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SUPPORT LOCAL: COMMON FARMS

With co-founder and urban farmer, Jessica Fong

In our second episode of the Lane Crawford podcast, our Head of Content, Christel, chats with Jessica Fong, one of the founders of Common Farms, a small business that is innovating what indoor or urban farming is in Hong Kong.


Common Farms is arguably Hong Kong’s top local source for specialty produce, meaning they grow and sell micro greens, edible flowers, seeds, grow kits and more. You might find Common Farms’ produce in dishes at places like neo-Parisian bistro Belon, contemporary British restaurant Roganic, Giando’s Italian restaurant and bar, SoHo staple Ho Lee Fook, in the concoctions of matcha mavens Matcha-Li, as well as the kitchens of various notable private chefs.

Listen to episode 2 of our podcast above, or read the transcript of it below, to discover how the trio came to the decision to sow some seeds to see what they could reap.

CHRISTEL: Hi Jessica!

JESSICA: Hey!

CHRISTEL: Welcome to the Lane Crawford podcast.

JESSICA: Thank you so much.

CHRISTEL: So, let me start by introducing Jessica and just letting you all know that I’ve known her for quite a long time.

JESSICA: I was trying to think when.

I remember we first met in Paris many years ago, and then we met again quite randomly in Hong Kong when I first arrived. So, if you can fill in and let anyone who’s listening know how you got to Paris and then how you kind of like –

CHRISTEL: Who are you, Jess? Who are you?

JESSICA: I’ll try to keep it short, but we met in Paris because I was living in Paris. I was studying in Paris then.

CHRISTEL: What were you studying at the time?

JESSICA: I was doing a double in business and communications with intention. I was studying and working in fashion as well, because I was like, “Oh I need to deal with the business component”. I was intentionally in Paris and wanting to work towards fashion. And then it wasn’t for me after, I think, a couple of years of that. Then I fell in love with architecture. My dad then pulled me back and that’s when I ended up in Hong Kong. Paris was because I was in my rebellious years and my mum told me to go to Canada, and I was like, “No! Because you told me to do that.” And then with the UK, because the population of Hong Kong students is just immense, I felt like I was going to be a small fish in a big pond – I did not want to do that. Same thing with Australia. The US was the only place I was really going to go to but I wanted to live in Paris because when we were younger, my dad took us there and it was my favourite European city. I was like, “I’ll just live there.”

And surprisingly enough my dad said, “You know what? I’m going to support you for that because I want you to gather more culture.” So, I went there for a year – well, intended a year, and it turned out to be four years. That was that, and Paris is great.

CHRISTEL: Paris is Paris.

JESSICA: Yeah.

CHRISTEL: So, when you moved back to Hong Kong, where did your path take you? Just to set up the backdrop of how you started coming from –

JESSICA: I still – well, I still don’t know what I’m doing. But I still don’t know what I don’t know. When I came back – I think most people don’t know this – it was with the intention to help my dad with his manufacturing business, so I ended up in China a lot. And the business was about to go bankrupt and it did…

I was so lost when I came back. I thought I was going to come in and help my dad and, you know, because you’re young and you’re dynamic and I had learned so much, I had graduated from college. So, I was going to come in, I knew what I was going to do; when I really didn’t know what I was doing or where I wanted to go. There was a lot of resentment, frustration and anxiety – just everything combined.

And it was really hard to navigate through it, especially when your parents are more traditional Chinese. But they did, to their credit, give me a lot of room to decide what I wanted to do. And it was for me to make the mistakes that I needed to make.

I think a lot of people thought I was coming back, that I had a bank account waiting for me to spend. I really didn’t have that. I didn’t even realise how much financial trouble my family was in. So… you build a lot of resilience through it. The only way to survive was trying to move through all the shit. Dig through and strip it one by one. That’s kind of where the past few years have been. So, working with my dad made me realise that’s not what I wanted to do, and that’s not where I can bring the most value. It’s not where my interest is at. But I think the best way of moving forward for my relationship with him was to remove myself. Then, I kind of ended up in the restaurant business, which I think everyone –

[00:05:00]

CHRISTEL: I mean, that does not surprise me even in the short time that I knew you in Paris.

