CSA in China: An Introduction, by Caroline Merrifield and Shi Yan

There are currently around five hundred CSA projects in China, many of which were founded within the past ten years. The rapid spread of CSA in China can be tracked through the annual national CSA conference, which was first held at Beijing’s Renmin University in 2009. While the earliest conference drew a small number of scholars and few practitioners, subsequent conferences have included hundreds of participants from all over the country. Chinese people from a wide diversity of backgrounds have come to recognize their own work in the values and modular practices of CSA; and it is through these annual meetings that the broader CSA community in China has come to recognize itself as a movement – one oriented to crucial issues of agroecology and rural-urban social justice.

The vocabulary of CSA was popularized in China through Shi Yan’s doctoral dissertation research. As a student at Renmin University’s School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, Shi Yan worked out a plan with her professors to learn about small-scale sustainable farming models in the US. The school has a longstanding connection with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, which helped to arrange an internship position for Shi Yan at Earthrise Farm, a CSA farm in Western Minnesota, beginning in April 2008. Upon returning to Beijing, she started planning a CSA project of her own. Although NGOs like Hong Kong -based Partners for Community Development (PCD) had been introducing the concept of CSA well before 2008, the media attention garnered by Shi Yan’s research trip to “learn to be a peasant in America,” as some descriptions put it, helped to publicize the model much more broadly.

The School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development is a key institution in what is known as the “New Rural Reconstruction” (NRR) movement. Shi Yan’s doctoral advisor and the former dean of the school, Wen Tiejun, is a well-known public intellectual and a key figure in NRR. In brief, NRR encompasses both an intellectual school of thought, based in a left critique of China’s path to ‘modernization’ and its entrenched rural-urban inequalities, and a network of practical rural aid initiatives and advocacy groups. “Rural reconstruction” refers to a wave of initiatives undertaken in the 1920s and ‘30s to revitalize China through the revitalization of rural communities. Many experiments at the time relied on notions of cooperative economy, while also emphasizing ‘positive’ elements of traditional rural culture and the importance of mass education. The rural reconstruction efforts of the pre-WWII era are an important touchstone and inspiration for scholars and activists involved in contemporary rural reconstruction activities. This year, the domestic Chinese CSA conference is themed around twenty-first century rural reconstruction efforts.

Shi Yan’s first CSA project, Little Donkey Farm, had its inaugural season of operation in 2009. From the start, the farm was affiliated with Renmin University and NRR, emerging as one project within a mosaic of initiatives in the rural reconstruction tradition. The first staff members at the farm had been fellows at the James Yan Institute for Rural Reconstruction, a short-lived Renmin-affiliated nonprofit in Dingzhou, Hebei, the site of one of the most famous pre-war rural reconstruction bases. Currently, Little Donkey’s sister organizations include the Liang Shuming Rural Reconstruction Center, which supports the development of farmer cooperatives through rural community organizing, and Ground Green Union, which serves as a sales cooperative for products from rural farmer cooperatives. The meaning of the CSA model in China is closely tied to this historical and institutional context of rural reconstruction: it is understood as a means of harnessing ‘alternative’ cooperative economic arrangements to improve the incomes and standing of rural smallholders. In this sense, CSA is very much of a family with farmer-run cooperatives in China: both models offer solutions for small farmers facing the vagaries of massive markets in which they are forced to be price-takers.

“Community Supported Agriculture” has been translated directly into Chinese (as 社区支持), but there has been some debate over other ways of rendering the concept in translation. An alternate proposed translation is “social sustainable agriculture” (社会生). This discussion is indicative of another important characteristic of CSA in China: there is an extensive overlap between CSA farms and small-scale organic farms in general. Further, CSA has become a focal point for a larger network of organizations and practitioners working to promote sustainable farming and rural social justice in China. In past years, the national CSA conference has drawn beginning farmers, lifelong farmers, and interested urban consumers, as well as representatives of education initiatives, environmental NGOs, ‘traditional culture’ groups, farmers’ markets, and so on. A term like “social sustainable agriculture” may be more appropriate to the situation here in China, in which “CSA” has long ceased to simply reference a specific operating model, serving instead as shorthand for a diverse array of practices and arrangements oriented towards the social “good,” and having to do with food systems and farming.

