HONG KONG -- In one of the most modern and gritty cities in the world, there are swaths of countryside just outside the busyness of the downtown areas. You only need a little bit of patience to get there.
A 50-minute train ride away from the financial center, in a district called Fanling, the air already feels cleaner, and the bug that lands on your arm isn’t a fly but something green and a little fuzzy. Another 15 minutes by bus, and all around are farms.
But this isn’t mass-scale agricultural land that disappears into the horizon. These are small plots of only an acre or two, each one with its own welcome signs enticing visitors to experience a slice of an organic farmer’s life. “Pick your own strawberries,” one of the signs implores.
“People want somewhere to go on the weekends. Once friends found out we bought a farm, they started to come,” said Teresa Chan, who owns a plot called E-Farm with her husband, Augustine To. “So we decided to open it up to the public.”
Hong Kong still has farms dedicated to mass production, but most of the city’s meat, vegetables and seafood are imported from mainland China. Overall, the agriculture industry in Hong Kong has gone into decline over the past few decades. In fact, the market share of locally grown vegetables and fruits has shrunk from 30 percent in the 1990s to 2.3 percent in 2011, according to the government.
Leisure farms have sprung up to fill a new niche, providing organic vegetables, which are often sold at farmer’s markets. Hands-on classes for school groups or company outings provide additional income -- and a feel-good factor. The farms, often owned by retirees like Chan, have flourished in recent years, with the number of organic farms registered with the government nearly doubling from 106 in 2007 to 203 in 2012.
Farms like these have grown in popularity alongside the appearance of rooftop gardens in the city center. The phenomenon of vegetable gardens being set up on the rooftops of towering high-rises in Hong Kong — also open to the public and often offering activities — has gained widespread attention as a symbol of the city’s lack of open, urban space and as a response to the strong desire for healthier lifestyles.
Seeking a greener lifestyle has been a global movement, but in Hong Kong, a frightening outbreak of the SARS virus 10 years ago awakened an interest in living more healthfully. In fact, surveys showed that from 2003 to 2004, right after the episode, the number of people visiting country parks spiked — and has remained high.
“Especially after SARS, more people started going out to the countryside,” Chan said. “More people started to think about death — and wanted to stay healthy.”
On a sunny Saturday in April, one volunteer was tending produce in a mesh greenhouse, while nearby, a young couple, Wing and Eddie, took care of a small section of land that they rented for US$20 per month. In the past two months, they have grown cherry tomatoes and salad greens here.
“It’s fun to come out and plant our own food,” 22-year-old Wing said. “And it’s healthier.”
“It’s just human nature,” said To, who is semi-retired and still managing an undergarments business part-time. “I ran my own business for 15 years, and now I want to give something back to society. We are teaching the next generation about environmentalism.”
E-Farm has recently started teaching a course on aquaponics, a sustainable farming method it uses and that can be done even on a kitchen countertop. In the past, there have been cooking classes using the farm’s crops, which include papayas, corn, bananas, ginger, sugar cane, lettuce and tomatoes.
The farm is almost entirely edged by a babbling brook, which provides an energy-saving irrigation system -- still a work in progress — for its vegetables and fish. It has composting stations, and repurposed materials salvaged from the dump are everywhere. A koi pond is admittedly a bit of aesthetic indulgence -- and, Chan says, a source of enjoyment for the three guard dogs.
Electrified wires one foot off the ground ward off the countryside’s main intruders at night. “If you come out here at midnight, you’ll find yourself looking at a wild boar,” Chan said.
It is a drastic lifestyle change; before buying the farm six years ago, she and To had been strictly city people. But now they are well versed in the mechanisms of aquaponics, which uses fish waste to fertilize soil, and hydroponics, a method that relies solely on nutrient-rich water.
"There is a lot of debate about which method is better," Chan said, "but the most important thing is knowing where your produce comes from."
Photos: Vanessa Ko