Organic farming all the rage

Hongkongers are increasingly turning their hand to growing their own organic produce - and in the least likely of places

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 11:55am

In land-scarce Hong Kong, developers usually figure the solution to most problems is to go up. Now the same idea is taking root among the city's expanding organic gardening community, with vegetable plots on rooftops and even in industrial buildings.

For urban square-foot farmers yearning to grow their own greens, Mawin Cheung Man-wai sees an answer in vertically mounted planters, portable container beds that make full use of available space, and indoor hothouses.

"City folks think farming is difficult, but it can be easy if you have the right set-up and knowledge of organic growing techniques," says Cheung, a former bank executive turned promoter of organic gardening.

This alternative path began when he and his wife rented a plot in a site set aside for horticulturally inclined residents at their Tuen Mun development. She enjoyed growing their own vegetables so much, Cheung decided others would, too. Last year he left his job to start Easy Organic Farming, a company that helps organisations and households establish portable organic gardens.

Urban people suffering from stress can derive lots of pleasure from gardening.

"Portable farming is all the rage now," Cheung says. "Urban people and corporate types suffering from stress can derive lots of pleasure from gardening. My company devises solutions for those who want to practise urban farming. We organise classes for clients on organic growing techniques, like crop rotation and regular fallowing to conserve soil."

His clients range from institutions such as Diocesan Girls' School to corporations such as JP Morgan, which had his organic container gardens installed at the podium outside their Sha Tin offices so staff could develop their green thumbs during breaks.

Interest in organic produce may have been spurred in part by a stream of food scandals on the mainland, Hong Kong's main supplier of all things edible.

Residents now eat four tonnes of organic vegetables every day, double the amount five years ago. That's still a minuscule 0.23 per cent of the city's total daily consumption of 1,700 tonnes of veggies. But health-conscious consumers' readiness to pay a premium for safe (and perhaps tastier) organic produce has encouraged a wave of urban farmers. The ranks of organic farms in Hong Kong has mushroomed from just 20 a decade ago to 400 at present, about a quarter of which are accredited ventures.

The latest opened two months ago in a Fanling industrial building. IPC Foodlab occupies all seven storeys of the structure, which includes a compost-making facility, plant nursery, mushroom beds, roof garden and a restaurant.

It's obviously a costlier process compared with conventional farming, so IPC focuses mostly on fragile produce, which is easily damaged in transport, and varieties with a short shelf life, says its chief executive, Vian Li Wai-yan.

For instance, the sixth floor is dedicated to growing almond mushrooms (Agaricus blazei), a sweetish tasting species that is also said to have medicinal properties.

"The mushroom can be discoloured even by a gentle touch. And when kept in a fridge, it turns stale after seven days. No one in Hong Kong sells it because of its short shelf life," Li says. But when the mushrooms are ready for harvesting in four to six months, they will take the batch downstairs to be used in their restaurant.

Similarly, instead of growing zucchini, which is readily available, they aim for speciality items such as zucchini flowers, artichokes, pumpkin seedlings, red tasselflower and monks cress, says biotechnology manager Steve Cheung Chi, who doubles as chef.

"We won't have choi sum as it's not economical to grow such common vegetables," Cheung says.

IPC Foodlab is a modern, semi-automated set-up that reflects its name. Mushrooms are grown in a temperature and humidity-controlled space, fitted with oxygen generators and mist-sprinklers. Their compost, which is primarily derived from corn stems and tofu residue, undergoes ultraviolet disinfection before it is used in growing.

The plethora of certification agencies, local and international, each with its own standards for what constitutes organic produce, has put off many growers from seeking accreditation.

While the agencies agree broadly on matters such as banning the use of synthetic chemicals and genetically modified seeds, they differ on other requirements. Hong Kong's two accreditors set different conversion periods (time needed for a growing area to be rid of pesticides such as DDT and other chemicals before it is deemed suitable for organic farming). The Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre (HKORC) sets the period at 18 months, but the Hong Kong Organic Certification Centre (HKOCC) stipulates three years.

Many processes at IPC Foodlab's high-rise venture require greater power consumption, which may run counter to the low-carbon ethos of organic farming. However, Cheung says this is compensated by the better quality of life that organic produce gives.

