“The farming industry in Hong Kong is small, but as a result is also quite close-knit, and this has helped us form strong relationships with trusted, local farmers. This enables us to work closely with them to place custom seedling orders based on what we need to grow in our urban farms. Different local farmers may also specialize in one type of plant – for example, we prefer to go to one specific farmer for fruit trees, another for edible flowers, and another farmer for seasonal vegetables,” explains Pang.
The downside of this reliance on local farmers is an increased vulnerability to weather-related events. “These small farmers do not have large greenhouses that many industrial-sized seedling producers may have” says Pang. This leaves crop vulnerable to typhoons, which occur twice yearly on the island. “Back in 2018, we experienced Typhoon Mangkhut, which was the strongest storm Hong Kong had seen in decades. This typhoon unfortunately really affected the local farmers and even destroyed thousands of seedlings that they were helping us cultivate at the time.”
The small size of Hong Kong’s farming community also makes it difficult to find skilled farmers to assist with the on-going care of the farm. “We often instead work with retired people looking for new hobbies, or students who are interested in learning about urban farming. We work closely with them and train them up and hire them to work with Rooftop Republic,” explains Pang. In seeking to strengthen the implementation of its Five Gs model, which includes the objective of “grooming the next generation” which means professionalising and building the urban farming sector through hands-on training and employment opportunities, Rooftop Republic has recently launched a Rooftop Republic Academy offering training to participants and volunteers involved in Rooftop Republic’s projects as well as a wider professional and non-professional audience. “We currently employ three farmers at our urban farm at Metroplaza; two of the farmers are local retired people, and one is a hearing-impaired woman who we helped train,” Pang explains.
According to Matthew Pryor, associate professor and head of the Division of Landscape Architecture at the University of Hong Kong there are at least 60 rooftop farms in the city, and possibly many more. The 60 farms identified involve about 1,500 rooftop farmers, cultivating a total area of about one and a half hectares of urban roof space. Based on available information on rooftop conditions and use across Hong Kong, climate data, as well the current very high levels of oversubscription of existing farms (as much as 20 applicants for one place), it is estimated that there is potential for this to easily grow to 50,000 people working on a suitable rooftop areas of 600 hectares, ie nearly five times the size of London’s Hyde Park or twice the size of New York’s Central Park. “Now the total ground level farmable land in Hong Kong is about 420 hectares,” Pryor says. “So, there’s more on the roof than there is on the ground.”
Pryor’s research confirms that the main product of Hong Kong’s rooftop farms isn’t edible. “The rooftop farms here produce virtually nothing compared to Hong Kong’s overall consumption,” Pryor says. “What they do produce, however, is happiness, and this social capital is enormous.”