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“Grow local, Eat local” – Spring Tour to a Nam Chung Farm

Over 90% of the food in Hong Kong is imported, notably fruits and vegetables from Mainland China. Back in the 60s, however, the self-sufficiency rate for food in Hong Kong was as high as 60%.  So what caused the downfall of agriculture in Hong Kong? What are the challenges facing local farming nowadays? As the CarbonCare InnoFest was coming to its finale, we invited Mr Chow Sung-ming, editor of “A Reader on LOCAL AGRICULTURE”, to join the visit to a local farm in Nam Chung on 5th March. The visit aimed to find out the work of  “Partnership for Eco-Agriculture and the Conservation of Earth” (PEACE) in conservation and sustainability, as well as to explore the feasibility of local farming and means of promoting “grow local, eat local” in Hong Kong.

During the farm tour in Nam Chung, “Ms Dandelion”, representative of PEACE, told tour members the history of the Partnership. It started as the “Hong Kong Sustainable Agriculture Association” based in Nam Chung more than 10 years ago, with an activities centre as well as some farmlands nearby. But when the landlord resumed the land and dismantled the house later, the Association had to move. After the Association successfully raised more than HK$900,000 to purchase 4,000 sq ft of farmland, it launched a new campaign and called it the “Land Nurturers Project”.

PEACE concentrates its works on three areas: conservation, farming and community engagement. Half of the Partnership’s expense is spent on renting the pond mainly for conservation purposes. In the past, water lilies were planted in the pond and PEACE sold organic lotus seeds at Green Shop in Wanchai to generate income.  However, rapid reed growth in recent years has hindered the growth of water lilies and the pond no longer brings high income.  PEACE did not choose to redevelop the lily pond into a fish pond, for the benefit of the migratory birds and to maintain a balanced eco-system. They insisted to rent a pond with low commercial value for fear of property development resulting in a damage of the eco-system. 

PEACE owns a small plot of farmland beside the lily pond. Crops include radish, courgette, tomato, pitaya and the famous local ginger. The story goes that an old villager, who used to be a teacher in Nam Chung, told PEACE about the good quality and high value of local ginger. PEACE hopes to pass on the unique eco-heritage of Nam Chung through its work, and through stories such as the famous local ginger. The Partnership also implements a rice-farming project, inviting people interested in farming to rent a plot of farmland and get part of the harvest in return.  There is also a compost area next to the farmland, where the food waste collected from local farmers will be decomposed together with dry leaves.  Supporting organizations also provide the Partnership with high-sugar content drinks to speed up the process of making compost.  

To engage with the community,  PEACE collaborates with organizations which have similar missions. It provides support to experimental farming in the production of local processed food, such as fruit jam, bread, handmade soaps and pickles for co-sale at farmers’ markets. On top of that, there is an internship program which currently recruits six interns. These interns are mostly young people living in urban districts. The internship programme, through farming-skills training, hopes to teach interns about urban-rural integration and ways to support local farmers. 

PEACE draws its income mainly from membership fees, event fees, donations and crops sales. Due to limited resource and manpower, however, it is not easy for the Partnership to expand its work or sales to the general public of Hong Kong.  The Partnership hopes to spread the message of eco-consciousness through education, and its vision is to build an eco-village in the future. 

PEACE is not a stand-alone case, as agricultural development in Hong Kong, as a whole, is under great constraint. Our special guest Mr Chow Sung-ming analyzed this situation from a macro perspective. He pointed out that arable land is limited in Hong Kong but according to official statistics, 5 out of 6 agricultural plots are left idle. The size of the ‘Agricultural Park’ proposed by the government is only about one-tenth of the size of land under active farming, which is equivalent to the size of four Victoria Parks or one Ocean Park. 

The HKSAR Government, on the one hand, states their support for agricultural development. On the other hand, local farming is being sacrificed in the name of development. From 1960s to 1970s, lots of migrants came to Hong Kong from Mainland China and some of them settled down in Choi Yuen Village and Ma Shi Po Village. In recent years, many of these non-indigenous villagers were forced out of their homes and their farmland to make way for the government’s infrastructural development plans. Meanwhile, some political parties have suggested to develop the so-called “Integrated Agricultural Compounds” from restored landfills for leasing out to local farmers. “This means building on farmlands but farming on landfills,”  Mr Chow ridiculed. 

Other than limited land supply, fierce competition from Mainland China also contributes to the low self-sufficiency rate in food supply in Hong Kong. Under Chinese government subsidy, vegetables and fruits are sold at a much lower price in Hong Kong. The average wholesale price for imported vegetables from China at the Vegetable Marketing Organization (V.M.O.) is $4 to $5 per catty, while local vegetables are selling at over $10 per catty.  Mr Chow acknowledged the scientific value of organic certification in Hong Kong but he also pointed out that the system did not accurately reflect the impact created by those imports on the community and the environment.   For example, lots of ‘choi sum’ and Chinese kale are being imported from Ningxia Province, which is situated in an arid zone relying heavily on water supply from other regions of China for its farming activities. Moreover, Ningxia is 2,000 kilometers away from Hong Kong and the carbon emissions arising from cargo transportation have not been duly accounted for.

To promote local farming, Mr Chow suggested that we need to improve product matching and logistics, strengthen information dissemination, education, as well as the ties between local farmers and consumers. ‘Community Supported Agriculture ‘(CSA) may be one of the possible ways to build a win-win situation -- finding safe food for the consumers and creating a stable market for the farmers.  Currently, some organisations and communities in Hong Kong have already started to pursue ‘cooperative purchasing’, such as the Green Shop in Wanchai, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Nam Chung, Tin Shui Wai and Pat Heung. Selling platforms, such as OrgaNet Mall, have also appeared to provide shopping and delivery services based on a successful Taiwanese model. To reduce carbon footprint, delivery service does not limit to trucks or vans but can also be accomplished through trolleys or meet-ups at metro stations. 

After Mr Chow’s sharing, participants discussed what possible means were there to support local agriculture. Their suggestions included better use of the social media and digital platforms for promotion and wider cooperation with restaurants serving organic vegetables. Participants also reckoned that increasing the number of selling points at convenient locations would help. In order to reshape people’s perception on agriculture in Hong Kong, they suggested to organize more eco-tours to boost public engagement and to enrich personal experience. Education in schools is essential too. After the tour and the talk ended, all participants flocked to the farmers’ market next door to buy fresh local vegetables, the famous Nam Chung ginger, as well handmade soaps.  What a fruitful way to show support to local farming in Hong Kong!