CSA Meeting in China

Cheng feeds the Little Donkey_Elizabeth Henderson, “The CSA Movement in China”, October 2011.

Today’s citizens of China, Korea and Japan whose agriculture of a century ago F.H. King described so vividly in Farmers of Forty Centuries have almost forgotten the traditions that inspired so many of us in organic farming in the west. Fortunately, the traces have not totally disappeared. There are old timers who remember and young people who are rediscovering their ancient roots.

On two trips to Taiwan and one very short trip to mainland China, I have been privileged to get a glimpse of the exciting ferment that is underway in the countryside. I want to emphasize that I am not an expert. What I know about modern China and Taiwan would only half fill a very small cup.


Please allow me to describe what I have seen.

Little Donkey Farm

Little as I know about Taiwan, I know even less about China and it is so vast and, like the US, so full of contradictions.  I offer here what I observed during an intensive 4-day visit.

Little Donkey Farm is located in Ho Sha Tien Village, on 6th outmost ring road of Beijing. After over an hour’s nerve wracking ride in a speeding taxi, when I arrived at Little Donkey Farm my most urgent need was a toilet. The outhouse turned out to be a composting toilet with room for two. As we squatted together, I had a chat with a lady who introduced herself in English as a school teacher and a working member of the Little Donkey CSA. She offered to show me her garden plot. Sadly, the Farmers Market I had hoped to witness had ended. Over 1000 people had just departed.

Two of the Little Donkey organizers, Shi-Yan Sina and Cunwang Cheng, met me in the section of the farm devoted to individual plots. Shi-Yan initiated Little Donkey after a 6-month stay at a CSA farm in Minnesota in 2007.  Cheng did a tour of CSAs in the US the next year and spent a few days as my guest at Peacework Farm.  Cheng is a little taller than I, a solidly built young man with a very round and innocent face.  Yan is taller, very thin and graceful in her movements. They were sorry I was so late. They showed me around the 38 acre farm.  The land is almost perfectly flat.  There are now 240 individual plots, 10 x 20, repetitions of similar crops – daikon radishes, stately Chinese cabbages, garlic chives, eggplant, peppers, lettuces, a bushy variety of basil, medicinal herbs I cannot name.  They led me to the lone little donkey who lives in an open-air pen. Next to the donkey are the chicken pens, roofed open areas enclosed with netting on which squash or gourds had been growing, and the pig house, a well designed concrete bunker with good air drainage. The piglets were hungry, so Cheng tossed some ground up corn in their feeder.  The composting area stretched from the pigs to the chickens. We examined a shed with shelves lined with glass jars of liquid concoctions – herbal brews in the style of Cho Han Kyu, a South Korean practitioner of “Nature Farming” – ginger, garlic, beneficial microorganisms – used for fertilizer and pest control.

They introduced me to Lijiang Cheng, one of the 20 villagers, skilled farmers who work on the farm with the university graduate managers and interns. He told me he is 62 and had been farming all his life. Looking at me, he exclaimed, “She still has a braid!” The farm staff includes 5 managers, 20 villagers and ten interns. In its third year of production, in 2011 Little Donkey includes the 240 families who have garden plots and 430 who receive farm crew produced shares that include vegetables, eggs and pork. The farm is much more than a CSA – it is a training center, serves as a model for cooperative work between village peasants and university educated organizers, the site of a farmers market, and hosts literally thousands of visitors.

Nearby we came to a larger building where the crew eats lunch and where they cook for visitors. A group of 7 or 8 young people, college age, was sorting the waste from the Farmers Market into compost and recyclables.  One young man complained that the people who came to shop were not very aware.

We walked through the fields – the ground is flat with trenches for water and ridged paths for walking and driving, like a series of rice paddies but devoted to vegetables – impressive Chinese cabbages, a small area of corn, handsome lettuces, perfectly weeded carrots, an entire block of garlic chives, with hardly a weed, eggplant, trellised beans and cucumbers, the long slightly spiney kind – Yan offered me one to eat. It was sweet and crunchy.   (Later I worried at having eaten a raw vegetable in China, but I did not get sick).  A few of the paddy areas were empty – where transplants had been grown and then distributed to the working shares.  Clusters of working shareholders were busy on their plots – one woman proudly offered me a large daikon radish.  The light was failing so our tour came to an end.  A local taxi (not official, a regular village service) took us a mile or so to the village where Yan and Cheng live in an apartment in the new block of 5-story apartment buildings.

