KFBG Mr. Yip Tsz Lam:
Journey in agriculture: know yourself, and combine interests into career
Mr. Yip Tsz Lam is currently the Senior Sustainable Agriculture Officer in Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG). Mr. Yip was born in an agricultural family. After graduation from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, he worked as a journalist. Later, he joined KFBG and has been working on management of agricultural production and organization of various agricultural courses. He published books to document local agricultural history. In recent years, to promote local agriculture, he started taking part in providing comments on agricultural policies and issues.
From writing to farming
When Mr. Yip’s parents were young, they escaped from mainland China to Hong Kong due to the Cultural Revolution. They joined the agricultural sector to make a living. Mr. Yip and his brothers assisted their parents in farmlands when they were young. There are three stages of the evolution of Hong Kong’s agricultural sector: In the early days, farmers grew mainly paddy rice. In the 1940s to 50s, new immigrants from Mainland China brought their experience and skills on growing vegetables to Hong Kong. Intensive growing of vegetables took over rice farming. Since the 2000s, organic farming and hydroponic farming have been thriving on diversity. Mr. Yip’s parents arrived in Hong Kong in the 1970s, at the time that was close to the end of the glory days of “New Territories vegetables”. In the 1980s, because of the Chinese economic reform, import of low-priced vegetables from Mainland outcompeted local supply. Local agricultural sector started to decline. Knowing the problems and challenges faced by farmers as well as the uncertain prospects of the industry, Mr. Yip’s father did not want his sons to be farmers.
After graduation from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Mr. Yip wanted to engage in meaningful work. As he was capable of organizing materials, writing and communication, he worked as a journalist. After working for several years, although the work was fun and interesting, Mr. Yip thought that his English ability may not be strong enough for him to pursue further development in the industry. Also, he preferred to work in more regular hours. Therefore, he “returned” to the agricultural sector which he has long been interested in and uncovered his potential in this industry. Mr. Yip’s brother joined the industry a few years earlier than Mr. Yip. Mr. Yip started by assisting his brother and working part-time at Produce Green Foundation. Mr. Yips’ brother is more adventurous and likes trying new things, but Mr. Yip is rather conservative and preferred to work for a company. Mr. Yip thereby decided to join KFBG. The two brothers coincidentally “returned” to the field one after another. Although Mr. Yip’s father objected to Mr. Yip’s career choice, he gradually accepted his son’s work in a large company. Time flies. Mr. Yip has been working in the agricultural sector for almost 20 years. Mr. Yip believes that both writing and farming are meaningful and enjoyable work.
Exploration of the possibility on agriculture
The agricultural sector entered the most difficult period in the 1990s. Mr. Yip recalled that there were no newcomers to the industry and farmlands were abandoned one by one. Several years after the handover of Hong Kong, organic farming with high productivity appeared. Related organizations sprung up, such as Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre Certification Ltd., organic farming team of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), Organic Community Grower Group (CGG), etc. And Mr. Yip joined KFBG in 2003.
KFBG originated from Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association (K.A.A.A.) established in the 1950s. K.A.A.A. was dedicated to provide aid to the underprivileged local farmers. However, as the local agricultural sector declined and public awareness on environmental protection increased, KFBG transformed into a conservation group. Mr. Yip believed this challenging situation could be a valuable opportunity to explore possibilities on agriculture for both the work of the organization and his own personal development. Instead of focusing on high productivity, KFBG strives to develop a more sustainable food system. KFBG referred to overseas experience and made an effort to promote various agricultural projects, such as Community Supported Agriculture scheme, and farmer’s market. The Central Farmer’s Market, which was started 13 years ago, has now become one of the large-scale farmer’s markets in Hong Kong. Continuous market observation and trial-and-error are key to successfully finding own position in the sector.