JESSICA: Yeah.

CHRISTEL: Food was like… a thing.

JESSICA: I’d spend my allowance on food. I was spending my allowance on Michelin restaurants, and that was two hundred euros, like, two thousand, three thousand dollars a meal. You know, that’s not really a college meal, right? But that was what I thought was worth spending on. It gave me that value proposition that I thought was worth paying for, even though by the end of the month I was like, “Mom! Wire me more money.” Anyway, so I got into the restaurant business because I think I was just fantasising about opening a restaurant. But it also took in a lot of things that I thought I enjoyed or I thought I liked which was, you know, designing – the architecture part of it. Creating space for people to behave in, and how that changes by even just putting a chair here. And then food was just something I loved because I did a lot of discovery through food when I was in Europe. And then it took on a lot of the project management skill set that I built from working with my dad, because I was doing a lot of product development. When you’re managing manufacturing, that kind of overlaps.

So I did that for a bit. I learned a lot. It built a lot of humility that I didn’t realise I didn’t have.

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I somehow always kept getting really lucky to be in a point of management, but it was the wrong place for me to be at. You know, from being so fortunate with my parents putting me in a place where I didn’t really have to work a day when I was growing up, until getting out of college and realising actually I do need to work because we don’t have that financial security. And so I never was doing anything from the bottom up. That’s why I never knew what work was. I think a level of me was thirsty for that.

It was just about doing the stripping down. After one and a half years of being in the F&B hospitality business where I was coming out of a place for management, and making decisions without any substance to back it up, and it was because I’m entitled in that way – you know what I mean?

And then coming to the real honesty of like, you know, you don’t know shit, Jess. You need to just go back to basics. And can I even afford to go back to basic? Can I deal with my own anxiety of, you know, my identity?

CHRISTEL: Yes.

JESSICA: You know, all of that stuff.

CHRISTEL: That’s tough. Big questions to be able to ask yourself.

JESSICA: Yeah.

CHRISTEL: And then to start stepping into that, you know? So, tell me a little bit more about your journey from there and realising, “Okay maybe I need to try doing this sort of thing.” Tell me about that bit.

JESSICA: So, travelling helped a lot. I was travelling a lot. You know, I actually got really lucky when I was working with my dad. I started finding my own clients and I was able to make my own money. I basically spent all of it on travelling – the way I wanted to travel. That was the first time that I was able to make decisions on how I wanted to spend my money. And somehow it was on travelling. I got addicted to learning about other people’s culture and seeing how they behave. When I say travelling, it’s not going to resorts. It’s also not backpacking. It was just what I wanted to do, it was a level of discovery in a very comfortable manner. I think that’s quite important that travelling doesn’t have to be a specific way. It just has to be what you love to do and what makes you want to get back on the road and travel again. So, through working in the F&B industry, I was travelling a lot to Europe for the farms and the discovery of flavours and textures that I never had growing up in a metropolitan city or multiple metropolitan cities.

CHRISTEL: Yes. I guess maybe you’re kind of like me where you’re used to going to the supermarket and everything is beautifully packaged, and you’ll never see the dirt on the hands of the people who grew this, and harvested this, and chose it, and packed it, and washed it, and cleaned it and whatnot for you.

[00:10:00]

JESSICA: Yeah.

CHRISTEL: Tell me a bit more about your discovery of that side of things?

JESSICA: I was also really fortunate to be able to go back to Italy every few months. And then we’d just drive through and go to the producers, the farmers, and hear the way they talk about what they do. My business partner at that time – and also my boss, really – showed me what passion about something looks like and what it means, and to what extent. So, I was like, “Oh that’s kind of interesting.” He showed me the way.

Having someone there to give you the permission to make mistakes, and then creating the safe space to discover is immense.

And that was where I was like, “Oh my God, tomatoes taste like this?” You hear ‘seasonality’. What is seasonality? When is seasonality? Having all of these things, and the continuation past the grocery store. Past a restaurant was beyond me at that point. I was in so much awe, I was speechless. And also identifying the people that I could work with, like farmers – I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be with them. I want to learn from them for the rest of my life. It was the starting spark of that. And I was like, “Okay how do I be that?” It was in search of more. When you’re seeking, you start allowing yourself to ask those questions and start to be curious in a specific way.

