Prestige visits the Farm Club by Agrician to find out how precision agriculture and the urban agricultural movement are progressing in Hong Kong.
Increasing and securing the supply of food to meet the demands of a growing and ever-hungry population has been an age-old conundrum since Neolithic times when humans transitioned from hunting-gathering to agriculture and settlement at some time around 10,000 BCE. Fast forward down the millennia, and today’s hot agricultural topic has progressed beyond new crops, methods of farming, animal husbandry and mechanisation. We’re now talking about precision farming as the term suggests, precision farming is an agricultural-management concept that’s heavily reliant on observing and measuring the variability in crops to determine a series of precise actions required to maximise yield and productivity. Soil quality, sunlight efficiency and moisture levels are only a few issues on a long list that need to be considered. In other words, precision farming allows you to gain the highest return on investment in your farming efforts – that is, after you’ve done your homework.
Since its late-1980s infancy, precision farming has experienced rapid growth and development on an explosive scale, which coincides with the technology boom of the same era. What began with basic auto- guidance systems using tractors, planters and sprayers has advanced to today’s high-technology methods that include vertical farming and hydroponics. Beyond meeting a growing demand for food supply, precision farming plays a crucial role in the advancement of urban agriculture. The exponential growth of inner-city populations combined with rapid climate change is driving production away from open fields and into warehouses or on to commercial roofs. Food-security issues are causing the US, Canada and the UK to turn their attention towards urban and controlled-environment cultivation, and the rest of the world is catching up. Dubai’s Sustainable City, a US$354 million megaproject whose first phase was completed in 2015, comprises 11 natural “biodome” greenhouses and more than 30,000 square feet of urban farms. Similarly, Singapore’s Community in Bloom created more than 1,500 community gardens, including the conversion of an entire national park into allotment gardens that double as workshops for aspiring urban farmers. These projects not only significantly reduce the carbon footprint of food imports and exports, but they also helped maintain domestic food stocks during Covid-19, when global supply chains were interrupted.
None of this would have happened without the innovative approaches to farming pioneered by the US space agency NASA, which predicts Earth will have to feed 8.7 billion mouths by 2055. NASA has been working for decades on sustainable agriculture, especially in experiments with restrictive indoor production. Techniques were initially pioneered within a decommissioned hypobaric chamber, where rows of hydroponic trays were stacked vertically like bookshelves to test whether various crops would grow in water without soil, sunlight or open air.
By combining plant science and environmental control, NASA was able to optimise crop growth and maximise efficiency through vertical structures. Technology developed allows the filtering of contaminants from crop water and the delivery of precise nutrient balances. Artificial lighting is calculated to provide only the necessary wavelengths at the right time, intensity and duration, while climate controls maintain optimal temperature and humidity.
Since these beginnings, NASA has expanded its research into deep space in the form of Veggie, a space garden the size of a carry-on suitcase that resides aboard the International Space Station. It studies plant growth in microgravity, as well as adding fresh produce to the astronauts’ diet. To date, Veggie has successfully grown a variety of plants, including Chinese cabbage and three types of lettuce.
NASA’s plant-growth research has encouraged the development of clusters of private operations in cities around the world. Among the leaders is Plenty Unlimited, whose company’s 0.8-hectare farm produces similar yields to 290ha of outdoor fields, yet utilises less than 1 percent of the water used in traditional farming. A competitor, AeroFarms, employs a patented aeroponic growing system whose precisely calculated mist technique grows crops without any soil or other medium. Meanwhile, Singapore’s Sustenir has smart vertical farms specialising in leafy greens that can be bought in local supermarkets.
Although slower to the game, Hong Kong has joined the movement and is catching up fast. Rooftop Republic turns rooftops and empty walls into customised farming solutions, and has established 50 urban farms in the city since 2015. Certified horticulturist and agriculture inspector Fai Hui operates his brainchild Wildroots Organic in Sheung Shui, while Common Farms has been supplying premium microgreens and edible flowers to some of Hong Kong’s leading restaurants since 2017. In the hustle and bustle of Causeway Bay, you can even find Farmacy, which grows more than 300 herb, microgreen and edible flower species.
Relatively new to the scene is the Farm Club by Agrician. Founded by Jack Leung, the indoor vertical farm is located in a former bicycle warehouse in Fo Tan, where it grows an impressive selection of leafy greens, herbs, microgreens, edible flowers and tomatoes using the mobile and modular hydroponics structure Farm Wall, made by the Canadian agricultural technology company ZipGrow.
On a tour of Farm Club, Leung summarises how everything came to fruition in early 2021. “I’ve always been intrigued by produce sourcing, because my family is in the F&B industry. I’m painfully aware that most ingredients we cook with in Hong Kong, both in restaurants and at home, are imported. When I was in Rotterdam, I came across Agritecture, the world’s first floating farm, and was in awe of the operation. They showed me the endless possibilities of farming in an urban setting and got me thinking I could do something similar in Hong Kong.”
Before looking for a physical space where he could turn his idea into reality, it took months of intense study for Leung to familiarise himself with the science and techniques behind indoor farming. After that, the biggest challenge was setting up the operating system, which Leung had to configure with a few volunteers. The entire growth span of each plant – from germination and seeding to repotting and harvesting – takes place in the 2,000-square- foot space. All materials used in the process are either biodegradable (such as the seeding putt made from peat), or reusable, which includes the vertical growing panels and even the nutritional water. To ensure a good harvest, Leung’s team infuses the water tank with a cocktail of nutrients, the quantities determined through experimentation, which is then fed to crops using a dripping system that recirculates the current to maximise absorption and minimise water consumption.
Judging by the walls upon walls laden with vivid green crops of butter lettuce, swiss chard, bak choy and choy sum, Leung’s project is yielding extraordinary results after just two years. The basil tastes more fragrant and significantly fresher than the packaged sprigs sold in supermarkets, while a lesser-known KX-1 variety is so rich in flavour it demands immediate purchase.
One part of the farm is used to tailor-grow a variety of plants selected for a collaboration with Test Kitchen in Sai Ying Pun. Leung is confident diners will be able to taste the difference made by his vegetables in a dish, and hopes the experience will ignite curiosity in the collective efforts of local urban farmers. He believes there are endless possibilities for integrating indoor-grown produce into the mass market, but these are only feasible if consumers will buy it.
When buyers come across a sustainability concept such as upcycling or renewable energy, they may be interested – though not enough to take action. With urban farming, however, the idea of fresh ingredients sourced from just around the corner has instant and tangible appeal, not to mention the implications for food security and the reductions in carbon footprint, plastic packaging and food waste. Prices of urban-farmed produce can certainly be intimidating but, as Leung explains, these will decrease as production rises to meet growing demand.
Perhaps in a few years’ time, the daily grocery-shopping routine will involve ordering a head of Farm Club’s butter lettuce straight off Pandamart, or a selection of local indoor-grown produce on display in wet markets. Until then, we recommend a visit to one of Hong Kong’s urban farms, both for the stories and the unexpected assortments of high-quality salad greens.
The Farm Club by Agrician, G/F, Mecco Industrial Building, Workshop C, Fo Tan, +852 9749 4292