Agriculture and seed conservation work of KFBG
KFBG adopts sustainable agriculture. The scale and area of farmlands are small. Nevertheless, due to KFBG’s unique geographical location, the altitude of farmlands ranges from approximately 100 m to a maximum of about 400 m, forming 3 microhabitats with different daylight time, slope, wind direction and latitude. These allow a wide variety of crops to be grown – tea and coffee on the top of the mountain, fruit on the mountainside, and vegetables and herbs in the foothills. These crops are not grown for production, but for the purposes of agricultural display and cultural conservation. Hong Kong used to be renowned for tea production so growing tea trees in gardens could introduce Hong Kong tea culture and history to visitors. However, because of the development pressure, Mr. Yip believed that growing tea trees nowadays would have limited room for development. Besidess, KFBG also promotes signature crops and self-cultivated varieties, such as Chrysanthemum and coffee, and grows common crops for display and education.
Mr. Yip pointed out that KFBG seldom advertised itself as an organic farm and did not apply for organic certification. Organic farming is an outstanding part of sustainable agriculture. Its success lies in popularization; however, it has limitations, such as problems arising from food miles under globalization, fair trade, excessive food packages, etc. Therefore, KFBG is neutral towards organic farming, but it does not agree to the legislation of the acquisition for organic certification for organic crops, as this might diminish possibilities and opportunities in the agricultural sectors.
KFBG’s seed conservation work mainly divides into two parts – seed saving in fields and education. Varieties to be conserved in KFBG would be those which are rarely sold in seed stores, signature varieties for promotion (e.g. Chrysanthemum, comfrey, coffee) and vairieties with asexual reproduction (e.g. garlic, ginger). In terms of education, KFBG encourages local farmers to conserve their own seeds. Mr. Yip has organized several seed saving workshops to demonstrate the procedures and skills. The response was overwhelming. Yet, Mr. Yip was worried about how participants could continue seed saving work on their own after the workshop. Since most of the participants were people who like farming or like learning more about agricultural knowledge, it would be difficult to request them to constantly engage in seed saving work. Although the work could enhance participants’ understanding and interest towards seed saving, it did not necessarily increase the number of farmers participating in seed conservation work in the long run. The reason behind this is that buying seeds in Hong Kong is low-cost and convenient and thus there is a lack of incentive for farmers to save seeds. Even if farmers are willing to save seeds, varieties would be limited to crops which are easy to be retained, such as carrot, Chinese Kale, gourds, ginger, etc.
Skills and perseverance of farmers are essential and indispensable for seed saving. Skills would directly affect the quality of the seeds. According to the observation from Mr. Yip, some farmers could not meet the requirements on seed saving skills. For example, they combine farmlands for production and farmlands for seed saving, and they often sell the healthiest or good-looking individuals and retain individuals with low market value for seed saving. In fact, farmers should select individuals with vigorous growth for seed saving so as to preserve the best traits of the variety. Also, nutrition management on production farmland and seed saving farmland are completely different. The former aims at increasing the overall yield, while the latter concentrates the nutrients on certain individuals or fruits. Taking gourds as an example, for production farmland, farmers would apply more fertilizers so more fruits could be produced; for seed saving farmland, farmers would remove other fruits on the same plants after the selection of individuals with desirable traits.
About 20 years ago, when Mr. Yip was a journalist, he interviewed a seed store owner. The owner shared a story with him: The owner hired farmers for seed saving work. During certain periods of time, vegetables were very profitable. The farmers sold all the vegetables which were originally reserved for seed saving purposes. Seed saving needs to be carried out year after year, apart from perseverance and skills, and this story reminds that resistance to economic incentives could be especially important to the continuity of seed conservation work. With regard to how to encourage more farmers to save their own seeds, Mr. Yip thought this could be both complicated and contradictory. In the past, it was difficult to buy seeds and seeds were expensive, so farmers tended to preserve their own seeds. Nowadays, buying seeds is cheap and convenient, facilitating farmers’ production greatly. Farmers even hope that more new varieties could be bought from seed companies.
Mr. Yip understands that promotion of seed saving has its importance and meaning. However, he thought that unless seed saving is still an essential part of crop production, requiring farmers to carry out time-consuming and complicated seed saving is unreasonable. He suggested that seed conservation could be a collaborative work – seed companies as the core, and large-scale organizations (e.g. KFBG and SeedTEC) as a supplement to constantly invest resources to conserve varieties with unstable supply. For easily preserved varieties or house brand varieties, farmers should take lead to preserve their own seeds.
