of the Chinese. So the market should be large enough for the rice produced in Long Valley.” Rice is also a product that can guarantee a more stable income for farmers. Since rice is not perishable, farmers can adjust the amount of rice brought to market depending on demand and easily store the rest.

A good relationship between the villagers and environmentalists is integral to the success of the management scheme. “We want the villagers to know that we are growing rice now—and we even give rice to them as gifts. The villages have lost their connection to farmlands. When we were growing other crops, the villagers were kind of contemptuous. But their sentiments are very different towards rice. Some of the villagers have fond memories, as they grew rice when they were young,” Chik says. “Some of the villagers think that green groups stir up trouble and prevent them from selling their land to developers. Even though we can’t really change their minds, we hope that the villagers will have a stronger bond with the land.”

Recently, green activists have reached a bottleneck in terms of rice production. After all, rice farming involves complicated procedures, including transplanting, milling and drying. “Our farming method is very labor-intensive, just like the farmers of the terraced fields in remote parts of China. We are quite primitive,” Chik says. The groups are thinking of introducing some threshing machines, but Chik stresses that complete mechanization is unfeasible in Long Valley.

After seven years, the scheme—which has had its contract extended until 2015—has proved to be a success. However, threats are lurking around the corner. The government is planning to develop three new areas in the northeast New Territories, and Long Valley is stuck between two of the new towns: Kwu Tung North and Fanling North. Long Valley itself will be zoned as a “comprehensive development and nature conservation enhancement area.” Chik is worried that farming will be forbidden in the new zone. “After the government acquires the land, will Long Valley turn into a wetland park? If a wetland park is built, there will be no more farming,” Chik says. “We welcome the government to acquire land for ecological conservation, but it has to include some agricultural elements in its plans. The ecological value of Long Valley does not only lie in birds. The wetland is also valuable because it epitomizes a balance between conservation and human activities such as farming.” Chik hopes to turn Long Valley into a conservation and rice production zone, but whether this dream can be turned into reality depends on the government’s land planning—and its vision for the future of agriculture in Hong Kong.


Photos courtesy of the Conservancy Association

For more information about the rice, including how to purchase it, call Katie Chik at 2272-0311 or visit www.cahk.org.hk.

 

Fungus among us

Mushrooms need very little space and very little maintenance to flourish. Could they be a dream crop for local agriculturalists?

While some varieties of local produce have been well received, very few people know that Hong Kong also produces its own mushrooms. In Yuen Long’s Ngau Tam Mei area, a farm has been quietly churning out tons of fresh, natural and chemical-free mushrooms and selling them to retailers throughout the city.

Back in 2008, local firm Auden Green Products set up a mushroom farm in Ngau Tam Mei. The farm, which mainly cultivates white button mushrooms, is by no means large: it consists of two growing rooms, each 50 square meters in size. “It is not very difficult to grow mushrooms if you are familiar with the procedures,” says Sandy Law, the farm’s manager. Workers place compost bags—containing mushroom spores, wheat straws and chicken manure—on the shelves. A layer of casing soil is then applied to the compost. Besides carefully controlling the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide concentration, nothing else needs to be done. The farm is fitted with air-conditioners and humidifiers, while a variety of machines and equipment, including mixing machines and carbon dioxide measurers, are also available to make workers’ jobs easier.

Mushrooms have a fascinating life cycle. Little happens in the first 20 days, as mushroom pins form silently underneath the casing soil. The magic happens when mushrooms start to grow—with a little watering, their size will almost double up in only two days. That’s when the mushrooms are ready for reaping. Each compost bag lasts for 40 to 45 days and yields one ton of mushrooms.

In Hong Kong, there is a deep-rooted belief that agriculture is dying. So why on earth has Auden Green Products invested in a mushroom farm in the city? “I always ask, why not develop agriculture in Hong Kong?” says Auden Green Products owner Wong Kong-sang, who is in his 70s. “Hong Kong has an existing market for organically farmed products. Right now, a lot of high-end produce sold in supermarkets are either imported from Japan or Europe. I think Hong Kong should get its share of this business. With modern agricultural technologies, a small amount of land can yield a large harvest.”

