Yi O’s Rice Farm Field
Yi O Rice Farm Worker
Yi O’s Rice Farm Tourist
Yi O’s Rice Farm Bees
Yi O’s Rice Farm
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Rediscovering Hong Kong’s farming heritage in Yi O’s serene rice fields

Sit down for a meal in Hong Kong and you’d expect rice to be present in one of its many forms, from savoury to sweet. That a simple grass grown for thousands of years by ancient cultures is still an essential ingredient in the great cuisines of the world is an amazing story.

Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people consume around 860 tonnes of rice daily, imported from several rice-growing nations, including Thailand, Australia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and even the US. Yet Hong Kong was once a net exporter of this essential grain.

Local farmers began abandoning the backbreaking work of rice farming in the 1960s, and today, local farming focuses on growing vegetables, fruit, and flowers.

But consumer demand for the perceived health benefits of organic food is seeing increasing local production of high quality and high-value organic produce.

In a serene valley in Yi O, on Lantau Island, the sound of birdsongs and the hum of insects fill the air. Here, rice growing is flourishing, thanks to an unusual bunch of Hong Kongers and their ambitious decision to go organic, using abandoned rice fields.

Although the Yi O villagers and their homes have long since disappeared, the flat valley floor has now returned to flooded rice paddies, alive with tiny thumb-sized frogs, tadpoles, grasshoppers, scarlet dragonflies, and huge butterflies.

Brimming with enthusiasm for the project, Yi O Agricultural Cooperation Director Alan Wong says the project’s first challenge was to persuade landowners, now living elsewhere in Hong Kong and overseas, to lease their abandoned land for a time frame that would allow the start-up to not only find its feet but thrive as well.

“Although Yi O was abandoned about forty years ago, it was farmed for more than one-hundred years and it has good water and rich soil.

“We have a very loose arrangement with the villagers in that they allow us to farm on their agricultural land for thirty years. We don’t pay rent; we didn’t buy land.”

Wong then took a rather unconventional way of recruiting potential rice farmers.

“I placed a job ad and as a result, a former property manager has now been here for four years.”

“One of our other farmers studied landscape architecture, one lady was a construction worker who helped with restoration work on the paddies and another lady used to come here to see the butterflies and asked us ‘do you need farmers?’ Another was a retiree who was a former farmer in mainland China.”

The Cooperative has now been operating for four years. Wong says Yi O currently produces around 1.6 tonnes of rice annually. The crop is harvested twice yearly, in July and October.

“The key to Yi O rice is its aroma. Yi O rice is fresh from the field, as we get it to market within two months. Other rice available in Hong Kong, such as Thai rice, can be up to two years old, and even Japanese rice may be up to six months old.”

Organic rice is sold online. Retail outlets include the Coop’s shop in Tai O and the Ga Ga Store in Prince Edward, but demand is so high, it sells out quickly.

The beauty and serenity of Yi O as well as its wealth of creatures, birds and wildflowers make this valley one of Hong Kong’s best-kept secrets, yet Wong and a team of volunteers are happy to share their little paradise with visitors.

Getting to Yi O is challenging. Travel wise, it’s in a relatively remote part of Lantau, but the solitude and distance from Hong Kong’s high-rises and urban areas make it so special that it’s worth the effort to get there. It’s about a one-hour hike from Tai O, but it is also accessible by boat if you choose not to hike.

The Coop offers half-day guided trips around the site so visitors can learn about the valley’s history and get to know more about rice growing. Tour participants are served an organic vegetarian lunch created from the farm’s vegetable garden, which grows everything from ginger to beetroot.

Visitors are welcome to stay overnight to experience the spectacular solitude, sights and sounds of this special valley. The Coop even provides tents for anyone wanting to camp out for a full “returning to nature” experience where, should you feel the urge, you can also help the farmers in their daily activities.

One area where interest is growing is from Hong Kong families with parents bringing their children to the valley to learn about growing food. Wong is also keen to encourage more schools to bring students to the site.

Yi O is not the only place growing rice in Hong Kong.

Several other projects are also growing rice on a less commercial basis. One at Long Valley in the New Territories is aimed at the conservation of migratory birds threatened by habitat destruction. Another, in the centuries-old walled Hakka village of Lai Chi Wo, is part of this restoration and conservation project where growing rice is seen as a traditional part of recreating village life.

“Yi O started with agriculture rather than bird conservation or village revitalisation. Eventually, we’d also like to see villagers come back and see the village restored sustainably,” Wong says.

Being new to organic farming has proved to be quite a learning process for the Coop as the fledgling rice farmers continue to balance soil fertility, crop rotation and nature. Growing organic rice in a sustainable way means more insects and plant varieties, and that means more birdlife has returned to the valley. More birds mean Yi O’s farmers have to make sure to net the precious rice fields before each harvest.

Despite this natural hazard, the Coop welcomes the growing numbers of threatened species of fish and birds returning to the valley as a direct result of the rice paddy restoration. Thanks to volunteer support, an ecological survey is carried out twice a month, helping provide detailed scientific data that proves this organic project is both sustainable and environmentally beneficial.

At Yi O, Hong Kong’s sharing economy has taken on a whole new meaning, with the environment and farming co-existing in harmony within Wong’s simple philosophy.

“Something for the sky, something for the ground and something for the people. We’re sharing Yi O with birds, insects and us,” he says.

Text & Photos Ingrid Piper