British Teacher Turns Organic Farmer

No one in his right mind would think of making a living by farming in this city cluttered by people and concrete blocks. Here is the story of a passionate farmer who wants to make a difference by promoting an organic farm on the island of Lantau, vir

Steven Knipp

Based on typical media reports, the average consumer might well assume that organic farming is a relatively new global development. In fact, organic farming is ancient. After all, chemical fertilisers were not even invented until 1913. Prior to that, all farmers used only organic materials to fertilise their crops.

While globally, organic farming’s popularity has long been growing, here in Hong Kong the trend only began in 1988 when an environmental education group [the Produce Green Foundation] launched an educational farm using environmentally friendly farming practices. And it wasn’t even until a dozen years ago that the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) launched its “Organic Farming Conversion Scheme” to help traditional farmers switch to organic farming.

Government records show that in 2006 there were more than a thousand farms in the Territory. Today many hundreds of so-called ‘farms’ remain, but mostly they are small plots in the New Territories and Lantau Island, producing just over two percent of the vegetables consumed in Hong Kong on only about seven square kilometres of land [3,800 hectares].

Today some 225 of these “farms”are officially certified as organic. However, more farmers are signing up for this time consuming process to become officially certified, so that that they can try to sell their produce as genuinely organic to wet markets and farmers’ markets. But despite their hard work, for many of these environmentally conscious farmers, while there’s plenty of passion for their cause, profits are hard to come by.


One of these genuinely organic enterprises is Dragontail Farm. Situated at the foot of Silvermine Bay’s 760-meter-high Lotus Mountain, on the bucolic southern coast of Lantau, Dragontail is the brainchild of British-born Don Latter. A longtime Hong Kong resident and lifelong environmentalist, Latter had been an English teacher for 30 years, working not only in Hong Kong but in Africa and Australia as well. He did not get into the business for profit, but to help build a sustainable future for himself and his wife and two young daughters, all Lantau residents. He himself has been vegetarian for 26 years, but admits to being too fond of cheese to become a vegan.

Though Dragontail is only less than half a hectare in size, Latter and his full-time farmer Ale Magar Bhola manage to grow an astonishing range of produce. The list includes sweet potatoes, choi sum and pak choi, water spinach, garden rocket, baby silk gourd, eggplant, lettuce, okra, white radish, and scallions.

Dragontail also grows a range of herbs, including chives, dill, basil, oregano, mint, lemon balm, Kaffir lime leaves, chillies, and fresh ginger. And Latter is now experimenting with corn, pineapples and Nepalese rice. Aside from these, the farm sells packets of seedlings for such things as ginger and curry leaf tree seedlings. Latter also keeps honey bees and eventually hopes to sell honey.

The two key difficulties that Hong Kong’s organic farmers face, he says, are a misperception about what genuine organic crops are, and the reasons behind their pricing.

Both in the use of fertiliser and pest control, Dragontail Farm is strictly 100 percent organic. Latter explains: “To get certification as organic farmers – a process which we are going through now – AFCD came down to test our soil, and our water, and carefully looked at what we’re doing. That was six months ago, and we are still waiting to hear back.

“Yes, the actual certification does help. But lots of Hong Kong farmers don’t use cow manure, as we do. They use stuff straight out of the septictanks [as fertilizer]. That’s not acceptable for any genuine organic farm. I don’t know what the law is. It’s probably not illegal; but anywhere else it would just not be acceptable.

“For fertilisers, we use cow manure which we collect, plus weeds, old vegetables – anything from the farm; and it is all composted for six months or longer, so it’s properly broken down. We also use bone meal [powered cow bone], which adds phosphates. Regarding the manure, the cows here are in fantastic condition, the soil all around Mui Wo is excellent, as nothing is sprayed on the fields, and so the vegetation the cows are eating is perfectly good food. The resulting mature is primo.”