Wong first got the idea to open a mushroom farm while doing business in China’s Shandong province. “In the past, I was in the textile business in Shandong, which is a wheat-growing area. Wheat straw and chicken manure are very good food for mushrooms. Therefore, the officials encouraged the farmers to produce mushrooms,” Wong says. In 2005, Wong set up his first mushroom farm in Shandong. It housed 16 growing rooms of 480 square meters each.

The majority of Auden’s products, like portobello mushrooms, are grown in Shandong. But Wong is planning to relocate his production arm back to Hong Kong. The local mushroom farm will be moved to Sha Tau Kok and will be expanded into seven 270-square-meter growing rooms, which will be mechanized. “If there is a market [for mushrooms], a farm should be set up here. It will be much more convenient to grow mushrooms in Hong Kong, and the mushrooms will be much fresher! Compost bags can be transported, and the Shandong farm will hopefully be converted into a compost manufacturing center,” Wong says.

Undeterred by his age, Wong is very excited about the prospects and potential for green enterprise in Hong Kong. “Mushroom cultivation is a zero-waste business. The leftover compost is a very good organic fertilizer. I am currently giving it away for free, but it may become another side business in the future. Also, mushroom stems can be used as fish food, and there will be a fish farm in Sha Tau Kok,” he adds. His business plan doesn’t stop there: “You can make soup, burgers, sandwiches, spaghetti, and even dessert with mushrooms. I hope to start a mushroom fast food chain in Hong Kong!”

 

Auden’s mushrooms are available at Citysuper, Yata Department Store, UNY, Three Sixty and Market Place by Jasons. Find out more at www.auden.com.hk.

 

Berry nice

In Hong Kong, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who loves strawberries as dearly as Eddy Chan, whose passion for the fruit prompted him to open up Hong Kong’s largest strawberry farm.

“I love eating and picking strawberries. I used to go to different farms on the mainland every week, just to pick fresh strawberries,” Chan says. But the fruit enthusiast became increasingly concerned with the safety of mainland strawberries, as reports of farmers applying chemical ripening agents emerged in the media. Closer to home, though, Chan was not impressed with the standard of strawberry farms in Hong Kong. “I visited farms in Yuen Long and Ping Che, and none of them wowed me,” says Chan. “I wanted to build a huge strawberry farm so that when people visited it, they would be wowed. At first, I thought of naming my farm Wow Strawberry Farm, but I figured the name was too peculiar.” In 2009, Chan opened Rainbow Organic Strawberry Farm, with 200,000 square feet of strawberry fields, nestled in Fanling’s Hok Tau. The clear, unpolluted Tan Shan River flows nearby.

It is not easy to grow strawberries in Hong Kong. With our heat and humidity, we do not have the ideal climate for strawberries, and winter is the only growing season here. At the same time, strawberries are delicate plants that need lots of care. “We start growing strawberries in October every year, and they are ripe for picking around Christmas,” says Chan. “Strawberries are difficult to grow because they catch diseases easily. Once a seedling is infected with a virus, the disease will spread to other seedlings. Traditional farms may use chemicals to stop the infection, but you can’t do this in organic farming.”

Chan had never thought of owning a farm—let alone one of the biggest in Hong Kong. An industrialist for 30 years before his career shift, Chan owned a candle factory on the mainland that employed 1,000 workers. “In 2003, I filed an application to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD)’s land rehabilitation scheme. After four years of waiting, I was allocated some plots of land. At that time, my factory was still operating. I farmed only for leisure and relaxation,” Chan says. “It’s like a garden to me. When I came here, I could listen to the singing of birds and smell the aroma of blooming flowers and fresh grass.”

Chan’s hobby became a career when his candle business failed. “The factory had to be closed down and I laid off all the workers.

I sold all the equipment and returned to Hong Kong. My soul was empty, and I nursed myself through the difficult days by working quietly on the land,” Chan reminisces. His life as a farmer began in earnest after he made friends with another farm owner. Together, they joined forces to grow crops.

The life of a farmer isn’t easy, especially for a novice like Chan. “I had never farmed before! I had to attend every course offered by AFCD. I learned about farming, fertilizers and pests from scratch. The physical input [of learning] is demanding, but fortunately I am quite interested in agriculture,” Chan says.