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Then it was just doing a bunch of research. My co-founders from Common Farms, we were childhood friends since elementary. Preston and Ariana – I hadn’t really been in touch with them for a while because we grew up in Hong Kong together, but I moved to Shanghai and Paris, and they did their own thing in Egypt and Ethiopia. And then we somehow came back together in 2016. We were curious about all this, but all of us grew up in the city. We had no idea what that curiosity meant, so we thought, why don’t we try and let it marinate? Let’s do research, let’s see what we can gather. But we just had more and more questions. Nothing really had a solid answer to it, so the only way was that you had to go in and do it yourself.

We tried to put it together. It’s also not something we can go out there and get funding for because it’s probably going to fail and we had no credibility to be in agriculture or growing plants. I had never even grown a plant at that point that I could keep alive for a month. This is a true fact, right? So, who were we to even consider building a farm and selling food from it? I was looking at my bank account. What could I afford? Where could we afford it? Initially, the plan was to do it in China because it just felt like the market was more vast, and space and all the immediate things kind of jumped in on what we needed. It felt like the answers were all in China.

So, I called on my dad. I knew he had an idle piece of land that he was initially going to build a factory on. And then he decided not to due to a lot of financial reasons. I called him and said, “Hey Dad, you know, you have this land. Do you think I can build a farm on it?” And then it was silence. And he said, in Cantonese, kind of like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Because in the Chinese mentality, especially with, you know, the communist approach to thinking about farming and agriculture, it was a really backward thing to do. Even talking to my grandparents or grandmother about it, she was like, “Why?”

CHRISTEL: Like it’s over. You’re working in the field.

JESSICA: Yeah, why are you even considering that? So, I asked my dad. He was like, “No, what the fuck are you talking about?” I was like, “No, no, no. I flew to Shanghai, I checked out this farm. Things add up. Like the checklist that they had to make it work, I basically have all of it except for the space and land. So, what do you think about coming through with it?” He said no.

[00:15:00]

CHRISTEL: Straight up.

JESSICA: He didn’t want to entertain it. And then I said, “Please just take two minutes, call the local government officials. See what the potentials are.” He said, “Fine.” I called him back, and he hadn’t done it because he thought I was joking. No one took me seriously! Until the government actually came back and said, “Yeah, you know, we’re actually really into this.” At that time, China’s five-year plan had a lot to do with agriculture and technology, the environment and going green, and [the farm] checklisted all of that. My dad called me back a minute later. “Hey they said yes, so when are we building the farm?” I was like, “Oh, fuck I actually don’t know how to build a farm!”

And so, that was when we started looking at the costs, what it needed. I was so overwhelmed. I then realised that I couldn’t do it at his space. So then we just started stripping down on what we knew, what we could have access to, what we could leverage on. And we ended up all the way back in Hong Kong. We said, let’s rent a small space that we can actually afford and just try it out.

Throughout that process I was just so eager and so impatient. I went and bought soil, bought seeds, bought a tray and started growing. The first plant I grew was tomato. And when I saw the speck of green, it was done. This is my destiny. At that point it became Christmas Day every morning when I was waking up to go to the balcony to check out the plant. Nature is just amazing in its way.

That was the end of 2016, beginning of 2017, when all I could afford was a small retail space. It was a tuck shop space on Cheung Chau island. The reason behind Cheung Chau was that Preston, my co-founder, was going to be managing the plant and the daily caretaking. He lives on Cheung Chau, and we thought that where he was or where the space was needed to be really close by.

