Seeds of change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am

Fung Chee-wah is nothing if not adaptable. After working as a construction materials supplier for more than a decade, he switched to raising poultry five years ago and has now made another leap into the unknown - growing organic mushrooms.

Each move was a matter of survival. 'The building industry was so badly hit five years ago it was impossible to keep my business running. But I didn't foresee poultry farming becoming a sunset industry so quickly,' says Fung.

Responding to the government's drive to phase out poultry farms because of bird flu fears, he surrendered his licence seven months ago to take up horticulture. 'From a business point of view, it isn't worth investing more to ensure the chicken farm meets new bio-safety and environmental requirements,' says the 48-year-old, who is putting two children through university in Australia.

'Growing vegetables is very different from raising poultry, but it seems the most feasible option for someone like me, who doesn't have the skills and education to do something else. But it isn't easy for middle-aged people to learn to run a new business from scratch.'

Spurred by health fears after periodic outbreaks of bird flu and deadly blue ear disease in pigs, as well as environmental concerns, the government has moved to eliminate livestock farming in Hong Kong. As an incentive to get out of the business, poultry and pig farmers were offered special cash payments to surrender their operating licences. Some 100 of 147 chicken farms and 244 of 265 pig farms accepted the offer within the one-year deadline (which ended last month for pig farmers). But hold-outs will eventually have to stop raising livestock if the government refuses to renew their three-year licence after it expires.

The compensation, which is negotiated individually, doesn't go very far when it's the sole source of income, as is the case for many farmers who aren't trained to do anything else. As an added incentive for them to quit raising livestock and to help develop alternative livelihoods, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has promoted organic market gardening. Officials have been organising a series of seminars and workshops over the past year to teach pig and poultry farmers about growing fruit and vegetable without synthetic pesticides and fertilisers.

Fung got off to a good start last month when he delivered his first batch of mushrooms - Japanese white and Buna Shimeji varieties - to wholesalers. But he's had to delay the delivery of his second harvest because the mushrooms haven't developed to full size on time. 'They haven't grown as well; I have yet to master skills such as controlling the temperature,' he says.

So far, about 20 livestock farmers have officially agreed to switch over to organic cultivation - two to growing mushrooms and the remainder to fruit and vegetables.

This doesn't reflect the full picture as some farmers don't tell the department about their plans or seek technical support from officials. A few have turned to raising livestock on the mainland, but many farmers prefer to stay in Hong Kong and switch to organic cultivation instead of struggling to find a toehold in unfamiliar territory.

Competition is stiff as the mainland farm business is dominated by local players, says poultry farmer Kwan Wing-kin. 'How can you compete with the mainland farmers who have been in the trade for ages? It's also a risk going into a completely new business environment. At least in Hong Kong, we can have mutual support within our circle.'

Kwan, who took over his father's chicken farm 20 years ago, plans to switch to organic vegetables.

Selling up isn't an option for many farmers. Some farms occupy rented land but even farmers with their own sites say the returns aren't sufficient to persuade them to part with the family property.

'Developers would probably pay several million dollars for the land. The amount wouldn't be enough to support me and my family for the next 30 to 40 years,' says Kwan, who owns 8,300 square metres of land in Sheung Shui and has two teenage children.

Growing organic produce, which command higher prices, is an attractive option for middle- aged farmers. 'Local farms have an edge as consumers have greater confidence in Hong Kong produce than those from across the border. Our transport costs will also be lower and therefore we can supply fresher vegetables at lower prices than importers,' Kwan says.

Besides researching organic methods, Kwan has travelled to Japan, Australia and Canada to see how organic farms operate there and to make contacts. 'I hope my produce will be comparable to those from Japan one day. After trying their fruit and vegetables, I realise why consumers are willing to pay triple normal prices or more for them; they taste so good,' he says.

Rather than just teach cultivation methods, the government workshops focus on introducing strategic produce that yield higher profits, such as mushrooms, gourds and fruit. 'But the higher value of the crop, the greater the skills needed for growing,' says Ng Ping-leung, a pig farmer from Fanling.

'I've followed the [workshop] instructions to the letter, but my produce aren't as big and delicious as those grown by the department.'

The 44-year-old has been experimenting with crop varieties and will soon find out how well he's done. Next week, friends and relatives will taste his first organic harvest, which includes cantaloupe, cucumber and gourd.

Ng wants to identify which items are likely to be his strongest sellers before investing HK$1 million to turn his 9,200-square metre pig farm into an organic market garden.

The government provides free technical support, but transforming livestock facilities into greenhouses and the like can be costly.

Fung spent HK$500,000 to convert chicken pens into mushroom sheds. He's also dug suitable soil mix into a part of his 6,500-square metre farm in Sheung Shui to prepare the ground for growing greens. And special seeds and organic fertilisers can cost double that for crops grown with conventional methods.

'It's a big gamble,' Fung says. 'The facilities for cultivating mushroom can't be used for growing other things, for example.'

Organic market gardens may not be as lucrative as raising livestock, but automated equipment such as sprinklers can make farm work a lot less taxing. Plus, farm operators don't have to put up with the stench of animal waste.

'There's much less manual work [in market gardening],' says Chiu Ming-shun, a Yuen Long pig farmer who's turning to organic greens. 'We don't need to spend as much time as we did raising livestock. We also used to have trouble hiring workers as not many can stand the smell and the environment.

'But I'll miss the pigs' grunting after hearing it every day for the past 40 years.'