By Arthur Tam
“The quality of our watermelons is superior to Japan.” It’s a bold claim by Zen Organic Farm’s co-owner and farmer Joey Ng Pik-wan in Ta Kwu Ling.
Ng, a former chemist, joined forces with her brother Ng Ping-leung to transform their father’s former pig farm in Sheung Shui into a 250,000-square-foot, sustainable, organic farm, growing a range of produce and fruit including cherry tomatoes, avocados, figs, sweet corn, kale, watercress, edible flowers and their signature watermelons.
‘The hot weather in Hong Kong is ideal for a variety of fruits and produce. We can have up to five months of figs here, whereas in Italy the season is just a month and a half,’ says Ng.
Hong Kong is normally associated with urbanism and air pollution, less so organic farms and sustainability. But farmers like the Ng siblings are building a strong locavore scene using organic farming methods. Over the past seven years, they have caught the attention of influential companies and now provide vegetables to the likes of Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, Michelin-starred restaurant Ryu Gin, innovative cocktail bar Dr Fern’s Gin Parlour and Taikoo Place.
“It’s all about the taste and our willingness to experiment and try new things,” says Ng. “I can guarantee you that our product tastes the best and has its own unique character.” It’s difficult to refute her claims. We had a taste of the watermelons and they are in fact delicious. They’re smaller than your supermarket variety and perfectly round. The crimson flesh of the fruit is sweet, juicy and refreshingly crisp.
Ng is proud of her fruits and vegetables and is very serious about transparency and achieving the highest international standard for organic farming.
“Our consultants include leading international and local academics, organic experts from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, pest and disease specialists and bio-manufacturers,” says Ng. “We are a biodiverse farm, our water comes from the neighbouring mountains, the soil is tested and our records are constantly being scrutinised. Nothing is wasted and we've even developed an irrigation system that decreases the hours of manual labour – when you think sustainability, the farmer's wellbeing should also be taken into consideration.”
It might come as a surprise, but Hong Kong has nearly 150 organic farms and according to the David Leung Wai-tong who has been contributing to the local organic farming scene, Hong Kong has some of the best land to farm organic. “There is actually a lot of unspoiled, virgin land in Hong Kong – Zen Organic Farm started on virgin land,” he says. “Factories and commercial buildings never made it up as far as the northern part of the New Territories. So, we are not affected by water contamination or runoff, which is a big problem in the Mainland.”
Leung acts as a conduit between the farmers, connecting them and making sure there is a cooperative spirit in pushing forward the organic and sustainability movement in Hong Kong. “If I can support other farms, I would do it, that’s our responsibility to the community,” says Leung. “When Taikoo Place is giving us resources and a platform like their Tong Chong Street Market, I want to share it, so we can all benefit. My hope is that one day, people will take pride and see the value of produce that’s made in Hong Kong.”
Johnny Wong, who runs Johnny’s Farm in Yuen Long, is 35, which makes him a youngster in his field. “Going organic is not without its challenges,” says Wong. “The cost of production is higher and we receive very little resources from the government. But, I remain hopeful. Eating organic is without a doubt a healthier and tastier option, so my goal is to make it more accessible to Hong Kongers at a cheaper price. It’s going to take a collective effort and an increase of supply for that to happen.”
If you want to try local produce from Ng and Wong, look no further than One Island East here at Taikoo Place. Every Monday through Friday from 12pm-6pm, at the ground floor lobby of the building, you can find Tong Chong Street Market Pop-up Farmers' Stalls, selling daily harvested produce. And during the final week of the stall on 25-29 June, the farmers are going to present their best organic watermelons for the highly anticipated Watermelon Festival. You won't want to miss this and you can judge for yourself if Hong Kong has better watermelons than Japan.
For full details of the Tong Chong Street Market Pop-up Farmers' Stalls and the series of fun upcycling workshops, go here.