More than a concrete jungle, Hong Kong boasts almost 550 organic farms: traditional family farms, small enterprise farms and over 300 educational and leisure farms. Leisure farms are a variation on community gardens that rent out garden plots to urban dwellers, known as ‘weekend farmers’, and are operated as small social enterprises rather than as non-profit community organisations.
I was taken to visit a some organic farms and permaculture projects in the New Territories, Tai Kong Po and Fanling districts during a month of teaching permaculture courses in Hong Kong earlier this year. Most of the farmland is leased to farmers by the traditional owners, however tenure is invariably tenuous and short term, with owners ready to cash in and sell to the ever-expanding development pressures from mainland China. Many farmers cannot live on the land they’re farming and commute daily from home to the land. A lucky few manage to find a farm with a small residence to live and work on site.
The O-Farm is a productive social hub with over 100 rented garden lots. The brainchild of Yip Tsz Shing, who has a degree in Agriculture and a PDC graduate, provides members with horticultural advice and sells seedlings from his nursery. A communal kitchen and covered eating area provides a focal point for gardeners to connect, swap seeds and produce, and get to know each other.
The plots average 8 square meter and support an inspiring diversity of crops, trellises and innovative ways to keep pests at bay. Small water systems course through the site and feed a fish pond. Shing’s personalised advice for gardeners is appreciated, providing crop recommendations to suite the level of involvement for each individual plot holder. People who can come most weekends tend to grow a greater range of leafy greens, beans, tomato and frequent harvest vegies, whereas those who can only get out to the garden a few times a season grow longer term crops like ginger and taro.
The O-farm has formed a Permaculture Institute which hosts permaculture courses and workshops and maintains a network of graduates. The highlight of my visit was eating pizza from the rocket-stove oven.
Produce Organic Foundation, Hok Tau
Produce Organic Foundation, also known as Produce Green began as an environmental education group and established Hong Kong’s first organic farm in 1989 in Fanling District near Hok Tau village, famous for the Hok Tau cabbage. I was shown around the farm by one of it’s founders, Vicky Lau.
Produce Organic rents out 200 garden plots covering a total area of 2700m2 to “leisure farmers”. The main source of income however is through environmental education programs for schools. Every day approximately 500 school children visit the farm and everywhere there are covered activity stations, each with the capacity for a group of 50 children.
Some are learning to bake bread, others how to prepare a garden bed, seed saving or planting and harvesting rice in the paddies, and for all it’s a revelation to see how fruit and vegetables are grown. I was told how surprised many children are to learn that oranges come from a tree, most know it as slices wrapped in plastic, so harvesting and peeling the fresh fruit is an exciting novelty. The farm employs 10 full-time staff, mainly as educators plus maintenance and administration staff.
E-Farm Aquaponics and Market Gardens
We then visited the E-Farm also near Hok Tau village. E-Farm is nestled in a small valley surrounded by forest with a running stream to provide an abundance of fresh water year round. Therese and Augustine have spent ten years here experimenting with different crops, technologies, gardening techniques and aquaponic systems.
Their income streams include organic vegetable production, fish farming, educational programs and a commercial insectary for Soldier Fly Larvae production. Soldier Fly larvae are raised on food waste and harvested as a high protein organic food for fish. The live larvae are refrigerated and sold for a premium price, as well as for feeding the fish on the farm.
Augustine has spent several years fine-tuning his invention, the Eco-Cube, a modular kit for small-scale aquaponics to suit balcony and small urban domestic situations. Kitchen food waste is deposited into a chute to feed a soldier fly breeding chamber and the soldier fly larvae automatically drop down to feed the fish in the fish tank, the nutrient-rich water from the fish tank waters and fertilises an inbuilt vegetable bed. The aim is to provide urban dwellers with a compact and convenient system to recycle food waste into fish and vegetable production.
Mapopo Community Farm
Mapopo, which literally means horse poo, is an interesting alliance between environmental activists and the traditional farming community. This traditional farming district is under threat from encroaching urban development. A group of activists have set up a community garden and hub to raise community awareness, protest pending development and are working with the farmers to protect this last remaining food production area in this neighbourhood.
We were taken on a tour through the farmland, a patchwork of small family market gardens growing diverse vegetable crops. The activists have introduced composting and organic farming techniques, which have been enthusiastically embraced by the farmers. Before being drained, this area was once a wetland and the traditional production systems worked on similar principles to the Chinampa systems of Mexico. One farm still had intact traditional raised beds with water canals in between for aquaculture production.
The permaculture and organic movement in Hong Kong is steadily growing, as is the concern for the quality of food imported from mainland China. So much of Hong Kong’s productive farmland lies fallow, growing nothing but weeds and the speculative greed of its owners. Less than 50 years ago, Hong Kong was 80% food self-reliant. This new generation of organic Hong Kong Farmers are important contributors to a small growing movement towards local food security, despite exceptionally difficult circumstances.
It has been a privilege to work with some of them and support their endeavors. Over 40 permaculturists participated in the advanced course in community development and facilitation I conducted in Hong Kong in April 2014.
Robyn Francis, permaculture pioneer, designer, educator, founding director of Permaculture College Australia, works internationally. She is based on her property, Djanbung Gardens, renowned permaculture education centre and demonstration farm in northern NSW, Australia.