Meet the woman leading China's new organic farming army

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Tradition and reinvention

Also at the market is Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, a Dutch rural sociology professor. He's attending to give a talk on the topic of his new book, The New Peasantries, which argues that the preference for large Western-style industrial scale farms is short-sighted. "China is far better off with its own peasant farmers. They shouldn't artificially push scale enlargement," says Van der Ploeg.

During the 1990s, China's leaders and policymakers pushed for large-scale farming as a way to increase productivity, production, and increase farm income. During a "state of the nation" address, then-Premiere Li Peng explicitly referred to large-scale farming as the solution for increasing crop yields, pointing to successful large-scale mechanised farming experiments in southern Jiangsu province, northern Zhejiang and Beijing as models. However, even then, there was a recognition that large-scale farms were only feasible in economically developed areas where agriculture was not the main source of employment.

More recently, officialdom has acknowledged the value of remaining small. This year, a list of 50 farm policies was published by China's Ministry of Agriculture, referring to the development of scale or '"new-scale farmers", such as specialised grain producers, family farms and farming cooperatives. Funding worth 23.4 billion renminbi (about $3.8bn) was also allocated.

It is China's traditionally high number of farmers concentrating on smaller plots of land that Van der Ploeg refers to as the reason for China's "enigmatic" impressive productivity. "At the moment there is a contradiction because, in farming, so many chemicals are used. But using natural methods has traditionally been strong in Chinese agricultural history. And now, what there needs to be is a rediscovery of that art," he says.

When asked about China's urbanisation and the flight of young people from rural locations to the cities, Van der Ploeg says: "People think labour migration is at odds with farming, but many young people are interested in returning to the countryside. It's a kind of social phenomenon - a rejection of the corporate culture. The 'Xin Nongren' are reinventing farming."

New generation 

Translated from Chinese, "Xin Nongren" means "New Farmers". The term is fondly applied to Yan and other young Chinese like her, who have quit jobs in the cities or elsewhere to devote themselves to sustainable farming.

Back at Shared Harvest, I'm introduced to a member of her team, another "new farmer", Wang Chong. The 24-year-old is responsible for leading the packing of produce into boxes to be delivered to farm members, as well as growing the produce in some of the greenhouses. "When I first arrived earlier this year, the winter melons were just sprouts. Now, they're about a metre high," he says proudly.

Over the past five years, Wang has been shocked by the amount of pollution and waste he has seen in the country [Al Jazeera]

Originally from China's south, Wang left his hometown as an 18-year-old to work, managing construction sites in the country's dry western region. Over those five years, he says he was shocked by the amount of waste and pollution he witnessed. "There were so many negative effects of construction, and the work itself was stressful and tiring. I decided to look for another direction."

Having grown up on a farm, Wang was interested in agriculture and was advised by a friend to contact Yan. "My friend told me that CSA offered farmers a better income than conventional farms, and I liked the idea of growing organic produce," he says.

Reliable statistics regarding the average earnings of Chinese farmers are difficult to find, but apprentice farmers at Shared Harvest earn 3,000 to 4,000 yuan (around $370 to $630) a month, which is comparable to workers in second or third tier cities employed in basic white collar work.

Wang quit his construction job for good to join Shared Harvest in March this year. Though his parents disapproved of his decision to return to the countryside, he says he hasn't looked back.

"I don't think there's anything low about being a farmer," muses Wang. "It's not like we don't have any pressure to do well, it's just a different kind of pressure. Working in other jobs, you might be staying up late and having a lot of anxiety. Here, it's about solving problems. For example, 'Are the chickens laying enough eggs? Is there an issue with the tomatoes?' This is the kind of stress I can deal with, and the work feels positive overall."

Wang is just one of a full-time team of 20 people who help Yan run Shared Harvest. Most of them are in their 20s, and Yan tells me they will most probably stay for one or two years before moving on. She says this a long enough time to build a foundation in organic farming and CSA, and also allows for a steady flow of new recruits."I receive at least one inquiry a day from people wanting to come work here, and we don't have room for everyone. But for those especially determined, I tell them to come learn for a short while, then innovate and start their own thing."

Over the past five years, Yan estimates that more than 200 apprentice farmers have passed through her doors and started their own organic or CSA ventures. Many now partner with Shared Harvest through supplying produce from their own CSA farms. Yan blushes at the idea of being a mentor to so many, saying, "my colleagues joke that Shared Harvest is to farming what a military school is to the army, but I didn't plan that".

As a pioneer in China's organic farming movement, Yan seems to be leading a fast-growing army of new Chinese farmers. But she still believes that staying small is crucial. "Small organisations can adapt quickly and solve problems faster," she says, adding "small just refers to the ownership or management scale. After five years there are more than 500 CSA farms in China. When you put them together, they provide food for about half-a-million families. I don't think any one company could do that."

When it comes to solving the problem of agricultural pollution, Yan admits that CSA is only part of the solution. But at least now, the right people seem to be taking notice. Not only has a local district government agreed to sponsor this year's November CSA conference, last September, Yan was asked to write a report about CSA for China's Vice Premier Wang Yang.

"Interest is really growing, and it's not just on the surface. People are really passionate. Change won't be fast, but the impact is deep," says Yan. "CSA is not just a company or business, it's a social movement."

via AlJazeera

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