Every time I step into Hui Fai’s farm, pad along the grass and down a narrow tree-lined path to the main field where a dozen vegetable species grow, I am grateful that my job is always about meeting interesting and courageous individuals.
Ah Fai is an organic farmer. The Canadian-born Chinese spent 12 years working as an executive in the technology and finance industries. He impresses me not only because he quitted a high-flying life in Central to become an organic farmer in Fanling, but I also admire his determination to make sustainable farming practicable. Local organic farms are receiving more and more attention, whether at the consumer level, or as an alternative way of life that they represent. The fact that this tough, toilsome and financially unrewarding job is attracting even the young and university-educated is proof that, for some, organic farming is hip. Ah Fai is unique, however, because he enjoys working alone and unnoticed at the farm. The 41-year-old is constantly looking at how he can advance his farming knowledge and skills, and he upholds the philosophy of organic farming while embracing inventive branding techniques when it comes to selling vegetables.
“My struggle is am I making the most improvement? What if I am not studying hard enough, not working hard enough? Most people think I am an idiot but I have my own objective. I want to make as much improvement as possible. In the past, when I met my friends, what did we talk about? The stock market, the property market, what do you think about the economy, is it going up or going down? How about that bar you went to last night? I don’t find these topics very interesting,” Ah Fai said.
Now he travels between home and his farm on a bicycle. He works six hours a day and studies for several hours in the evening. When he talks, it is always about weeding, watering, ploughing, seeds, seedlings, composting, the soil, the weather, and the different experiments he has been doing on each soil bed. His passion may be overwhelming, but he’s always able to draw me into every aspect of his farm with the charm and effortless ease of a raconteur.
Ah Fai is very conscious of the carbon implications that each and every of his actions brings to the world. Playing a more active role to reduce carbon emissions in the face of climate change is the major reason that has turned him to organic farming. He says organic farming is therefore not just about excluding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to avoid soil and water pollution because for it to be sustainable, it should include growing food locally, so that what we eat doesn’t have to travel long distances and create unnecessary carbon emissions before it reaches the dining table. For this thoughtful farmer, responsible farming also ensures that insects and other forms of life are not killed just because human beings need to grow food.
As a matter of principle, Ah Fai only grows in-season vegetables and he does not use a green house. He divides his 8,000 square-feet farm into a dozen of smaller plots and rotates their use so that the soil will have time to rest and recover. He experiments at each plot of land to find out the optimal combination of soil, seeds, nutrients, water, as well as the precise timings that go with each factor. Aubergines, broccoli, beetroots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, corn and kai-lan grow side-by-side.
There’s no farm machinery in sight because it is the biggest carbon emitter. Therefore ploughing, one of the most energy and time-consuming activities on the farm, is completely manual.
“Everyone uses a ploughing machine, I don’t have one. Nobody grows like this. What I am doing is 10 times more time-consuming than using a machine, and this plough is very heavy. Then there’s weeding, farmers in Asia squatting down, using knives to uproot the weeds. But this position is very tiring. You can’t do this for long unless you’re a farmer for 20 years. I am a beginner; I need to find the right tool that fits my body and the land.”
He wants to modernise the plough. He also wants to improve the weeding method and the tools involved. Moreover, he wants to innovate many other manual implements that farmers pass from one generation to the next without ever questioning their efficiency. He uses the example of tennis and badminton rackets that are made of carbon fibre to make his point. “Over the past 20 years, the rackets have dramatically improved. You can hit harder and faster with the same amount of human energy because the tool improved. Why can’t we use carbon fibre to make farming tools?”
Ah Fai is working with a farmer-turned ironsmith to tailor-make the right tool for himself. The first product is a plough-like weeding tool which will allow him to weed his crops standing up. The second creation is an improved cart with two large wheels which makes it easier to balance and push around in the field, and the low handle design means it doesn’t even have to be lifted when in motion. He also uses stackable crates so he can load and unload things more efficiently. Ah Fai compares the impact of his inventions to the benefits of a bicycle. “A person is very slow; a car is very fast but consumes a lot of energy. The best option is a bicycle. The energy use is the least for going a long distance.”
Ah Fai’s efforts to minimise carbon footprint doesn’t mean he sells his vegetables without packaging. He packs different vegetables together, playing on their contrasting, or complementary colours. He wraps them in the kind of raw-looking paper that Thai food vendors use to pack their cooking. “The reason farmers can’t get ahead is because they are not good at branding and packaging. An eggplant is unable to distinguish itself from another eggplant, so we need design to add value through packaging. Actually, packaging is important because the vegetables need protection to stay fresh.” The ever-enterprising farmer has also started a ‘dining at the farm’ programme. Calling it ‘Farm-to-table’, it’s designed for city-dwellers who want to harvest vegetables from the field and eat them fresh at the farm.
None of the farm’s commercial activities bring in a profit, but Ah Fai is not bothered. “The farming industry makes money but the farmer doesn’t. I don’t need to make money now. How much money I could make anyway compare with my old job? What I care is whether I am progressing. It is why I am experimenting. As long as I keep improving, eventually I can scale it up. I don’t think of how far I can go. I am trying my best and I enjoy the process.”
Ah Fai may prefer to focus on the process rather than an end result, but he’s driven by the belief that his actions are laying the groundwork for a revolution in how we consume food: “If enough people start eating organically, one day, we can displace conventional farming.”
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: Hong Kong is a good contrast to the mainland. Hong Kong shows that things can be done differently. Hong Kong is a very civil society in the sense that people are civil to each other. Of course, there are things that are not good, for example, people don’t give up seats to the elderly. Generally speaking, people are pretty civil. The system is very clean. You can’t buy a license from the officials. I think that is really important when you’re right next door to China.
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: I don’t think it is a human-friendly city. If you look at the architecture, the way the buildings are, they are not designed for humans. There is no integration between the inside and the outside. You look at Elements and the shopping malls in Tsing Yi, it’s like you’re in a spaceship. The outside is the outer space, and being inside Elements is like being in a spaceship. There is no integration between the inside and the outside, the outside doesn’t matter. There is also a very unnatural environment. When I walk on ground level, I should see windows, this is human size. But the fact is when I walk down a street in Hong Kong, I see a four-storey parking lot, four stories up in the sky, and when I look further, there’s a 30-storey, or 40-storey building. But it is policy that encourages the rise of these scenarios.
Q: What does Hong Kong need to do for it to be sustainable?
A: The policy must be changed for Hong Kong to be sustainable. Everything is driven by policy. There has to be an alternative vision of what society could look like. Somebody has to pursue another vision basically, rather than just follow material pursuits.