There are a few common types of CSA project in China. Some, like Little Donkey, are closely affiliated with NRR. Other CSA farms and farm networks are affiliated with NGOs. For example, a well-known group of CSA farms in Anlong Village, Sichuan, was initially organized with the help of the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, beginning in 2005. The organization had been investigating pollution from conventional agriculture in the area, and identified farming practices as an important focus for change. PCD, the Hong Kong –based NGO, has also been involved in supporting CSA in the area. In some cases, individual farmers have adopted the CSA model on their own as a way to obtain fair prices for their sustainably-grown products. Among these are so-called “new farmers,” young people moving (back) to the countryside in search of more fulfilling lifestyles and forms of employment. Other ‘rural returners’ include older, firmly middle-class people making a mid-career transition to farming, as well as rural people who had been finding work in urban centers. In other cases, groups of urban consumers, perhaps from the same housing complex or workplace, have directly sought out farmers to provide them with safe, healthy food, sometimes drawing on their own family connections in the countryside. So-called “mothers’ groups” and groups of parents at private and international schools have been particularly active in building direct-sales channels with farmers.

Chinese CSA can involve interesting and surprising arrangements of land and capital. China does not have a system of private land ownership; ownership resides with the local administrative unit, such as the village, and ultimately with the state. The bundle of rights associated with a piece of land is disaggregated, allowing various use rights to be recombined and redistributed even as real property control remains legally “off the market.” As China’s collective system began to be dismantled in the late 1970s and early 1980s, rural land was redistributed at a local level for use by individual farming families. In the intervening years, these distributions have been revisited and adjusted in some villages, but not others. Further, local and regional government “development” projects have led to serious dislocation as land use rights are arrogated to property development enterprises through formal and informal arrangements with officials. Obtaining control of use-rights for a small-scale farming project can be a major challenge, especially for beginning farmers.

In some instances, government and business welcome and even initiate CSA projects. Big Buffalo Farm in Jiangsu Province was founded when a group of town officials, who were hoping to further the environmentally-friendly reputation of their area, heard about successes with CSA in Beijing and contacted the team at Little Donkey. The farm came about as a kind of joint venture between Renmin University and the town government, which was providing funding and smoothing the way for the CSA team to gain access to local agricultural land. Other CSA projects have arisen when property development companies find themselves with empty land on their hands – or when the residential compounds they build lack sources of fresh food. These channels to land access can enable enterprising new farmers to build farms and livelihoods, and connect with new groups of consumers.

A number of related projects and initiatives share the space of the Chinese CSA movement with CSA farms. Restaurants like Dragon Well Manor in Zhejiang and the Tusheng Liangpin chain in Guangxi source sustainably-grown ingredients directly from smallholders, who receive fair and steady remuneration. These restaurants also strive to educate their customers about the stories behind their menus. Thriving “organic” farmers’ markets in large cities around the country showcase local farms, many of which use a CSA subscription model. Through the work of social-media-savvy organizers who plan frequent farm visits and educational events, farmers’ markets attract new consumers to CSA while helping to catalyze “core groups” of consumer advocates. An expanding field of nonprofits and “social enterprises” is providing services that complement and supplement CSA, including everything from educational programing for children to farm management phone apps.

In practical terms, CSA farmers must do a great deal of work to educate consumers about organic and sustainable cultivation practices. Following a series of high-profile food safety scandals in recent years, some of which involved practices of deliberate adulteration, consumers are understandably wary of mainstream food provisioning channels. They have little trust in food labeling and certification schemes, which they see as easily-faked and largely meaningless. China’s environmental food labeling standards and food safety standards have changed significantly in recent years, adding to consumer confusion over terms like “organic.” At the same time, internet-based business purporting to deliver “organic” or “green” vegetables directly to consumers are multiplying, leading CSA farmers to worry that these online services will hurt business or mislead consumers about CSA. Chinese CSA farmers have found that the best way to reach consumers is through frequent interaction, both in-person and online, and through educational programs. Urbanites love getting out of the city to visit farms and participate in fun activities, and many are especially eager to find opportunities for their small children to “experience nature” and engage in outdoor play. At Little Donkey, they like to say that every garden plot holds a story: their shareholders are living meaningful and memorable experiences out on the farm.

Chinese CSA farmers face a central challenge – generating and maintaining trust with urban consumers – that is profoundly shaped by China’s particular historical and political circumstances. Many ordinary people feel that Chinese society is experiencing a crisis of trust. Individuals are increasingly isolated from rooted communities, and people feel limited moral obligations to unknown others, be they geographically or socially distant. Deep divides and deep inequalities exit between countryside and city in China, and this ‘crisis of trust’ is at its most critical across the rural-urban divide. Participants in CSA initiatives posit personal, direct relationships as both prerequisite and vehicle for trust. The trust that develops between farmers and consumers is a form of dynamic knowledge: a synthesis of behavior over many iterated interactions that underpins relations of genuine care. Strangers become ‘known people’ through CSA; and in the process, they become members of a shared community.

Caroline Merrifield is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Yale University. Shi Yan is Urgenci’s current Vice President and the founder of Shared Harvest Farm.