Hong Kong’s agricultural revolution: the rise in farming for fun

Recreational farming has taken off in the city’s less built-up areas, providing jaded urbanites with a family-friendly weekend escape

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 July, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 July, 2016, 9:28am

It is Saturday afternoon and Janice Tse Pui-fan is wearing wellies, planting seeds while her four-year-old daughter Wing Wing feeds goats nearby with a small group of other children.

Since April, it has become a weekend ritual for Tse’s family to spend an afternoon at an organic farm in Yuen Long, where they have rented a piece of land – eight feet long, four feet wide – to grow organic vegetables and fruit for one year.

“I am a working mum. It’s quite relaxing to come here,” said Tse, who works in the banking industry in Causeway Bay on weekdays. “My daughter likes running around. This is a good place. She can run, run, run. She can experience more than city life.”

Tse is one of many busy professionals looking for an antidote to the hustle and bustle of city life in Hong Kong. For a few young urbanites occupied with busy work, it’s never too late to switch to a rural lifestyle, even if just for half a day’s ploughing and sowing.

And more local farms are springing up on the city’s outskirts offering rented plots for farming and picking your own produce.

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Leisure farms – many focused on organic farming with recreational and educational visits – have flourished over the past few years, partly due to the government’s push for sustainable development of local farming.

Latest official figures show the number of leisure farms rose from 105 in 2011 to 137 this year, and almost half of them are in Yuen Long, in the New Territories.

Six years ago, Raymond Cheng Wai-man became a weekend farmer after renting a 10,000-square-foot plot from locals near Kam Sheung Road MTR station. That would eventually grow into the Hello Kitty Organic Farm, where Tse’s family goes. At the time, the area was big enough for Cheng’s personal interest in organic food.

“[My farm] was the first organic farm nearby, in 2010. But now there are, all together, seven leisure farms nearby,” Cheng said.

Simply unable to farm a plot of 10,000 square feet, Cheng sublet 50 small pieces of the land to others who shared his interest in organic farming.

Richard Klitsie was one of Cheng’s first tenants. He still goes to the farm these days with his eight-year-old daughter every weekend.

“The main reason is showing our children that food is coming from the land, not the supermarket; that you actually have to make your hands dirty,” Klitsie said.

As a manager working nine to 10 hours a day for a perfume company, Klitsie found it relaxing to kneel down, plough the earth, plant seeds, and repeat the process again and again.

Since 2010, Cheng has expanded his farm to almost five times its original size. And he made it more attractive to children by paying the popular Hello Kitty franchise for the right to use its name and imagery in 2014 and introducing more family-friendly activities, such as feeding animals and barbecues.

Even his landlord smelled the business opportunity the land presented.

“When I renewed my contract in 2013, the owner wanted to increase the rent 27 times – not 27 per cent,” Cheng said, still looking surprised by the hike, three years later. He eventually talked the landlord down to trebling the rent.

Cheng said almost all of his farming plots have been rented. They include 150 small plots like Tse’s, or what Cheng called “private estate,” which cost around HK$6,000 per year; and six large pieces that have tents, seats, and more space, which cost HK$20,000 each annually.

The farm provides irrigation, seeds, fertiliser, and some farm tutoring, which are included in the rent.

“Basically we tell them you can come every two weeks. But once they start, they will come every week because they can see every week the vegetable is different.

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“So they like the process, rather than the harvest,” Cheng said.

But for single youngsters, sometimes it’s the sense of family that attracts them to weekend farming. Yeung Wai-kit, 30, toiled at least once a week at NGO Volunteer Space’s organic farm in Yuen Long, which opened last year.

On his 200-square-foot plot, Yeung grew a variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables which he said he wouldn’t have been able to recognise before, because “it was my mum’s job. My job was eating”.

Yeung, a social worker who works at least 40 hours a week, heads to the farm when he is off and sometimes spends the whole day there.

He takes care of his crops and talks and plays with fellow farmers, half of whom are in their 20s and 30s.

His passion for farming started in 2013 during a trip to Taipei, where he saw locals growing crops in the backyards of the guest house he lived in.

“I am intrigued that a small seed can gradually grow to be something big,” Yeung said.

“Now I have a different understanding of life. ”

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But not every young farmer stays after the freshness of the soil is gone in the first few weeks or months.

Some give up eventually, Yeung said, because tending the plot takes time and requires physical labour, which is particularly challenging in the hot Hong Kong summer.

But Yeung sticks to it.

“When I farm, I am alone. I can slow down,” he said.

“If you work in Hong Kong, you are required to finish the most things in the shortest time.

“But when I farm, I find that I simply cannot be fast. I cannot ask seeds to grow fast. I have to wait.”