• Wed
  • Aug 27, 2014
  • Updated: 9:59pm

Life's good up on the farm

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

Most people who choose to go back to the land have to leave the city far behind - but for former independent film producer Chang Wen, becoming a farmer was simply a case of wandering upstairs.

She launched Project Grow on the roof of an old factory building in To Kwa Wan a year ago as a collaboration between the Film Culture Centre(FCC), which operates from the building and which Chang heads, and a design group called re:ply Workshop, which specialises in upcycling - taking waste materials and turning them into something more valuable.

Chang helped revive the FCC last year by getting government funding for the charity. The FCC began holding film nights and educational activities for residents of the working class neighbourhood. The rooftop farm was intended to be a side project, to encourage the viewers to stick around after the credits rolled.

'It was initially a way to connect with the folks who come over. They felt like there was a gap between us - we were 'the intellectuals' while they were 'the uneducated'. So I wanted to start something where we can get to know each other in a natural and non-awkward way,' Chang said.

But the farm took on a life of its own, helped by a growing interest in organic products in the city and concern about a series of food safety scandals emanating from the mainland, both of which have revived interest in farming.

While some people switched to buying from the 'organic section' in supermarkets, others went further and actually rented agricultural land in the New Territories for some leisure farming, Chang said.

Chang's introduction to farming came after a drink-driving conviction that earned her 240 hours of community service. As she helped kindergarten children to the bathroom as her punishment, she 'looked at my life and thought - wow I've got to change this, I can't live like this.'

She fell in love with working on her friend's farm in the New Territories and slowly began to realise that the fast-paced life of a film producer was no longer for her, and she began her drift away from the industry to a farming life. She no longer produces films, although she is still involved in bringing cinema to the masses through the Film Culture Centre.

'It gave me peace in my mind,' said Chang.

The idea of a rooftop farm started when Chang gathered old wooden boards discarded as rubbish both from around the neighbourhood and from her farmer friend. She turned them into boxes and lined them up on the FCC's rooftop, filled them with dirt and seeds, and invited locals to stay and help with the gardening.

Its popularity grew just as surely as the 20 types of edible vegetables, gourds and herbs that were planted there, among them maize, Chinese cabbage, bitter gourd, tomatoes and even strawberries, as well as herbs like mint, lemongrass and basil.

The farm works with community centres and social workers, providing free farming classes for locals in To Kwa Wan and paid three-month classes for those not from the district.

'We don't want to make money off this farm- we hope to educate people and spread the inspiration. The idea is to have them start doing this at home,' said Chang. 'You don't need a whole piece of farmland to farm. Sometimes, you just need a pot, soil and some seeds, which is completely achievable for those living in an apartment.'

Chang said the aim was to transform Hong Kong's old urban areas into urban farms - to fill window sills and empty rooftops with independent little patches for growing.

Chang isn't the only person growing things on a rooftop. In Ngau Tau Kok, Michael Leung, founder of HK Honey, raises bees on a rooftop and recently started a herb garden and experimental organic farm. Wan Chai bookstore and cafe ACO has composting bins and a herb garden on its roof, and Chang has heard of another rooftop garden taking shape in Aberdeen.

'Some of my friends now regularly farm in the New Territories,' said Chang. 'There are organic farms springing up everywhere.'

Chang has now been invited to put together an organic section at the farmers' market at Cyberport in Pok Fu Lam when it begins in September, where wooden boxes will also be given out for those interested in planting and harvesting a few seeds.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said the number of farms involved in government organic farming schemes had reached 193 last month, compared to 182 last year and 152 in 2010. There were only 123 farms taking part in the scheme back in 2008.

Anyone who acquires a piece of agricultural land can start farming immediately as no licences are required, a department spokesman said. Agricultural structures such as greenhouses, fish ponds and livestock sheds will need approval from the Lands Department, however.

'I didn't know [farming] was possible at all,' said housewife Lisa Yeung Lai-sha, who joined a class at Project Grow. 'I didn't think I could actually grow things at home.'

Cheng Oi-ling, a housewife with grown-up children, said that her whole family loved the idea of being able to produce their own food for the table.

Cheng and Yeung are both part of a group from the Holy Carpenter Church Community Centre in Hung Hom, who are taking classes about organic farming at Project Grow. Apart from actually farming, the group has also been taught how to make all-natural dish washer detergent and pickled vegetables out of rinds and discarded fruit and vegetable parts.

Chang said many children who normally wouldn't eat vegetables at home, would actually be willing to eat ones they've picked from the garden themselves.

'I think it's important for them to learn and to know that they can eat healthily,' said social worker Rita Chan Sin-ki. 'Organic food is not just for the rich.'

Chang added that there had been a misunderstanding about organic food.

'Organic food has been marketed as being for rich people, and is sold at higher prices. However, health should not be an exclusive right. Even the poor should be taught what is healthy, and have access to healthy food,' Chang said.

However, Chang warned that the 'organic' label could also be used as a sales ploy.

'I think if something is from nature - not genetically engineered - it's organic. It's impossible to be completely sure there are absolutely no chemicals. We can only farm it as naturally as possible,' Chang said. But she doesn't mind that there are multiple definitions of 'organic', and believes people spend 'too much time arguing about it [and] miss the point, which is to eat and live as healthily as possible.

'Hongkongers want everything now and fast, but even vegetables need time to grow,' she said. 'We need to change our mindset, reset our rhythm.'

According to a government report released in January this year, around 18 square kilometres of land in the city are actively farmed. Most farms are small and produce mainly vegetables, pigs or poultry.

Hongkongers consumed about 908 tonnes of rice, 1,790 tonnes of vegetables, 4,710 pigs, 77 head of cattle and 36 tonnes of poultry each day in 2010. While most of the produce is imported, 'Hong Kong's primary producers help ... satisfy some of the demand' according to Chang.

The gross value of local agricultural production stood at HK$615 million in 2010. The value of crop production is at HK$232 million, and consists mostly of vegetables and flowers.

Three per cent of the vegetables, 56 per cent of the fresh poultry and 6 per cent of fresh pork consumed in Hong Kong comes from local farms.

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