Full-time and Part-time farmer at the same time
Mr. Yip came from a background of agriculture, but he emphasized that his work on agriculture did not limit to work at KFBG. It is better to call him a person who has devoted to agriculture rather than an officer at KFBG. Mr. Yip recalled that his father changed from full-time farmer to amateur farmer in the 1990s. Father turned most of the active farmlands into orchards, and used the rest for planting gourds or vegetables for his grandchildren. Later, the government planned to construct Liantang Port and Heung Yuen Wai Highway. Land resumption of areas surrounding the site was needed, including the farmlands and houses owned by the Yip’s family. At that time, Mr. Yip’s father had already passed away and considering that his mother might not be able to adapt to living in cities, Mr. Yip realized that preserving the farmlands and house was significantly important to his family. Therefore, the Yip’s family objected to the development project. Fortunately, the government was willing to listen to their demands. The construction site was slightly modified so that Mr. Yip’s house and several d.c. (1 d.c.= 674 square metres or 7,260 square feet) of farmland could be retained. Although most of their arable land was lost, at least the house could be kept. Now, Mr. Yip has inherited the remaining land. From time to time, he follows in his parents footsteps, comes back to manage the land after work and to plant gourds, beans, ginger, banana, etc.
Bananas planted in the orchard are of great significance to Mr. Yip. In the past, Mr. Yip’s father planted a dwarf variety of banana using two d.c. of the orchards. Since the development project would completely destroyed the whole banana orchard, Mr. Yip transplanted part of the bananas to KFBG. About 2 years ago, Mr. Yip successfully transplanted the banana from KFBG to the farmlands which he inherited from his parents, so the bananas could eventually return to their “hometown”. Mr. Yip has also been preserving house brand ginger. Ginger is particularly attractive and unique to him as diverse characteristics could be seen from different varieties grown by different farmers. For instance, Some gingers could be harvested earlier, some are spicy and some have less fibre.
Step out of comfort zone and face new challenges
Throughout the 20 years of work at KFBG, Mr. Yip spent the first 10 year mostly at farmland to equip himself with comprehensive skills and knowledge on agriculture. He often reminds himself that people working at a large-scale company with a stable environment for a long period of time would easily be out of touch with the market situations. Therefore, it is crucial to understand his own limitations and the deep-down reasons why he joined the industry. In recent years, Mr. Yip felt that he had equipped with certain levels of skills and knowledge that allowed him to step forward. Therefore, he started initiating more projects to promote local agriculture.
One of the projects was agricultural training courses with four stages. These courses are of different difficulty that are suitable for the public with diverse interests and goals. The first stage is an introductory course to train participants to be urban farmers through introducing basic theories and methods for planting. The second stage covers specialized topics, focusing on planting a specific type of crop (e.g. coffee, fruit, green manures). The third stage is farmers training course, which is specially designed for people who would like to be a farmer. Training content includes professional skills on farming and farm management.
Graduated from the university with a degree in Sociology, Mr. Yip has developed interests in history, collecting information and writing. In recent years, he started combining his interest and work by publishing books on local agriculture. The interrelated aspects in agriculture, such as agricultural history, farm systems, related organizations, practices of sustainable agriculture, marketing systems, relationship between agriculture and non-indigenous villages, agricultural issues, etc., e precisely described in his publications. Mr. Yip’s interests and all-round experiences contributed to the development of the final stage – comprehensive agricultural course.
During the interview, Mr. Yip repeatedly mentioned that we should all know ourselves well and equip ourselves with knowledge and skills. Knowing our limitations and strengths could lead us further. Mr. Yip said he was more conservative in the past and he waited until he was ready to accept a new challenge, that is to provide comments on agricultural policies. In 2016, the government implemented “New Agriculture Policy”. At that time, media started contacting Mr. Yip for interviews. Mr. Yip became more and more active in agriculture issues.