To an industrialist, cost, revenue and profit are numbers that can be calculated on balance sheets. But Chan, having learned his lesson the hard way, soon found out that the industrialist mindset cannot be applied to farming. “If you look at the numbers on paper, agriculture is very lucrative. But only fools think like that! It’s a risky venture and I now realize that farmers can’t get rich unless their capital is huge,” Chan says. Also, he recently realized that even the best planning can’t outsmart the vagaries of nature: last month’s Typhoon Vicente brought huge losses “I lost nearly $200,000 after the storm because 700 watermelons were damaged. Each watermelon can be sold for $100—they were two weeks from being ready to harvest,” Chan laments.

Even though Chan expresses some frustrations about running such a large farm, it is easy to tell that he is fiercely proud of his venture. “In the first year, I was so happy! The harvest was so good that there were strawberries everywhere. Visitors WERE wowed by the farm!” Chan exclaims. He is still eager to try new things. In addition to growing organic rice, he is also planning to build a petting zoo with rabbits so children can get up close and personal with the animals. Agriculture may be a tough business in Hong Kong, but Chan is still striving to make his dream a reality.

DD 76 Lot, 655 Hok Tau Rd., Fanling, 9302-0258, www.strawberry-farm.com.hk.

 

Fruit Whisperer

The guava is a tropical fruit that’s available year-round, making it one of the most popular crops locally. But among all the guava growers in Hong Kong, Ngai Sik-yuen, 79, probably grows the sweetest.

Fondly known as Uncle Ngai, the veteran farmer is very humble about his achievements, despite the many awards he has received for his produce over the years. “Awards are only a form of encouragement. You have to keep doing what you are supposed to do,” says Uncle Ngai. “I dare not take any credit. I am not a cultured person, and I don’t have any special skills.”

Despite his age and self-deprecating nature, Uncle Ngai is quite an innovator. Even today, he still experiments, refining his skills and techniques. Each guava is carefully wrapped in a plastic bag so that birds cannot peck at the fruit. Uncle Ngai has created seven bag designs because different bags affect the way his guavas look and taste. Besides the protective bags, Uncle Ngai has various techniques to drive the birds away. “I observed that all the birds fly away when eagles cry. So, I record the cries of the eagles and play the recordings,” Uncle Ngai says. Unfortunately, this innovative way is not hugely effective, since the recordings are not loud enough, but Uncle Ngai continues to brainstorm other approaches to get rid of the birds.

Similar to many immigrants in the old days, Uncle Ngai is a former factory worker. At the age of 45, when factories were relocating to the mainland, he decided to change fields and started rearing ducks—despite knowing nothing about the animals. He later abandoned his duck business out of concern for the environment. “Rearing ducks is highly polluting because their feces will be washed down into the drains during rainstorms,” says Uncle Ngai. In 1989, he changed industries once again and started growing vegetables.

Up until the 1980s, locally produced vegetables constituted up to one-third of the city’s supply. However, vegetables imported from the mainland soon took over due to their competitive prices, prompting a decline in Hong Kong’s once-vibrant agricultural scene. Many local farmers, including Uncle Ngai, continued to operate by shifting to organic farming—he set up an organic farm in 2000, when he was 67 and it was still a relatively new concept. “In the beginning, I found it quite troublesome because there were a lot of regulations. You cannot do a lot of things,” Uncle Ngai says. But his age did not deter him from learning more about ecology, grasping theories of organic farming and honing his strategies.

Uncle Ngai is a very modest farmer, but he can’t keep from smiling when he talks about his customers. “I’ve got a lot of longtime customers. Even if I doubled up production, I still wouldn’t have enough guavas to sell to my customers. A lot of people want to eat my guavas!” Uncle Ngai says, beaming.

Farming is an arduous undertaking, and one has to sacrifice a lot to be successful. But Uncle Ngai has never considered retirement. “My son doesn’t want me to continue farming. But I am like a vintage car now—my body won’t function properly if I stop working,” Uncle Ngai says. The tranquility of his orchard also keeps him from quitting: “When I step outside my house, there is greenery everywhere and no one obstructs my view. I breathe the freshest air; I eat the fruits I grow.” What better life could you ask for?

 

410 Shui Lau Tin, Pat Heung, Yuen Long, 2488-8542 (Cantonese speakers only).

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