There is also a story on how we found the space. We literally walked around the whole island one morning. We found two spaces because the realtors on the island don’t do commercial –

CHRISTEL: When you say space, do you mean land or literal, like –

JESSICA: Literally –

CHRISTEL: A warehouse, an empty –

JESSICA: Literally space that no one’s going to kick me out of! Because I’m paying some kind of rent, right? I was ready to take, I don't know, anything – an abandoned school, an abandoned plot of land. I was ready to take anything. We went to these real estate agent offices and they just laughed at us. They told me that no one actually comes to look at commercial space and to just go and ask the neighbours. We were like, “What the fuck? We don’t know anyone.” They were talking about the fact that all the ownerships belonged to a lot of the locals.

Preston was more in the expat community of Cheung Chau, so he didn’t really have access to that at that point. So, we literally walked around. One of the guys told us, “Just walk around the city, look for the cardboard that’s hanging out on the gate with a phone number and a last name. That’s your best-case scenario.” We only found two. One was already in the process of being rented, the second was the one we took.

CHRISTEL: Right. And that was the first plot?

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JESSICA: That was where we plotted ourselves. We built everything from scratch because the intention was to look at what the cheapest way to build a farm was. But it was fun. I’d never had that experience. When you’re growing up in a city, everything is about the easiest, fastest, most efficient way, the cheapest way to do it. Everything we chose to do for Common Farms was that. But there was a sense of accomplishment from it.

I registered us as a company but I was so embarrassed to say, “Yeah, I have a business in farming.” Still now it’s kind of weird to say it, but until I start taking it seriously, no one else will. We didn’t even know what we were going to grow at that point. Thinking back on it, we had no right to even consider getting into agriculture. Honestly, we didn’t even know where to buy seeds. We didn’t know what microgreens were, which is what we sell. We didn’t know what edible flowers were, and it was just like YouTube, Google, and we didn’t even want to pay for courses. We paid for one!

[00:20:00]

CHRISTEL: That’s the beauty of the internet now. That’s kind of the point.

JESSICA: Yeah.

CHRISTEL: So, what was the one course that you did take?

JESSICA: We did take an intro course by Rooftop Republic who are people that we actually love working with now and are trying to do a lot of different collaborations with. It’s funny because we signed up for one course, but we didn’t want to pay for all of us to go. They had three weekends –

CHRISTEL: So you went to one each.

JESSICA: Yeah, so we took turns going. You were held accountable for taking whatever fucking notes and you had to just share it. That was the only thing we paid for in terms of learning. Everything was literally YouTube and Google, and we wouldn’t pay for it. That was what somehow gave us enough courage to start it. I mean, it’s laughable thinking about it now.

CHRISTEL: No, that’s awesome. That’s so cool. This is what you can do with a question and a desire to take that question to the next level, right?

JESSICA: I think that one thing I’ve come to realise is giving yourself the permission to ask those questions. Or, having someone give you the permission for that, which is how I approach it with my own team now when I’m thinking about leadership. Now, it’s beyond just me making decisions. Now I can make decisions thinking of what the consequences are, and what may be the rewards for the team beyond them just working for Common Farms. It’s like what it’s going to be post-Common Farms for them as well.

I think it’s giving the space to make “mistakes”, but they’re just really learning processes.

CHRISTEL: I asked Katie when you were walking around, “What’s it like working with Jess?” She said, “It’s okay, you know, she’s really busy...”

JESSICA: Yeah, they don’t stop.

CHRISTEL: Yeah, but you know how you keep speaking about permission to make mistakes – one thing that she said – and you weren’t in earshot – but she said,

You know, we learn the most through making mistakes because we have no baseline here. We don’t have any established processes or anything. So, the mistakes are where we learn what better to do the most, of course.” But to experience that yourself is very different from reading a quote on Instagram or whatever about it.

I think that you clearly imparted that on your team.

JESSICA: It’s hard because we’re not used to it in a lot of corporate structures – even in small companies. I was just always rebellious, even when I was working with my dad. I would just rebel for the sake of it sometimes. But it was more like, when something feels like there’s a better way to do it, can I not try? And when I’m told, “No”, I don’t like that.

CHRISTEL: Yeah.

