CSA Enters China

By staff reporter ZHANG HONG

POSTDOCTORAL fellow of Tsinghua University Shi Yan founded China’s first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm a couple of years ago. Her aim is to supply consumers directly, exclusive of intermediary links, with green farm products. There are now 500 or more such farms in China. Curious about Shi’s project, and how she made the concept of bringing green food directly to people’s tables a reality, China Today interviewed Shi Yan on her farm in Beijing’s Shunyi District.

An Unremarkable Farm

“Sharing the Harvest” is the name of Shi Yan’s third CSA farm, so forming a troika with the “Little Donkey” and the Tongzhou Base. Located in Liuhuzhuang Village of Shunyi, 70 km from downtown Beijing, “Sharing the Harvest” consists of an expanse of greenhouses.

It is a common or garden farm with a no-frills office for its down to earth boss Shi Yan, behind which are 26 standard greenhouses. When we arrived, Shi was giving the leftovers of her last meal to a squad of squawking black chickens. Her strawberry greenhouse is locked to keep out these pecking pilferers.

Shi was the first Chinese student assigned to the United States in 2008 to learn farm work at public expense. After six months of working on a U.S. CAS farm, Shi came back to China and set up the “Little Donkey” farm, with the help of government investment. She established her own “Sharing the Harvest” farm in 2012.

Pesticides and chemical fertilizers first entered Chinese people’s lives in the 1970s. In short supply, they were much sought after. Rather than improving agricultural production, however, excessive use of these chemical products resulted in serious food safety problems. Shi’s decision to be a farmer was to a great extent born of her concerns about food safety and soil pollution.

“People in a society where food production is safe probably don’t think much about the concepts of green and organic food,” Shi said. “In the people-centered production pattern, equal attention is paid to both output and soil quality in order to avoid soil erosion wrought by excessive exploitation.”

“Sharing the Harvest” is not simply a replica of the “Little Donkey” farm. As Shi personally invested in it, she must personally plan and carry out strict budgeting.

Shi is heartened, however, that her farm’s growing reputation has brought it 500 VIP members. For more than two years she has maintained a healthy balance sheet, and is now in the black.

This is an open and transparent farm. The entire process of planting, cultivation and growing is under supervision.

A young man of the Tujia ethnic group showed us his farm work, in the form of 18,000 mushroom spawns in a large greenhouse. In a few days they will bloom into mushrooms.

At noon on a winter’s day the temperature inside the greenhouse could reach 23 degrees Celsius, and at nightfall drop to less than 10 degrees Celsius, so maintaining a constant temperature is not easy. Cotton-padded quilts have to be rolled out over the crops several times a day as the temperature changes. Sometimes seedlings are burned and allowed to rot and ferment, so becoming natural fertilizer. Liquid manure, such as biogas slurry and meal leftovers, is used throughout the farm.

Coco peat is applied to seedlings in the greenhouses because it contains no larvae, so avoiding the risk of pests. When bugs do occasionally appear, Shi deals with them by fallow cropping, biological control, and insect glue boards or nets, rather than spraying them with chemical pesticide. Having grown without chemicals, the farm produce has an unprepossessing appearance. Although less attractive than vegetables cultivated with chemicals, their flavor is more natural and mellow than urban dwellers could imagine.

How to Work a CSA Farm

Inspired by Shi’s operation, a batch of CSA farms has come into being in succession, all with the intent of producing safer, healthier farm produce. Nationwide, there are 300 farms of this type, more than 50 of them in Beijing.

These CSA farms deliver organic vegetables directly to consumers, so avoiding the need for intermediary agents. Through this direct connection, farmers and consumers share interests and jointly shoulder risks. They hope to achieve sustainable agriculture through the sustainable development and self-circulation of the ecological system. Shi’s “Sharing the Harvest” has three distinctions: direct selling, the personal touch, and localization. Consumers’ pre-payments obviate the need for farm owners to take out bank loans. “This model is more suitable for small and medium-sized farms, which usually lack funds in their early stages,” Shi said.

Shi mentioned another CSA merit. “The seller is also the producer who directly supplies farm produce to consumers, thus taking full responsibility for it.”

The CSA advocates the idea of “eat local and in season,” according to Shi. People are hence not encouraged to consume imported farm products. In the process of processing and transportation they inevitably lose nutrients, and also incur food safety risks.

“Investment in the local countryside will create a change that takes place before your very eyes. If, in future, all Beijing farmers can produce healthy farm produce, Beijing’s urban dwellers will benefit, and the environment will improve.”

Shi and her husband Cheng Cunwang were both students of the well-known agriculture researcher Wen Tiejun. They married on their farm, and all the food at their wedding banquet was grown there. Most impressively, the bride’s bouquet was of broccoli.

The couple have jointly produced many written works, one of them their translation of Franklin H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Japan and Korea. It mainly discusses the farming model of oriental societies, and was one of the main reasons for the appearance of organic agriculture, Shi said. Over a century ago, as an agricultural official of the United States, Franklin H. King paid a visit to Shanghai. He was astonished at the sight early each morning of boats on the Huangpu River shipping Shanghai residents’ excrement to the suburban areas for use as manure.

“Back then, Chinese cities were not equipped with advanced drainage systems like those in the Western world. However, the diseases associated with poor drainage were not widespread. Local people had their own way of dealing with the problem, like recycling their rubbish,” Shi said.

It was in the 19th century that people began talking about sustainable farming. What fascinated King was that for thousands of years China’s land, having supported generation after generation of a huge population, had not encountered the predicament of that in the United States whereby, over just two centuries, the carbon content of soil had halved, although China’s had suffered water and soil loss.

“At that time, U.S. farmers used far more chemical products than their Chinese peers until the environmental protection campaign came into full swing,” Shi said.

