Planting a seed

Erin Hale

Farming can be a great way to get in touch with nature and unwind on the weekend. Two CPAs tell Erin Hale how they found their passion for farming and a way to give back to the community

Kaz Suen started farming in 2014 as a way to relax and also supplement his diet. He was inspired by community farms he had visited while studying in the United Kingdom several years before and decided to try it out with friends, but he quickly found that his project became about more than fruits and vegetables.

“I’ve always liked to farm. It’s not only a hobby, but I would also say it is also a lifestyle to grow what you eat. I used to farm on a small piece of land with my friends back in 2014. We were farming for fun, but since we could not consume all the vegetables we grew, we decided to donate to members of elderly who lived nearby,” says Suen, Partner at Ben P W Hui & Co (CPA) Limited and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs.

“We thought of recruiting more recreational farmers like us – who farm for fun – scale up the volume of produce, and donate it to the elderly. We had a very good response and lots of people were keen to join us. Eventually, I set up Senior Buddy Charity Farm in 2017 and started running the farm.”

Kaz Suen, Partner at Ben P W Hui & Co (CPA) Limited, helps out at his farm in Kam Sheung Road on most weekends.

Suen then worked with eight local landlords and donors to compile a large landholding for the farm, which occupies around 100,000 square feet near Kam Sheung Road. Suen said the New Territories is the most convenient location as the area has lots of underused or unused agricultural land lying dormant.

“Most of the land in the New Territories belongs to local people. They are not farming at the moment because they cannot maintain their living as full-time farmers, so there’s a lot of land for agriculture purposes not being used,” he adds.

The farm is currently operated by 500 volunteers who are divided into 50 separate groups to manage individual plots of land on the weekend and in their free time. Volunteers are entitled to half their produce while the other half goes to the farm for donations and to sell at its small store.

“We grow what is suitable for the time of year. In winter, we can grow a lot of green vegetables. During the summertime, we don’t grow as many but grow other produce such as watermelon or fruits,” he says. “We also follow traditional farming methods but practice organic farming, so we do not use chemicals. We want to grow naturally.”

“We grow what is suitable for the time of year. In winter, we can grow a lot of green vegetables. During the summertime, we don’t grow as many but grow other produce such as watermelon or fruits.”

Green donations 

After nearly five years of work, the farm now collaborates with 20 other non-governmental organizations and helps around 10,000 elderly people through food donations.

Suen says the farm is always welcoming new volunteers but it comes with some conditions. Volunteers need to sign on in groups of 10 with an elected leader, who communicates with Suen, and agree to work their plot of land for at least a year. Due to the time and social commitments, he said many of the volunteers are between the ages of 40 to 60.

For aspiring farmers who may not be able to make that kind of time commitment, Suen said they can also attend classes at the farm to learn how to grow vegetables and fruits at home on a balcony or in a window and take a little bit of nature back home. “If you have a chance to visit the farm, you will understand it’s not hard to grow crops in Hong Kong, even if you have knowledge in farming and time to grow,” he says. “Our volunteers have picked up their skills very quickly because we have a lot of professional and experienced farmers in the field. All you need to do is get your hands dirty and ask.”

Additional classes include a course on the mental health benefits from gardening, another that teaches students how to make their own soups and brews from vegetables and herbs, and additional plant-specific classes every season.

Farming and gardening has brought Suen and his friends enormous mental and physical benefits such as having a healthy source of food to consume and a place to clear their minds. “I think that all human beings enjoy nature – even if you do live in an urban city, you feel the need to be around greenery such as trees and plants. It’s in our blood and it makes us feel happy,” he says.

Timothy Cheung founded his own lingzhi company Mytianran. He is pictured here at one of his farms in Sheung Shui.

Wealth in health

When Timothy Cheung began to struggle with asthma almost five years ago, he decided to try a form of traditional remedy that called for lingzhi mushrooms.

The brown fan-shaped fungi can be boiled into a tea or soup, or taken via capsule with other herbs to treat several different health conditions according to Chinese medicine, including asthma and cardiovascular related diseases.

Cheung was deeply impressed with lingzhi and wanted to share his experience with other people. However, he also observed during his research that almost all commercially available lingzhi came from either Mainland China or Taiwan. Aiming to provide Hongkongers with a safe, local and certified organic source, he decided to start his own business, Mytianran, to grow lingzhi locally in the New Territories.

“Lingzhi supplements helped me with my recovery. I’m getting old, and to me, the most important thing is my health. If there is a business opportunity that can improve the health of other people and do something for them and for myself, I think it’s fantastic,” says Cheung, an Institute member. “In Chinese medicine, we believe our heart, liver, and lungs are all interrelated. Lingzhi balances the three and improves your immunity while providing anti-ageing benefits. It has been used as a supplement in traditional Chinese medicine for about 3,000 years.”

“I’m getting old, and to me, the most important thing is my health. If there is a business opportunity that can improve the health of other people and do something for them and for myself, I think it’s fantastic.”

Starting from scratch 

Cheung was no stranger to a business challenge. Besides running his own CPA firm for 32 years, he also started a separate immigration consultancy 10 years ago. Cheung calculated that he could use some of his profits and professional experience to start up Hong Kong’s only lingzhi farm.

Before he began, however, Cheung first had to learn more about the industry before he set up his project. “Once I decided to commit to this lingzhi project, I studied a lot online, read a lot of books and also talked with a lot of experts from lingzhi farms in China and also Taiwan to gain enough knowledge and experience. But there were a lot of challenges setting up my own farm because there is no other lingzhi farm in Hong Kong and no example here. We had to source everything from Mainland China or outside. It was very difficult,” he says.

Then he had to find a location, settling with land in Shatin that was not in use, and slowly built up his team. After five years of hard work, Cheung’s farm now grows five varieties of lingzhi and sells products online and at a shop in Wanchai. But Cheung said he’s not content to end there, having set his sights on exporting to Japan and South Korea and developing a batch of new lingzhi-related products.

“We are not just looking to make supplements, but we hope we can apply lingzhi to daily food. For example lingzhi soup and also lingzhi tea. Right now, we are working on new products. We are testing out lingzhi mooncakes and also applying lingzhi to soft drinks and also noodles,” he said. “The point is that lingzhi is no longer just a ‘medicine.’ It’s a food and Chinese medicine and we hope we can apply it to all daily food.”

Cheung enjoys helping out with the day-to-day operations of Mytianran as much as he can, despite having to juggle his different businesses. “I’m heavily involved in every part of the company because I have to formulate my policies and solve problems together with all the staff. I oversee every division because I know what I’m looking for and that’s important,” he says.

To improve public understanding of lingzhi, Mytianran has worked with the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University to engage in research on the medical benefits of lingzhi, with the aim of publishing research in academic journals. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company also regularly welcomed visitors to its farms and hopes to continue doing so in the near future, Cheung adds.

“We hope we can teach people more about lingzhi and how to use it in their daily life or to improve their health. When we opened the farm one year ago, a lot of school students and retirees visited my farm to learn about lingzhi and also visit its museum. There’s a lot of history and cultures to learn about as well as samples to try, so if they are interested in my farm, we are happy to host them.”

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