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Special Report  

Farmers and Consumers United by Health Concerns

By staff reporter LU RUCAI

One Friday morning in late October, Shi Yan and her co-workers at the Dondon Farm were packing peanuts, fresh in-season vegetables and sweet potatoes into boxes for delivery to 36 farm-member consumers scattered all over the city. Each box would leave this farm at the foot of Mount Phoenix in the western suburb of Beijing and appear on a member's doorway by Saturday morning.

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is much more than a farmers' market with a delivery service; it is a community united by health concerns. Consumers have pre-paid for their share of healthy, pesticide-free vegetables. A brochure entitled Dondon Farm CSA Newsletter briefs them about what went on on the farm during the past week, and provides tips on how to keep vegetables fresh. In this way farmers are linked by more than a mere transaction to the consumers who regularly enjoy their produce, and consumers get a better idea of the complete process of farming, eating more safely as a result.

A newsletter in each delivery reminds Shi Yan's customers they are bound by a community formed around health and information, not just a farm market.

CSA on Trial

Shi Yan got the idea from a CSA farm in the US State of Minnesota where she worked as an intern when she was a doctoral candidate of Renmin University of China.

CSA is over 20 years old in the U.S., and so far, there are about 2,000 CSA farms operating in that country. A CSA farm works this way. Before the sowing season, consumers pay the farmers in advance, and the latter execute orders for organic produce. This is mutually beneficial for both producer and buyer. Consumers are guaranteed safe food, and farmers ensure a profit for themselves – despite the additional cost of growing organically –by cutting out the middle men. Best of all, consumers and farmers have direct contact with each other and establish friendly, trusting and loyal relations.

Shi Yan's farm runs on her fascination with this way of doing business, and everything she learned in the U.S. She had a small start in Beijing in April 2009, but got underway by offering two types of memberships. The first: an advance fee of RMB 2,500 entitles members to organic vegetables for approximately 20 weeks from June to October. (If the member prefers to come and pick up their household package, the charge is just RMB 2,000). The second: for just RMB 1,000, a member buys the right to operate his own mini-farm of about 30 square meters, growing what vegetables he likes, with technical support from farmers.

"I was worried in the beginning," Shi Yan said, "afraid of a tepid response. However, 50 memberships were immediately taken out, including 17 'do-it-yourself' members." It began pretty well, but small problems did arise. "All we provided in early June was leaf vegetables, without tomatoes or cucumbers. Some members complained about this. The farm grows vegetables in season, not against. After we explained this to our members, no more complaints were heard. In fact, most members aired their support," she explained. Even so, the farm is considering building greenhouses for less vulnerable vegetables, but will maintain the chemical ban.

Growth is another worry. The fields are contracted from local villagers, and all income goes to the villagers after offsetting Shi Yan's management costs. "So far, I am only breaking even," she said. Limited in land, the farm cannot increase memberships, despite many people on the waiting list. Next year, Shi Yan plans to expand the community to 150 or 200 after she leases more fields, but this time she won't acquire land by contract. "The villagers are not sure whether this mode is profitable," said Shi Yan.

Publicity and good will is not in short supply however. Apart from 10 farmers hired from the village, the farm has volunteer workers, some from universities across the country, and others from the U.S. or Hong Kong, all showing an interest in what she is doing. The farm also has many visitors. Those from Xi'an and Xiamen are looking into adopting CSA mode in their cities. Shi hopes the CSA model is popularized nationwide.

Cost and Consciousness

Lü Yarong is a "do-it-yourself" member of Dondon Farm. "Five years ago, after the birth of my son, I began to pay attention to organic food. I did this for two reasons. One, food safety is a big concern for the public; another, this issue is part of my field of study." Lü Yarong is a professor with the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development of Renmin University of China. Every weekend, she brings her family to the farm to look after their vegetables. Much to her amusement, the pleasure of farming has attracted some urbanites who couldn't get their own plot to work on her field.

