We’re finding out in our little organic farm how difficult it is to make a going concern of organic farming. We’ve been growing vegetables for sale since last October and have yet to succeed in selling anywhere near enough just to cover the cost of Bhola’s wages. (Bhola is the Nepalese farmer who I’m employing to work the farm). We have built up quite a wide range of customers, and we deliver to the door for locals, but it is not difficult to see what the problems are. We’ve all grown so used to going to a supermarket and being able to buy a huge range of fruit and veg which come from all over the world – courtesy of cheap transportation – such that it doesn’t matter what season it is, you can still buy whatever you want.
That’s not the case when you buy from a local farm. You have to select from the vegetables that are in season, and that may be very restricted, as it is here in the middle of Hong Kong’s summer. It’s hot, it’s humid, it’s wet, and there are millions of insects around to attack your plants. Perhaps because our plot is in a lowland valley, we have a lot of water lying around, and a lot of insects. Consequently, our greens all get stripped of their leaves, except for our Chinese spinach and water spinach – although these have also been attacked to some extent – and we have to concentrate on various cucurbits. Melon flies plague us every year, but with the help of sticky yellow paper we’ve managed to control them to a limited degree, so that we’ve produced a few pumpkins, and a range of cucumbers. Our giant Nepalese cucumbers seem to fare slightly better than the more conventional ones.
We’ve currently also got silk gourds, snake gourds and bottle gourds coming through now, all of which seem to be ignored by the bugs. They will probably be ignored by our customers as well, as our non-Chinese customers are less familiar with these vegetables. That’s one area I’ve got to work on – promoting different kinds of veg by providing some appealing recipes. It’s easier getting people to buy something different if they actually come to the farm so that they can see it growing. The snake gourd is a good example – it’s a rather beautiful veg which would tempt anyone to try it once they saw it. The problem is getting people to come to the farm!
We’ve also got eggplants, okra and long Chinese beans, plus herbs and chillies. But because we have a limited range of veg people naturally tend to think, ‘Oh, no, not beans again!’ and head back to the supermarket for something different. This is another area that I need to work on – re-educating people about eating local. My family obviously eats our own veg, and I don’t think any of us have got bored with any of it because it’s so easy to come up with interesting recipes these days. On top of which, some veg tastes so much better when it’s organically grown – our French beans were great, for example – that they are always a pleasure to eat.
We need to educate ourselves about the benefits to our own health and the benefits to the health of the planet that accrue when we eat organically and locally. Local, organic farming helps to rebuild the soil instead of depleting it; it increases biodiversity both above and below the ground; it has higher levels of nutrients in it which benefits our health, and it often tastes better; and it helps develop the local economy, whilst increasing local resilience to any forthcoming shocks that will result from increasingly expensive, and less available, oil. It also reduces food miles to virtually zeroand thereby reduces the impact of agriculture on global warming. It’s easy to see from this that when you buy local, organic food you are making an environmental and political statement. When you start growing some of your own, you go one step further. Join the revolution!
However, I do need to find out more about extending the period when you can grow lettuce and tomatoes, and how to protect our cucurbits and green-leafed veg from insect attack. We have much to learn. But I also want to make the farm a viable concern, and that means I need to do more than grow vegetables, because nobody ever wants to pay high prices for food. It’s ridiculous that you can’t make a good living out of growing good, healthy food for people. All of the organic farms that I know of in Hong Kong supplement their income by having regular visits from school students, presumably because that’s the only way they can make ends meet. Similarly, one option for me is to follow the path set by Jenny Quinton of Ark Eden, who receives large numbers of students at her project to learn about a range of permaculture activities – organic farming, composting, tree planting, energy conservation, and so on. Judging by Jenny’s success, there seems to be a huge demand for this. I’d like to give students a chance to do some hands-on gardening, perhaps by helping to prepare vegetable plots, or compost, or to build square-foot gardens, which are ideal for people with very little space and no ordinary garden. This would need to be part of a broader educational package that looked at global warming, energy use (especially oil) and the transition movement. A hard look at the obliteration of the natural world that we characterise as ‘progress’ would seek to place local, organic food growing as a step towards rectifying the situation, whilst emphasising the important role that each individual can play in that. First of all, though, I need to get more land to use.
This, of course, is my own putative project, not a Transition undertaking, since TSL is really no more that a list of email correspondents now. It’s a pity that it has come to more or less nothing, with very little interest in forming the sort of groups that work so well in successful transition initiatives. Never mind, for the time being I’ve got the farm to focus on.