Each year, the average Hongkonger wolfs down about 47kg – or 470 bowls – of rice. Most of it comes from Thailand, Vietnam and mainland China.
But that was not always the case. We used to grow our dinner staple in the city’s countryside, until farmers abandoned their paddies to find less back-breaking jobs with better pay.
Recently though, homegrown rice has been making a comeback.
Long neglected paddies in Long Valley in Yuen Long are once again being farmed on, mainly to feed an endangered bird; Zen Organic Farm in Fanling is attracting families who want to experience a day in the life of a farmer; and four non-profit organisations are working together to start growing rice on old fields at Lai Chi Wo near Sha Tau Kok to bring back old village life. Meanwhile a farm at Yi O on Lantau Island might be the only one that operates totally commercially.
Last month, Young Post visited the rice paddies at Yi O – which is a five-minute boat ride from Tai O and then another 15 minutes on foot – to find out what it takes to transform weedy fields back into fully operational rice paddies.
The 20 sq km terraced farm is so isolated by the surrounding mountains that it does not feel like Hong Kong. We arrived five days past the best time to sow rice according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar. Farmers in black boots and large sun hats treaded knee-deep in the wet paddies as they quickly but skilfully tucked the last few seedlings into neat, well-space rows.
The farm’s operation operator, Lee Lap-hong, said that the village leader asked their firm to start farming on those fields again back in 2000, because he didn’t want such a prime agricultural spot to be wasted The project didn’t come to fruition until 2013 though, when operational cost issues were solved.
Despite 30 years of negligence, Yi O remains a perfect place for rice farming. The fields are still fed by an unpolluted stream that runs from the mountains, so no artificial watering system is needed. With dedication and time, farmers ridded the fields of weeds and pests, and enriched the soil with organic fertilizer. Then, last spring, they sowed their first rice seeds.
“Even though we have a midday break, it’s tough to work under the blazing sun for eight hours,” says Lee. “A few minutes into plucking weeds, we are drenched in sweat.”
The team of five – consisting of a former journalist and district councilor, a former chef, a young man his mid-twenties, an ex-property manager, and a leisure fisherman – had no rice growing expertise, but they picked up the skills on the job, which often meant learning lessons the hard way.
During their first season, the team wasn’t aware that they should cover their crop with nets when it is almost ready for harvest. And so the grains of four months of effort became a free buffet for birds.
“At sundown, thousands of birds lined a nearby power cable, waiting for our staff to leave, before they started the feast. We suffered a huge lost,” says Yu Kin-sun who worked as a Cantonese chef in Japan for 12 years before finding his passion for farming.
Their second try wasn’t successful either. Not a grain was harvested because the farmers had their hands full with the last harvest and missed the best time to sow.
“The husks were grainless because the grain didn’t have enough time to develop. Even though we knew we had to follow the lunar calendar, we couldn’t make it because we don’t have enough farmers. Harvest and planting back to back...,” says Lee.
Rice takes 120 days to mature, unlike bak choi or choi sum which has a crop cycle of six weeks. When crops are destroyed by floods or human error, rice farmers lose potential income and need to wait until the right time of the year to start anew.
But what they lack in expertise, the team makes up in passion and perseverance. All the sweat during first two seasons wasn’t exactly wasted – at least they learned what-not-to-do. Their third season, just harvested last month, yielded 224kg of rice, almost double their first harvest.
“Our productivity is still low,” says Yu. “We can only cater for member purchases. We farmers have only cooked congee with the rice once. But I’m proud to start the rice paddy from scratch.”
Currently the farm is only operating at a quarter of its full potential – about 1.3 sq km was destroyed by heavy rain but has yet to be repaired – because they have a hard time recruiting farmers due to the farm’s remote location.
Even though it is far away and the work is laborious, farming organic homegrown rice has its attraction. Fai Jai, who is in his mid-twenties, loves his job at the farm because it helps Hongkongers understand the relationship between humans and food.
“If you visit our farm, you’ll understand what resources and efforts are invested to produce a kilo of rice, and you will appreciate every grain you eat.”