What makes Shi despair is that even though agricultural technology has advanced significantly, modern-day farmers seem less capable than their ancestors.

“At the first sign of plant disease or pests, their immediate reaction is to reach for chemical pesticides. They seem unable to abandon this mindset and find another way of dealing with problems, like focusing on soil problems, growing a different crop, or ventilating their greenhouses. No wonder people say that farmers’ brains are ever simpler.”

Shi also has misgivings about the role of technologies. “Do farmers really need so many technologies?” is the question she constantly asks herself. The answer that always comes to her mind is, “The fundamental farming mode is sufficient to produce quality products.”

Small but Perfect

“The food safety issue is a challenge to healthy eating, and hence a serious threat to the sustainable development of society as a whole,” Shi Yan concluded frankly at the 2014 annual CSA conference.

In China, the food supervision department always incurs the most public blame. As the ballooning food safety issue becomes ever more alarming, organic agriculture seems to offer an effective solution. The organic farming trend came into being when certain business elites began dabbling in the field. Owing to the high prices of organic farming products, however, only a small group of consumers buys them.

In Shi’s view, at least 40 percent of Beijing residents can afford green farming produce. But, inhibited by other less essential outlays, they hesitate to expend on pricey green foods. “As after buying an apartment, many people then want a bigger one, many Beijing residents are constantly repaying loans.”

It would cost a three-member family around RMB 1,200 a month to order all their meat, eggs, and vegetables from Shi’s farm. As long as you can stand the monotony (most organic products being seasonal, variety is limited), therefore, eating organic food each day isn’t necessarily an unaffordable luxury.

The amount of vegetables planted depends on how many people are willing to buy them. In the CSA farming model, mutual trust is the key.

The day before our interview, Shi went to a TV station in the downtown area to tape a program. On her way, she strolled into a large supermarket just as past sell-by date food was being thrown out.

Shi thought this a needless waste. The American farmer’s family with whom she lived usually bought bread close to its expiration date from a local store, which would inform them when such items were available, at marked down prices.

To Shi, life in the countryside lacks nothing because making full use of everything is a main feature of it. “For example, leftover porridge can be used to feed the chickens,” Shi said. However, this is not so easy when living in a metropolis.

Having grown up in an environment of bounteous supply, the new generation of young people lacks appreciation of the food that maintains their life. And going back to the countryside to live as a farmer is something that goes even more against the social grain.

“The predicament we face hampers our agricultural development. Our team is not stable because of certain members’ high mobility and practical considerations, such as how settling on a farm would affect their children’s education,” Shi said.

In contrast to the 3.80 million natural villages in China, the 300-plus CSA farms amount to a nonentity. Shi doesn’t mind the smallness of her farm. What upsets her is that nowadays most people still don’t buy the concept that “small is perfect.”

People generally hold the view that only large-scale agricultural production and big supermarkets can meet urban food demands. Shi, however, regards this model as risky.

The U.S. farm where she worked had only 30 VIP members. Her farm today is large enough to amaze her American host.

“This actually reflects people’s different values and mindsets. The U.S. CSA farms don’t seek scale,” Shi said. However, scale means a lot in China.

“Currently the Chinese agricultural sector is trying to replicate the U.S. model of big ranches. If you possess 50 mu (1 mu=0.0667 ha.) of land today, your ambition is to own 50,000 mu in the future with a handful of people running the entire operation. But this model is not suitable for East Asian countries,” Shi said.

In the preface to Shi’s book My Alternative Farming Experience in the US, her teacher Wen Tiejun wrote, “Large-scale modern plantation and husbandry tend to create serious environmental pollution.” In recent years, a wide range of safety and health issues surrounding fruits and vegetables have appeared, most of which are attributable to large-scale production.

Having visited many countries and examined their food production and circulation models, Shi observed, “Our weakness as regards agriculture isn’t the inability to produce quality products, but that farmers are not organized.” In her view, “In the modern food supply chain manipulated by big capital, the farmer is just one link in the chain. However, the chain is lengthening to the extent where the final product is even farther away from its actual producers – farmers.”

Shi raised the examples of Japan and South Korea. Despite the relatively small sizes of individual farms in these countries, the organizational power is formidable. “For example, one cooperative can govern over 100 farmers whose individual land is only around 40 mu,” she said.

The incompatibility between capital and labor is another of Shi’s concerns. “For example, if I own 50,000 mu of land, I’ll use an agricultural tractor to replace a dozen farmers. Those farmers who have lost their jobs in the countryside must then head for cities or find work in the limbo between rural and urban areas. It’s quite likely that their lives do not measure up to what they experienced in the countryside,” Shi said.

Shi thinks that the future development of China’s agriculture should be more effectively organized to avoid compelling farm workers to migrate to towns.

Her Sharing the Harvest: Community Supported Agriculture Handbook says, “Every five consumers joining us helps to protect one mu of land from pollution; every 10 consumers’ participation could enable one farmer to use land in an environmentally-friendly way; every 100 consumers’ registration could provide five young local rural people with farming jobs; every 1,000 consumers’ contribution could build a village featuring sustainable agricultural development.”

When asked whether the CSA model could proliferate, Shi answered that no matter which kind, once one model dominates production, problems inevitably arise. “From the ecological perspective, diversified production and circulation models achieve the best results,” Shi said.

The sixth International CSA Conference will be held in Shunyi in November 2015. As the vice-president of the International Network of Community Supported Agriculture, Shi will devote more time to CSA work. She hopes more people will direct their attention to CSA and the concepts it promotes – green and sustainable development and healthy foods.

“If you want people accept your concepts, you have to demonstrate them yourself,” Shi said, displaying composure and determination beyond her years.