Regarding insect control, Latter says, “There are certain things you can use [as an organic farm]; we try to use nothing that’s not natural – not fertilizers, not pesticides, no chemicals at all. The main aim for us – and for any good organic farmer – is that you have to improve the soil. If you have good soil, you get strong plants, and strong plants resist pests. Pests go for weak plants. “Now, having said that, we do get problems,” Latter says. “We get melon flies which attack things like cucumbers. There are certain liquids which we can get from the local organic association, which you can hang up from a bottle and it attracts the melon flies. But we can make up our own stuff from fruit juice. It helps a little bit, but it doesn’t solve the problem. We do other things like hanging up sticky yellow tape, which catches some insects.

“The other problem is flea beetles, which in particular go for the Chinese vegetables – pak choi and choi sum. So to a large extent, if we have pests like that, a lot of the stuff ends up in the compost. And Bholar keeps a careful eye on where things work, and where things get seriously attacked; so he’s really just trying to outmanoeuvre insects, rather than using anything that kills them. We try to prevent pests by scattering herbs around the plants that we grow – as the smell of the herbs is supposed to deter insects.

“But,” Latter admits, “nothing natural works like a chemical spray, where you blast everything – but do you really want to eat food that has been covered in these chemicals.? So we must accept that to be 100 percent organic, we’re going to lose a certain number of plants, even if we have a good a crop. For caterpillars, for example, we just have to go around picking them off the cabbages!

“This is why genuinely organic vegetables are more expensive – because not only is it far more time-consuming and labour intensive than vegetables treated with chemicals and pesticides, we organic farmers will always lose a certain proportion of our crop.”


Latter would love to sell some of his produce to the two supermarkets in Mui Wo, but it’s not easy. “Yes, they would be happy to take genuinely organic produce, but they would want it for next to nothing. Most produce sold in Hong Kong’s supermarkets comes from China, so you simply can’t compete with those low prices. And if people don’t really know what organic farming is – for example, if they think that our farm is like those local farms that use septic wastes, they are not likely to want to pay more for it!”

Latter says that restaurants might well want to buy organic, “but again, only if I were willing to sell for next to nothing. I recently spoke to one successful restaurant owner here about lettuce, and he said, ‘Don’t I get a huge box with a hundred heads of lettuce from China and the price is only a few dollars per head.’ A lot of people don’t know how many chemicals are used on China’s farms, or they don’t care. But we can’t compete against those prices.” The problem is not just pricing, says Latter. “Both supermarkets and restaurants want a constant supply. Small organic farms can’t necessarily do that. We might be able to do it for a couple of months and then we might run out because of our small size. But they want something much more dependable.”

Not for just consumer health

Actually, the problem is not so much that organic food is expensive, insists Latter.“It’s that other foods are cheap – and the reasons why other foods are cheap –is because the producers of chemically treated chops don’t pay for any of their externalities – all the vast accumulative damage that they’re doing to the environment -- they don’t pay for that. Over the years, serious damage is being done to the soil by using chemicals. “We organic farmers are actively improving the soil, therefore we are improving bio-diversity. We’ve even got bees here, to help pollinate plants. That’s all helping this little bit of the environment – whereas chemical farming does exactly the opposite – it’s killing things off. The soils get worse. It’s happening all over the world, in America, in China.

Despite the various difficulties, Don Latter is happy about the progress at Dragontail. Word of the farm is spreading from Mui Wo in Silvermine Bay, along the south coast of Lantau and to Tung Chung. “We now have a good customer base and it’s growing all the time. And we get good feedback. People are saying that the food from our produce tastes really good. And they are very pleased. And we can see this year that by improving the soil, we’re getting better crops and that means even more tasty results.”

Asked how the government can help organic farmers, Don Latter says, “their first priority should be to compost all organic matter for local farming. Some 30 percent of our total refuse is said to be discarded food. This is a terrible waste. Instead of dumping it in land-fills, it could be composted and given to farmers.” Latter notes that for years, the AFCD has talked about having a compost station in Lantau. “The last I heard of this was in 2007, and nothing’s been done since!”

Latter also says that government could do much more to help educate people about exactly what organic farming is and how it is healthy for both people and the environment. He tries to do his own part, by welcoming small groups of kids from both local Hong Kong schools and international schools to Dragontail.“The kids come out here, they see the farm, and how we grow things naturally, they see the cows, enjoy the fresh air. They have fun, but they also learn about organic farming and hopefully when they get home, they also tell mom and dad about it too!”


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