WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Crave vis­its Hong Kong’s largest rice farm on Lan­tau.

Crave - - FEATURE -

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.”

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