The New Village

Although they had major responsibilities for the CSA conference the next two days and were getting married the day after that, Yan and Cheng welcomed me to stay in their home.  The apartment is a fourth floor walk-up, a comfortable amount of space for a young couple with a living-dining room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. They had wi-fi that appeared to function and Yan talked endlessly on a cell phone handling conference details.  From the living room window, you could see the next row of apartments and beyond them the cranes that were lifting materials into place for yet another row.  A school buddy of Cheng’s ate dinner with us.  He told me he is doing his three years of service by working in the village administration so that he can earn a card that will allow him to live in Beijing, make money, buy a house, attract a wife and send his children to good schools.  When I pointed out that Cheng found Yan without all that, he said Cheng and Yan were an exception.

They took me to visit the old village – one-story buildings with crowded, narrow streets. We stopped at a bakery, a disorderly and crowded workspace with piles of blackened  metal molds for breakfast rolls. By contrast, I was surprised at the spaciousness of the one home we entered. There was a huge living room, a TV room, 3 bedrooms, a modern kitchen, and 2 smaller rooms, all with white tile floors.  The couple who lived there had built and rebuilt this home over 15 years. Their entryway looked more like a farmyard with drying red peppers, a big pile of newly harvested leeks, barrels, buckets and tools.

I do not claim to understand the transition that is going on in this village and, according to my hosts, in many others as well.  From what I grasped, the village controls the old village and the land it is on.  A developer is building the new apartments and offering each village family 1 million yuan (about $62,000) and 3 apartments in exchange for their old house.  The families can live in one apartment and rent out the others.  This would seem to mean that the village is giving up control of its land to a private company.

« New Farmer, New Countryside »

By good luck or Yan’s strategic planning, the few days between the end of the IFOAM General Assembly and the date for my Taiwan tour coincided with “New Farmer, New Countryside: the Third National Conference of Community Supported Agriculture” at Renmin University in Beijing. I had the honor of being the keynote speaker: I presented a newly updated version of my ever evolving illustrated talk on “CSA Around the World”. Hot off the presses was Yan and Cheng’s translation of Sharing the Harvest in time for us to celebrate the release of the book.

Over 400 attended the conference – farmers, organizers, undergraduate, graduate students and faculty. Many were delegates from over 150 ecological farming projects.  At the plenary sessions, I was seated in the front row with the dignitaries, university professors and government officials. Most of the participants were 20 – 30 somethings, both men and women, with only a sprinkling of gray hairs. They showed an amazing level of commitment, sitting through workshops from 9 am till 10 pm! At breaks, a roar of networking erupted.  If I can judge from the discussions at the end of each session, Chinese organic people are long-winded – and impressively long on the ability to listen to one another. They greeted me with overwhelming warmth. There was a lot of friendly laughter, though my volunteer interpreters were rarely up to translating the jokes and wisecracks. Outdoing even the Japanese, the Chinese delight in photo opportunities.  I must have had my photo taken 200 times with different conference participants. Yan had told me that organic in China is no longer just a top-down, export-oriented program, but a grassroots movement. The palpable energy at this conference is evidence of this exciting development.

The farm manager at Little Donkey, Yan Xiaohui, opened the conference by outlining the kinds of problems to be solved: food quality and security, pollution from agriculture and the urban-rural gap. He evaluated Little Donkey’s success so far in addressing these challenges. Zhang Zhimin and Yan told about the growth of the Beijing CSA Union and the development of a national CSA network.  According to Yan, middle class people, who are keeping city jobs, are returning to villages to manage organic farms. While CSAs like Little Donkey and Big Buffalo have government and university support, farmers are establishing others on their own by connecting with citizens who care about food quality and sourcing food from people they trust.  You can read a version of Yan’s paper in the proceedings for the IFOAM Organic World Congress.

Thanks to a series of interpreters, I was able to make some sense of the workshops I attended. With two tracks at each time slot, the best I could do was to cover half of what went on. The content was surprisingly familiar, like a Chinese version of CSA conferences I have attended in the US and England. I heard detailed reports on CSAs – university supported projects, farmer and ngo initiated ventures, a variety of other direct marketing enterprises, some farmer cooperatives, and basic topics in organic methods, farm management, composting, seed saving, ecological architecture, certification and participatory guarantee systems. A farmer with many years of experience with organic practices talked about discovering CSA and appreciating the improvement in marketing and community support.  Two new farmers from non-rural backgrounds talked about their paths to organic farming. A Bejing restauranteur from The Veggie Table listed his catchy 6 “m”s – meal, menu, music, manner, mood, meeting, and described how he purchases 60% of the ingredients for his menu from local organic farms. A professor of health analyzed the relationship between unhealthy life styles and disease.

