As a health-conscious mother of two, Carrie Fong used to face a dilemma between buying mainland produce of questionable quality, or paying exorbitant sums for imported organic food. But she has a solution: ad hoc farmers' markets that sell cheap locally grown organic produce.
"These markets are one of the best things to have emerged in Hong Kong in recent years. The vegetables are organic, fresh and inexpensive," Fong says. "You can nearly halve your organic food bill by shopping here than at a posh supermarket."
The markets tend to spring up on weekends at whatever public space can handle the farmers and the hoards they draw. Newcomers to the scene will find the food quality a revelation.
On a recent shopping trip at the organic food market at Pier 7 of the Star Ferry terminal in Central, Fong spent about HK$200 on local vegetables that could last her family for five days. This includes carrots that cost HK$20 per pound. By comparison, a pound of organic carrots from Australia costs about HK$34 at high-end supermarket City'super. Fong also bought ginger priced at HK$40 per 500 grams. The same amount of non-organic ginger from Japan at City'super would cost HK$75.
The food market on the first floor of Pier 7 opens every Sunday and Wednesday. Across the harbour, there is Mei Foo Farm Fest, which takes place near the Mei Foo wet market every Sunday.
The latest addition is Island East Markets at Taikoo Place, Quarry Bay, a Sunday market featuring local organic veggies, local handcrafts and live music.
The markets sell items ranging from Chinese kale to Italian parsley in a bustling, vibrant atmosphere. Customers are invited to taste cherry tomatoes and strawberries before buying. There is room for haggling - many stalls will cut prices during the final hour of trading.
The markets sell produce grown in organic farms in Yuen Long, Fanling and Tuen Mun. Each week they bring in truckloads of fresh vegetables grown without pesticides or any other chemical elements. Most of the produce is certified by the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre, an independent certification body for organic products established by Baptist University in 2002. The public can visit these farms to examine the farmers' organic standards.
"Our products have a safety guarantee. They are certified by Baptist; the water and soil in our farm are inspected [by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department]. They have a pure and fresh taste, and the price is affordable," says Fu Kwai-chong, a farmer who switched to organic methods in 2008.
Janice Leung, a co-founder of Island East Markets, says local organic food costs half the price of organic imports, thanks in part to lower transport cost. "In these markets, you deal directly with the farmers, whereas with supermarkets there are many associated costs," she says.
Mainland vegetables have also seen sharp price rises of late, making local produce relatively attractive. The Ministry of Agriculture says in the 10 weeks up to January, mainland vegetable prices rose by half as a result of bad weather, wage increases and rising shipping costs.
Hong Kong's organic vegetable prices have remained steady over the past few years, says Helen Leung of Kadoorie Farm, which organises the Pier 7 market on Sundays. "The stable price trend of Hong Kong's organic vegetables and the price surge of non-organic vegetables [from the mainland] have led to a narrowing price gap," she says.
Twenty-something shopper Peggie Ho concurs. "My mum owns a small plot of farmland in the New Territories. I've witnessed how local organic food is grown and certified. I've also read about hair-raising farming practices on the mainland. Buying organic probably adds 30 per cent to my food bill, but is worth it."