'WHAT'S THE POINT?' Patrick Lam asked himself after returning home at 1am, having just finished a 12-hour shift at the small kitchen of a Central restaurant. He had a headache, a stress-related skin rash, and he hadn't spoken to his wife or son all day. 'It's time for a change,' he told himself. Now he lives in a small tin-roofed house without air-conditioning, grows vegetables without using chemicals or pesticides, teaches jobless people how to farm, and looks after six rabbits. Two years ago he moved from his public housing flat in Tuen Mun to a four-hectare farm tucked away in the green fields of Kam Tin in the New Territories. And although barely able to make ends meet, the 42-year-old says he's healthier and happier thanks to his new lifestyle and diet. But while eating healthily is becoming a norm among high-income groups, Lam says the working class - which makes up the majority of Hong Kong's population - finds the prices of organically grown food hard to swallow. Nick Reitmeir, general manager of Great, whose clientele consists mainly of expats, overseas-born Chinese and the middle class, says his food halls' organic lines are doing better than ever. 'People are trying to stay healthy and want to know where their food is coming from,' he says. To meet demand, his stores stock about 2,500 varities of organic food ranging from avocados and lettuce to tea, coffee and wine, compared with just 200, two years ago. In contrast is the organic food section at Wellcome, which caters for the mass market. Organic produce failed because of a lack of demand, the supermarket's marketing director Doug Brown said recently. ParknShop observes a similar trend and says vegetable prices fluctuate, making it difficult to comment on price differences between organic and non-organic produce. Local organic vegetables, however, are about four times the price of non-organic, according to the Vegetable Marketing Organisation. Although on the rise, local chemical-free produce is still only available at limited outlets. ParknShop, for example, sells organic goods at only 29 of its 210 stores. And through a government-initiated scheme launched two years ago, 25 out of Hong Kong's 2,600 farms converted to organic farming, producing about two per cent of the total local output of vegetables. Apart from growing and selling vegetables on his Evergreen Organic Community Farm, Lam also hopes to promote the development of the local organic movement and popularise organic farming. 'I feel I'm doing something, and it's making me happy and, hopefully, will make others happier too,' he says. There are now about 15 similar 'community farms' in Hong Kong. Purportedly the first, Produce Green was set up in Fanling in 1989 by Simon Chau Siu-cheong, who is often credited as Hong Kong's pioneering eco-warrior. Apart from working on Produce Green, Chau teaches translation at Baptist University, and is president of the Vegetarian Society of Hong Kong. He believes Hongkongers are becoming more aware of healthy living, particularly in light of the atypical pneumonia outbreak. 'The Sars threat was a wake-up call. For the collective survival of all, we must clean up our act,' he says. Produce Green, which occupies more than 180,000 square feet of land, has about 700 members who participate in organic farming activities all year round. It was through this first community farm that Lam learnt about farming. Alhough on a much smaller scale, Lam's farm is doing its bit. Under the scorching sun on the hottest day of the year so far, Lam gives instructions on the basics of ploughing, fertilising and weeding to seven young adults on a retraining programme organised by Yan Oi Tong, a Tuen Mun-based community charity that covers Lam's costs for sharing his knowledge. 'It's hard work, but when I think of the fruits and vegetables we'll get on harvest, I am happy to do it,' says Anna Tam On-nar, who relies on social security but hopes to learn to farm so she can get back on her feet. Another student isn't quite so keen. 'It's such hard work under the scorching sun,' she says. Two other trainees have already given up, she adds. 'I wouldn't be doing this if I could get other work.' Having ploughed away for the past two hours, and for three days a week over two months, her skin is dark and her palms covered in calluses. But over a lunch of stir-fried cucumber, morning glory with garlic and eggplant curry, all chemical-free and freshly picked that morning, everyone - whether they want to be there or not - chats cheerfully about the dishes' sweet taste. After lunch, with Lam rushing to a Hong Kong Organic Farming Association meeting, his students settle down to staple pockets of mesh to wrap over the cucumbers and melons. 'It's to stop the bugs from getting to the fruit since they haven't been sprayed with pesticides,' says Tam. Chen King-lung - a volunteer from the charity Yan Oi Tong - fixes an electric fan and talks about plans to convert one of the huts into a walk-in fridge to keep the farm's produce fresh for longer. Freshness, the odd-job man says, is vital. Money is a problem for Lam. He sells about $5,000 worth of fruits and vegetables a month - not enough to break even. For the past 10 years, he has worked part-time as a chef, injecting his income into the farm. But as long as he 'gets by' financially, he's content. The price of the 'good life' - living close to the land and growing and eating natural food - is reward enough.