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Green thumbs in the city

09/27/2019

With urban farms taking root on top of Hong Kong’s cramped quarters, more companies and individuals recognize that vegetables can thrive in the middle of a metropolis. CPAs and a student tell Jeremy Chan what they enjoy most about urban farming

Photography by Leslie Montgomery



Karen Yip (left) and Kitson Fan (right) taking care of their firm's rooftop farm, on top of Manulife Financial Centre, in Kwun Tong.


It’s early morning, and Karen Yip has just started the day by watering various crops. She takes her time, and slowly makes her way around large, square planter boxes, spraying water on choy sum and lettuce. She looks down at the vegetables, noticing how much they have grown since a few days ago. Minutes later, she is seated at her desk in the office.

The building she works in features a rooftop farm. “When I’m tired, I step out of the office and water the plants to refresh my mind,” says Yip, IT and Operations Manager at PwC. “It’s helpful during a long day at work and especially during peak season.”

There are currently more than 60 urban farms in Hong Kong which can be found on the top floor or in open areas of office buildings and educational institutions. The farms tend to be installed by urban farming enterprises that seek to bring sustainable agriculture and more green spaces to the city. A study by Texas A&M University found being around plants, indoors or out, improves work quality and accuracy as well as improves concentration and memory by up to 20 percent. In addition to the organic produce which is grown, urban farms grow something else – a sense of community and belonging among employees. Those who take care of the farm, including CPAs, are generally happier and appreciate the opportunity to be part of a cause outside of – and yet only accessible – at work.


An organic oasis

Yip is one of more than 50 volunteers at her firm who actively takes care of the rooftop farm, located at Manulife Financial Centre in Hong Kong’s Kwun Tong district, and has done so since 2015. She began maintaining the farm after the former head of her department asked Rooftop Republic, a local urban farming organization, to set it up.

She and other employees would attend workshops held by the organization to learn the basics such how often to water crops, when to harvest them, and more advanced farming techniques such as how to make pesticides using all-natural ingredients. “We mix ground chilies, garlic and water, and spray this on the leaves,” Yip says. “We need to apply it once every two weeks otherwise insects will eat the plants and vegetables. It keeps them away but doesn’t harm them.”

The team grow different vegetables depending on the season, such as sweet potatoes and basil in spring and summer, and carrots, eggplant, lettuce, spinach and strawberries in the cooler months. “We like planting choy sum and lettuce as they only take around one or two months to grow,” she adds. Other vegetables, such as beetroot, require two months, and sweet potatoes may require up to four months to grow.

Kitson Fan, Audit Manager at PwC and an Institute member, also helps to take care of the rooftop farm. He says growing certain vegetables requires around-the-clock care from a small team of employees at the firm. While this is an added responsibility at work, Fan willingly takes time out of his day to help water the plants. “I like dedicating my office breaks to doing a bit of farming – all I have to do is go three floors up and water the plants, so I water them before work and during lunch,” he says. “You have to remain committed to taking care of these plants. They’re a bit like your children.”

He says members of the team take turns to water the plants on a daily basis. They make sure this is done by communicating with each other through a WhatsApp group. “We water the plants extra before the weekend as we might not have the manpower to help during then,” Yip adds. But some, like Yip, don’t mind commuting to work on some weekend mornings just to maintain the farm. “My two girls, who are four and 11, love the outdoors so I once brought them to water and even harvest the plants,” she says. “They were so excited to help.”

Rooftop farming is a relatively new concept in Hong Kong. Companies first need to seek approval from the building’s management before growing crops. Factors such as size and weight are considered, and a certificate must be issued by a registered professional engineer, following a loading assessment, declaring the area fit for use. “We proposed the idea of setting up a rooftop farm to the building management and they were quite open to the idea,” says Yip.

With each harvest comes a time for sharing. “After a harvest, we leave the vegetables in the pantry so our people can bring them home after work,” she says. “Sometimes, we get together to eat strawberries we just harvested.” Fan always feels a sense of achievement when he tastes the vegetables grown on the farm. “It’s a completely different experience from eating food bought from the market,” he says.