A dramatic confrontation between a father, who had become a migrant worker in the city, sacrificing to give his son an education, and the son, who had decided to return to their village to be an ecological farmer, set off a highly emotional discussion that echoed through the two days. Another recurrent theme was the communication and marketing difficulties experienced by farmers who live in isolated areas, too far from cities. Li Zhao reported on the Green Ground Union, a project started by Professor Wen as a company in 2000. After meetings with farmers to learn about the problems in villages, they decided to focus on developing ecological agriculture as the best path to food safety and feeding the countryside. I would love to have a better understanding of what Li Zhao meant by “self-controlling” as a new way to build social trust.  I missed sessions on the multi-functionality of agriculture, the many new farmers’ markets in Shanghai, Chengdu and Nanjing, “original taste,” restaurant supported agriculture, a community kitchen in Hongkong and Slow Food in China.

At the closing plenary, after a concise report on the IFOAM certification system and the principles of organic agriculture, Zhou Zelong, IFOAM’s representative in China, concluded with the new emphasis on Participatory Guarantee Systems. I was surprised that as illustration, he showed photos of his recent visit to a US farm in Connecticut that uses the NOFA Farmers Pledge instead of certification.

Final Speeches

The final speech was delivered by Tiejun Wen, the Dean of the School of Agronomics & Rural Development at Renmin University and the Executive Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies for Sustainability, at the People’s University of China, (wentj@ruc.edu.cn). Wen was also a keynote speaker at the IFOAM Organic World Congress. Yan and Cheng’s teacher, Wen is one of the inspirations, an organizer and leader of the new grassroots organic movement. The center of his teaching are the “three Peoples’ Principles: people’s livelihood, people’s solidarity, and people’s cultural diversity.”  I refer those who want to delve deeper to the February, 2011 issue of Monthly Review that will carry an article by Wen and close associates.  You can also read Yan and Cheng’s article “Safe Food, Green Food, Good Food: Chinese CSA and the Rising Middle Class,” in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9:4, pp. 551-558, (http://blog.urgenci.net/?p=757).

With a quiet, self-denigrating speaking style that contrasted sharply with the self-assured and even strident tones of the other big-wigs, Professor Wen, urged the conference participants to practice modesty and to listen carefully to others who may disagree, to try to understand each other and be prepared to compromise. “What we have done, ordinary people do – if ordinary people do ordinary things, the tragedy of 2012 will not happen,” he explained.  In his wide-ranging talk, he cited Mao and pointed to the Chinese Communist Party position on “Ecological civilization” as the doctrinal support for the work of the people at the conference.  He reflected on how a policy of cheap food leads to pollution, to cheating and the crisis of food safety and lack of trust.  The solution, Wen suggested, lies in involving and empowering the full diversity of stakeholders. He urged his listeners, “Controversy is normal… We are leading the trend.  Create your own network or union – you will be more powerful – that is the meaning of community. … (Authorities) find it difficult to refuse an organized group.  My words will disappear when you leave.  I will not be dean forever. I am 62 – please listen.  Starting a social network – we can have a community.  Let’s do some ordinary things.”

Life is full of surprises, and my visits to Taiwan, Japan and China are among them, unexpected rewards for writing about my own farming experience with CSA. So much of what I have seen in these travels turns out to be familiar despite the unfamiliar context. At this moment, in Taiwanese and mainland Chinese history when the pressure to develop farmland is so intense, CSA shows a way to preserve existing farms, inspire the founding of new ones and give a different meaning to the labels “Made in Taiwan” and “Made in China”, so familiar in the USA. If Yan and Cheng, Da Wang, Chientai and Tseniong are examples, the Chinese capacity for intense, concentrated work for extraorinarily high quality food production is alive and well. The CSA model, linking farmers and their consumers in sustainable collaborations, can build on the richness of peasant farming and ancient Chinese food traditions. As AMAP has been doing in France, CSA could sweep these countries as an antidote to the excesses of industrialization and contaminated food.