Many mothers like Lü Yarong are concerned about food safety. Lily Cheng is the mother of a one-year-old girl. Since her daughter's birth the young mother has paid extra attention to her market shopping. "Organic vegetables cost much more than non-organic ones – almost ten times as much. But out of safety concerns many friends of mine buy them. Chinese parents never begrudge spending money on their children," Cheng rationalizes.

Because of the expense, these organic vegetables are an indulgence of better-off families. Based on a survey sponsored by Dondon Farm, health-conscious members of the new middle class set aside between 0.5 and 5 percent of their annual income on organic vegetables, averaging 2 percent.

Chinese consumption has Chinese characteristics. Dondon Farm promises to provide 200 kilos of organic vegetables to each consumer during the 20-week contract, so many people have asked the question: how much does it cost per kilo? No consumers in the U.S would have asked this, but Chinese consumers do. After calculation, they find it's RMB 10 per kilo, well below the price of organic produce in the supermarkets. They are pleasantly surprised.

Luo Yuannan, chief of the food and agriculture project under Greenpeace China, said consumers have doubts about organic food sold in supermarkets. They pay a high price for natural produce but do they get what they have paid for? Luo Yuannan believes supermarkets have the obligation to certify the organic food they sell. It is impossible for every consumer to take his or her purchase for verification of standards and quality.

Shi Yan and her team have conducted research on the evolution of organic food growers and markets abroad. In any country, she said, the middle class is always the first to react to environmental change and food safety. Though China's middle class is not small, few individuals have acquired enough environmental and food safety awareness. European and American countries developed earlier, ruined their environments earlier, and consequently their citizenry became concerned earlier. Shi Yan said China would enter this phase soon.

Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Market

According to Shi Yan, community supported agriculture is a concept that needs support from consumers. Urbanites should share the risks with farmers who embrace eco-farming and thereby encourage them to farm in a healthy and socially responsible way.

Payment in advance, a method of payment common to CSA and other commercial relations in the West, will take time to become a generally accepted practice in China. In the meantime, her Dondon Farm is here to stay; it's a joint venture of the Beijing Haidian District Government, Renmin University of China and a commercial company. With partners, the farm finds that trust is more readily extended by consumers than if Shi Yan was going it alone.

"Actually, many farmers are willing to go organic," Luo Yuannan said, "but they have fundamental obstacles. One, they don't know how, and two, they don't know how to promote their new produce on the market." According to a survey of Greenpeace China, few farms and individual farmers growing organic food across the country are doing well at present.

Shi Yan reasons that consumers have no idea how to support farmers, though they have realized their urgent need for safe food. "Cooperation is now in the hands of consumers," said Shi Yan, "and without cooperation, it is impossible to acquire safe food that is in sufficient variety and provided in a timely manner." The only choice left is to go for non-organic vegetables transported over a long distance. To keep them fresh during transportation, chemical pesticides and additives are used.

To Shi Yan, the biggest challenge for safe food is how to shorten the time between field and plate. Both farmers and consumers should be well informed, and the latter must be able to trace the source of the food they consume. Scary as the use of chemicals is, the high price of organic food has frightened some customers away. Unless organic food has a sizable market, its volume won't reach levels that make efficiencies in growth and price possible. In Beijing, 80 percent of consumers are willing to pay two or three times as much as non-organic produce, but not five times or ten times.

Traditional farmers need to raise their awareness of organic farming too. According to Shi Yan, most companies that have contacted her for cooperation have eyes only for the potential profit, not realizing that organic farming needs long-term investment. "Growing organic food requires serious preparation," Shi Yan said, "but most investors demand to see profit in one or two years. A period of three to five years is the minimum an organic farm needs to effect recovery of the soil and to establish trust between itself and consumers. Only after this are profits possible.

Luo Yuannan pointed out that organic farming and conventional farming are a contest between long-term interests and immediate returns. It's appropriate that the government worries about adequate grain supply in the short run. But the transition from conventional farming to organic farming takes time. The later we start, the longer the transition period.

VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us