The plight of Hong Kong agriculture
Mr. Yip pointed out that local agriculture has been facing four major problems – farmland, sales, education and infrastructure. “Farmland” does not refer to the lack of farmland, but the contradictory views of stakeholders towards the use of farmland. As a result, a considerable amount of farmlands could not be utilized. “Sales” refers to the immature sales system. Farmers used to rely on the sales network of CGG Office and Vegetable Marketing Organization (VMO), which allow farmers to concentrate on field work for 80 to 90% of their time. However, nowadays, the government did not develop a new sales system that could be widely adopted by diversified types of local farmers. Farmers need to bear full responsibilities on sales and help themselves by development of farmers’ market and online shopping systems. Still, these measures could only solve 20% of the problem. “Education” is the part that Mr. Yip felt the most optimistic as more and more organizations have begun to organize agricultural education activities and training to enhance the public’s skills and knowledge on agriculture. Even Hong Kong Baptist University has offered a Bachelor of Science in Biological Resources and Agricultural Science.
The most important but the least concerned part is “Infrastructure”. Regardless of the size of farms, infrastructure is an essential item. At the first stage of local agriculture, infrastructure was constructed by indigenous villagers. Later, the government undertook the construction projects, such as building small-scale water retaining dams. K.A.A.A also assisted in repairing roads and bridges. However, since the 1980s, assistance provided by the government has decreased. Some farmlands were abandoned due to insufficient supply of water. Previously, Mr. Yip participated in a consultation meeting on a drainage project in the north-east of the New Territories. The planned route was surrounded by farmlands so Mr. Yip suggested the government consider agricultural use, such as to build a small reservoir for the supply of irrigation water. Government officers replied that they had already interviewed local farmers in that area. Farmers replied that they had enough water for irrigation so the government concluded that there was no irrigation problem. Mr. Yip disagreed with the way the government conducted the consultation. Instead of consulting operational farms, Mr. Yip pointed out that the government should investigate how many farmlands were abandoned due to lack of water supply. Mr. Yip lamented that it is never easy to draw the attention of the public, media and the government on this boring topic. Foresight is needed to push agricultural infrastructure forward.
The “New Agricultural Policy” is one of the agricultural issues that Mr Yip is concerned about. Mr. Yip agreed that Agricultural Park had its advantages, but the major problem was that society had overestimated the influence and importance of the Park. We now have at least 700 hectares of farmlands, and the Park has a size of 80 hectares, accounting for only 10% of the total area of farmlands in Hong Kong. Regardless of the effectiveness of the Park, it is still not representative of the whole agricultural industry. Also, the Park was established using land resumption and compensation, which is unlikely to happen again in the future. Mr. Yip also questioned why half the area would be used for conventional farming as less than 10% of the new comers in the industry practised conventional farming in the past two decades. The arrangement is not compatible with the trend of the industry. Instead, Mr. Yip believed that “Agricultural Priority Area” (APA) should be a more important and pressing issue; however, there was no significant progress up to now. Fly-tipping is threatening high-quality farmlands, and he was worried that these farmlands might be destroyed before the implementation of APA.
We asked Mr. Yip if he had any message to the young farmers. He smiled and said there was no direction that he could give as he had misjudged some trends of agricultural events in the past. It is okay to make mistakes, but only if you admit your mistakes. Young people have their own perspectives that should not be limited by the views from the previous generations. Mr. Yip appreciated that young farmers had visions, but no matter how they would develop in the sector, they must be equipped with two “things” – firstly, they should understand and accept the fact that they may not be rich in this industry. Secondly, they should be equipped with basic knowledge and skills on planting and agriculture. Never stop trying and working hard, understanding one’s strengths and limitation and formulting suitable direction for development were the methods how Mr. Yip successfully developed various aspects in the sector and made contributions.
Text: Charlotte Chan
(May 2021 interview)
Farms in KFBG
KFBG self-retained crops
Mr. Yip Tsz Lam (Second right)