WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Crave visits Hong Kong’s largest rice farm on Lantau.
Twenty-six-year-old Carson Chow, nicknamed Chow Chow, became a farmer almost on a whim. He’d visited a farm cooperative in Yi O, Lantau, on a school project and remembered it being rather fun. After graduating from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University with an associate degree, three years ago, he got in touch to ask if there were any opportunities to join the cooperative. There were, and he grabbed them.
At the time, Chow was the only 20-something working on the farm. He has sinced been joined by others, many of whom were repelled by the thought of an office job, he explains, and enticed by the idea of rebuilding the heritage of farming in Hong Kong, which has been neglected in recent decades, and of doing something meaningful. It’s a reflection of a shift in mentality among young people. Rice used to be grown locally, but in the 1980s and 90s, farmers neglected their land in favour of less physically demanding work with better pay.
“People care,” Chow says. “They’re interested in the status of Hong Kong’s agriculture and are interested in what they can do to help. A lot has happened in the last few years.”
Yi O is by no means the only rice farm in Hong
Kong but it is by far the largest with more than seven hectares dedicated to rice production. Rice is also grown in Long Valley in Yuen Long, and in Lai Chi Wo in Sha Tau Kok, but they are hardly commercial.
Chow had no previous experience in agriculture, but he was willing to learn. It wasn’t hard mentally, but the physical aspect was tough. The days were
long and the tools heavy.
“You go and you think you have to use all your strength to commit to every task, but I learned the hard way that’s not how you do things. I would be exhausted after 10, 20 minutes, and the older, experienced farmers were going at it for one, two hours, and they still weren’t tired,” he says, laughing. “I learned to rely on the weight of the tool. It’s heavy, so if you pick it up, and put it down, it’s heavy enough to loosen the soil. You don’t need to use all your strength to pick it up and throw it down again. Little things like that.”
Dispersing seeds was another skill he learned. “The bags are small and it’s easy to want to sprinkle all of it in one small area, although they are designed for the whole plot of land. The farmers taught me how to mix [the seeds] with more sand and soil, and loosely disperse the mixture, and it will be more uniform and cover the whole plot.”
There are two harvests in a year. The first season starts in late February, right after Lunar New Year, when the seeds are planted, and the harvest is in mid-july. The second season starts in August and harvest is in late November.
The seeds are soaked in water, then dried and left to sprout. They are then spread evenly over the soil. The grass-like plants grow for about 20 days until they reach the length of the palm, then a tent is erected over the crop to protect it from birds. After three to four weeks, the rice is harvested. In a good year, the farm produces 200kg of rice an acre, which reduces by 60 to 70 per cent after it is dried and polished. The last harvest produced two tonnes of rice.
“Labour will always be a problem,” Chow says. The farm currently employs up to eight workers, most aged either in their mid-20s or their 60s. “People may be showing an interest, but it’s still difficult. Rice farming is difficult because it’s risky. The entire process takes four months and the harvest varies.”
The weather is an inevitable, uncontrollable factor. This summer’s series of typhoons, for example, wiped out the crop. “Everything was either wiped out or those left standing were half dead,” Chow says.
Despite the setbacks and the back-breaking work, he says the rewards are worth it. “Hong Kong rice is popular because it’s so scarce and locally grown rice has an advantage because of its freshness. We don’t get to eat too much of it because we sell what we can, but it’s aromatic, smaller and leaner than the si miu variety, but with a bite. And so, so fresh.”