Class sows seeds of hope for jobless man

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 12:00am

A few months after being forced to retire from his job as a mechanic, Chan Mou-fok had only enough savings left to live for one more year with his wife in their tiny Tsuen Wan flat. He tried to find another job but was turned away because of his age. As boredom and humiliation set in, he thought of taking his own life.

But this month new hope has displaced his despair. Three times a week he enthusiastically ploughs a plot of abandoned land in Shun Chuen, one of five villages at the foot of Tai Mo Shan in Tsuen Wan.

He has enrolled in a pilot organic farming course offered by the SKH Lady MacLehose Centre. About 10 villagers, including some welfare recipients, make about $500 a month by jointly growing organic vegetables on small plots of land and selling them to their neighbours and wholesalers. The small sum often makes a big difference to their life.

'I do not want to apply for welfare benefits because it makes me feel totally useless. I hope I can be a farmer after finishing the course to earn a humble living by doing what I am interested in,' Mr Chan said.

In the most successful case, a new immigrant mother made as much as $3,000 a month by tending a 2,500 sq ft farm by herself.

But while arable land is abundant in the villages, there is no policy or process for renting the plots. Social worker and course organiser Eric Chan Kei-fung said it offered a virtually cost-free means to fight poverty and relieve the burden on social security.

'The land is borrowed from the better-off villagers, the fertiliser is made by burning dead plants and seeds are basically the remains of vegetables,' he said.

Eric Chan also teaches botanic theory and has hired veteran farmers as teaching assistants. 'A growing demand for healthy, organic products can be seen by the increasing number of illegal farming cases reported in recent years,' he said. 'A government with vision will see that organic farming is an excellent way to help low-income villagers to get away from poverty and welfare.'

He urged the government to offer inexpensive licences or short leases to villagers who wanted to farm.