The farm is also a platform for employees to network. “Many of our people from different departments and branches were surprised to find out around the rooftop farm, so I started getting calls and emails about it. I eventually brought many of them to visit the farm,” Yip says. “The rooftop farm has given our people another reason to get more sunshine even when it’s hot. We all observe and talk about how much the plants have grown and also take turns to water them. It’s helped us to bond.”

Yip and Fan both look forward to more years of farming, and also growing beetroot and new vegetables such as kohlrabi, or German turnip. “We feel fortunate to have our own organic rooftop farm right at our workplace,” says Fan.


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Staying sustainable

Sally Ip never imagined that she would enjoy gardening. In her second year at the University of Hong Kong, she moved into one of the newly-built student residential halls near the campus. “Each hall had its own theme, and ours was sustainability,” she says. To reflect the theme, the university dedicated a small area near the entrance of the hall to a plot of plants and vegetables. But as Ip remembers, it was poorly maintained.

“The students living in the hall didn’t really take care of the farm, especially during exam periods. Many were gone during the summer holidays as well,” says Ip, Fund Accountant at Langham Hall, and a student enrolled in the Institute’s Qualification Programme (QP). “Luckily, there were always a few PhD students who were always there to water the plants, but even they were too busy sometimes.”

Ip, who majored in accounting and finance, would water the plants whenever she could, and also asked friends to help out. The following year, she decided to form a farming group made up of hall residents and passionate students, and almost 70 joined. She got in touch with the founder of urban farming organization Wildroots Organic, Fai Hui, and began hosting training workshops alongside Hui, teaching the members when to water the plants and how to harvest them. She also created a roster and assigned different members to water the plants at certain times. Their efforts paid off, and they were able to revive the farm. “We grew coriander, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber and even eggplant,” she says.

Ip and a few members of the group also began creating compost by collecting food waste such as bread, leftover vegetables and fruit peel from all of the hall kitchens and transferred it to a composting bin. “It was shocking to see how much food waste there was,” she says. The waste would require three months to compost, which Ip and her team would add to existing soil. “We needed to give the compost a stir every once in a while. It took a bit of work, and it didn’t smell that great either – even with a mask on. I only realized how committed to farming I was when I got involved with composting,” she jokes.

A good portion of the fruits and vegetables from each harvest were wrapped and placed in a box near the hall’s lift lobby. “We gave some of it to the security guards and janitors who worked in the hall,” Ip says. Those who helped with the harvest also got to keep their share of produce, and once in a while, the team would get together for a well-deserved meal. “Once, we organized a hot pot dinner using all the vegetables we grew,” she says. “It always feels good to reward yourself with a meal after all the hard work – and the lettuce we grew was fresher and crispier than the ones bought from the supermarket.”

During her final year in university, she was asked by Wildroots Organic if she wanted to help out at their farm in Sheung Shui, located in the New Territories, in her spare time. She was excited about working on a larger farm, and took on the tasks of managing both the hall’s farm and a farm owned by the organization.

Ip now lives on Hong Kong Island and travels to the farm on the weekends, two hours away. Her love for the outdoors keeps her unfazed by the long journey. “I might spend half a day there, and even stay longer during autumn and winter. I don’t have my own patch of land, so I help with the crops they are growing,” she says. They grow water spinach, okra, eggplant, winter melon and herbs such as mint during warmer months, and carrots, chilies, kale, Swiss chard and herbs such as coriander in the winter. “When I’m farming there, I can hear the birds sing and that really helps me to relax. For me, farming is an active form of meditation.”

She encourages those interested in or curious about farming to start by taking care of a small plant. “You can try growing a plant at home, or even at the office – you can grow herbs such as mint right next to a window,” she says. “A colleague of mine planted a cherry tomato seed and managed to grow a seedling.”


Ip wants to continue farming but is now more focused on passing an important paper – the QP final exam. “I’ll be taking the exam in December, so that means taking a break from farming to study for it!”


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