JESSICA: I try to offer the space for the team to consider the alternatives, and one approach that I’ve been really honing in on is the first principle approach; which is basically stripping away all the noise, narratives, and opinions. Something that I really hate is, “Because we’ve always done it this way, and we are used to doing it this way.” Stripping away all of that and looking at the core of what we know – that’s the starting point. You know, to figuring out where we want to go. It’s been a really simple equation that I’ve been trying to approach in my personal life and business life. It’s a really hard transition to make from where a lot of us are used to, but I need to provide everyone including myself the permission to do that and just try it out. Even for our customers it’s like, “Hey, you might hate this, but I don’t know. Just, here’s some. Try it out.”

CHRISTEL: Yes.

JESSICA: Like play around with it.

CHRISTEL: Totally. So just to touch briefly upon what Common Farms does in terms of what do you provide? What do you grow? What are you growing right now?

JESSICA: So, right now we’ve expanded. It started off with microgreens, and on our first harvest I was so proud! I started bringing them to Central to different chefs and knocking on their doors. I thought, we’ll get half of them wanting to order. No one wanted to order it.

And then we went back and looked at how we can approach it differently. Now we do herbs, edible flowers, microgreens, and we started some baby rooted vegetables like radish. And we’re trying turnip now.

We’re growing produce in an urban space. We try not to fixate on a specific system, but instead try to create the right environment for nature and for the plants to thrive. Honestly, growing indoors right now – it’s the best option we have in Hong Kong.

But had we started somewhere else, we would just evaluate what the –

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[00:25:00]

CHRISTEL: And you would adapt.

JESSICA: Yeah, and we should adapt to what is best for [the plants]. The approach is how do we grow things for the best nutritional value, and for taste, texture, and how things should actually be tasting like? Things are so bland these days when we get it from the shop, or we have to add in so much flavour to it. Even my own palate has changed. When I’m cooking at home now I put minimal salt and minimal sugar. Actually, I don’t even use –

CHRISTEL: I’m the saltiest person ever, and it was mostly from being here actually. Coming from Australia, we’re so lucky to have cows, you know, “down the street” and a lot more farming space. Obviously, when I moved my palate changed, too. So, that’s why when we first visited Common Farms here in Aberdeen I said, “Wow this is amazing. This is what things taste like.”

JESSICA: They’re things that you’ve tasted before, I think. You start recognising things, and there’s some nostalgia and memories that come back. It hits a certain part of your tongue and you’re like, “Oh wow.” And that was what I got when I was travelling and going to different places and trying more, maybe, traditional crops in the simplest form. It’s just grabbing it from the ground and trying it, with the least amount of processing as well.

In Hong Kong, in a city, because of wastage and because of storage, because things are travelling really far, our food a lot of times is over-processed.

We want to just simply produce things that can offer people an alternative option. We’re starting with these kinds of plans right now, but hopefully one day we’ll be able to expand it in a way where it allows for everyone to have that access. We want to make growing your own produce very un-intimidating as well, and more accessible. Because when we started, it’s scary because like I don’t know what the fuck to do... but what about this?

Recently it made me realise it’s like learning French.

Nothing is absolute. There’s always an alternative and ‘it depends’. It depends, you know? With plants, you just have to observe and be patient with it. I learned a lot of humility, patience and resilience from just observing our plants.

We also want to make sure we can somehow create a playbook of what has been working for us, so we can offer it as freely as possible to give people the opportunity to do it themselves. We want to make it open-source. What we do is going to take a long time to get there, and it’s always constantly going to be a work in progress. Constant trial and error. But if we’re thinking of it as building a company in the long term, I think that’s the way to approach it.

We always look at how we can bring more value to whoever we’re in contact with. Let it be our customer, our suppliers, our own team, our interns, anyone we’re doing a workshop for, anyone we’re inviting in. How can we bring more to them instead of asking of them? And then just giving them the space or empowering them to be inspired, to think of different things to do.

CHRISTEL: You’re awesome! So good.

JESSICA: It’s a lot of work but I think it’s a start.

CHRISTEL: Well, thank you so much for being so candid and so sharing, and really inspirational.

JESSICA: Oh, thank you. It means a lot when you say that because you’ve seen me grow through the years.

CHRISTEL: Hopefully we can share your story a little bit and get people interested in what they themselves can do.

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2020-07-29 00:04:00.0