"We haven't approached local organisations that issue organic farming accreditation. They give certification only if you use their solutions; for example, you have to use cow manure from a source that they recognise," Chueng says.

"Many local farmers we know who practise organic methods do not bother to get accreditation. A certificate can be bought for just HK$30,000 on the mainland."

Li and his team seem intent on setting their own standards. "From nurturing seedlings to making soil, we do everything here on our own. We want to create our own IPC brand and provide technical support to local farmers," Li says.

Still, Cheung says IPC is careful to steer clear of chemicals. "You can see flies in the mushroom-growing area as we do not use chemical pesticides."

They adopt natural alternatives such as spraying plants with tobacco juice (made from soaking tobacco leaf in water) or growing plants that deter or are toxic to certain pests.

But as HKOCC founder Tsang Tsan-on sees it, indoor operations such as IPC have departed entirely from the original ideas of organic farming. "All those technical set-ups like LED lights to imitate sunlight consume more electricity, which is environmentally unfriendly."

Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, HKORC's director, raises the issue that without regulation on the labelling of organic produce, the food at markets marked as organic may not be such.

"As long as the market stall owners dare to charge more, consumers have no way to distinguish fake [organic vegetables] from the genuine ones. Customs officials do not care that many of the vegetables sporting organic tags in wet markets are fakes.

"There's also no regulatory system for importing organic vegetables. Vegetables from abroad sporting all kinds of organic labels are not put under any government scrutiny before distribution."

Zen Organic, a relatively large operation in Ta Kwu Ling, is often held up as a shining example of new organic ventures that have carved specialised niches.

Converting the site from a pig farm that their father established, Ng Ping-leung and his sister Joey Ng Pik-wan started the operation in 2008 with 10 hothouses spread across the 250,000 sq ft site. Although the farm now counts high-end caterers such as HomeGrown Foods Group and the Four Seasons Hotel among its clients, Ng says it has been tough going.

"We are run on a big scale. We knew nothing about organic farming before and had to learn everything from scratch," he says. "We got pest experts from the South China Agricultural University [in Guangzhou] to help us. We had to do a lot of research on food trends and what restaurants look for. I lived in France in the '90s and met some French chefs. I asked what ingredients they liked to use.

"We grow things that are not found in other farms, like figs, black tomatoes and orange cauliflower. We also grow dragon fruit, which requires lots of space and takes three years to ripen for harvest. If a local farm were to grow it, they would not be able to grow other stuff. But we have space."

Zen has found particular success with its "heirloom" vegetables, which are sought by the city's fine-dining restaurants. These are older, more flavourful varieties from Europe and the United States that are no longer grown for the mass market because they are less resistant to pests and diseases or have low yields. By sourcing seeds from countries such as France, the Ng family have been able to supply Hong Kong diners with heirloom tomatoes and carrots - although they cost double what the regular varieties do.

Even so, Ng says he and his sister have yet to recover the HK$6 million they invested to set up Zen Organic.

"We might be able to break even in a year, but we won't even think about recouping our initial investment. Running a farm in Hong Kong has always been difficult, and you have to be patient and wait out the initial hard years."


Industrial wasteland of plenty

Like IPC Foodlabs in Fanling, the government's Vegetable Marketing Organisation has started growing vegetables in disused industrial spaces, including a warehouse in its Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market that has been transformed into a hydroponic farm. The HK$6.5 million centre grows five kinds of salad vegetables to supply supermarkets and restaurants.

Kenneth Law Ka-ho, the organisation's market manager, says it's the first hydroponic operation in Hong Kong to use artificial sunlight.

"Some farmers do hydroponic farming in a hothouse using natural sunlight. We converted the former warehouse into a bacteria-free indoor farm. Staff entering the closed area have to wear protective clothing and undergo disinfection to avoid contaminating seedlings.

"Compared to traditional farming, there's no need for us to use pesticides as the area is pest-free. From seed planting to harvest it just takes 21 days, half the time needed using tradition farm methods."

However, hydroponic farming is yet to go organic.

"The technology, which we imported from Japan, has been in use for a long time. But the Japanese have yet to figure out how to do it organically. The use of the three-nutrient fertiliser solution containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium breaches the chemical-free principle of organic farming, although it is safe for human consumption." Elaine Yau