Land loss, rising rents threaten growth of farmers' booming business

Shrinking plots and soaring costs leave city's farmers with nowhere to sow

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 4:35am


As Leung Pun-kin, 66, surveys his crops, he seems torn between satisfaction and worry - and for good reason.

Like many Hong Kong farmers, he is caught in a sad situation - although sales are booming, shrinking farmland and soaring rents are eating away the foundations of his business.

For eight years, Leung has run an organic farm in Kam Tin, near Yuen Long. But today, he operates on only half the amount of land he had back in 2004. Meanwhile, his rent has more than doubled in the past two years.

Part of the problem is rapid urbanisation, with farmland giving way to development. The size of Hong Kong's total farmland has shrunk by more than 40 per cent in the past decade, with less than 6,000 hectares remaining, according to government figures.

Environmental groups have pointed to government proposals of developing new towns in the northeastern New Territories as speeding up the loss of agricultural land. The project, of which the consultation period ended yesterday, will see the disappearance of 98 hectares, or 13 per cent of the 734 hectares of active farmland in the area as of last year.

For Leung, the pressures of limited land and rising rent are a headache. His landlord, an indigenous villager, sold part of his farm to a developer six years ago, shrinking Leung's farm to just 126,000 sq ft from somewhere between 210,000 sq ft and 280,000 sq ft. Over the past two years, his annual rent has increased from HK$5,000 to HK$12,000.

"If the farmland continues to shrink, it will be difficult to maintain the business," Leung said. "There's definitely a market here. But if I lose more land, I might just develop my business on the mainland instead."

The pity of it is that Leung's business has grown rapidly in recent years. Starting with only a few customers, he now earns between HK$210,000 and HK$400,000 a month, before factoring in the costs of operating the farm. His earnings make him one of the most productive organic farmers in Hong Kong.

Leung, who is chairman of the Organic Farmer Association, said many of his peers are complaining about the difficulties of finding land to expand their operations. "I can hardly help them. I want to expand too," he said.

Some farmers have turned to the government for help in looking for land, but the officials cannot meet all the requests. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said it has received requests from 160 people over the past three years. But so far, the department has been able to help only 60 people.

Meanwhile, the land sold from Leung's farm is sitting unused, surrounded by barbed wire. Leung said the land had been bought by Sun Hung Kai Properties, and that the company had ignored his repeated requests to rent it back so he can continue farming it.

A Sun Hung Kai spokesman said the company did not own the land and had received no requests from Leung.