On a chilly spring afternoon, Zhao Wenjuan throws one more layer of soil around the green seedling with her bare hands, and bursts out a big smile. A round-faced 24-year-old, she’s excited about working on her own piece of land at Little Donkey Farm for the second year.
Sitting at the bottom of Phoenix Hill in Beijing, near the dusty West 6th Ring Road, this 130-acre farm has attracted over 1,000 households to rent land and experience agricultural work since 2008. In the last decade, 10,000 people have visited the site, and over 500,000 kilograms of vegetables have been produced.
On average, more than 200 urban families come to Little Donkey Farm regularly every year. Spending a few thousand RMB to rent a 30sqm plot of land, they literally get their hands dirty by doing everything from seeding to fertilizing to picking fresh produce.
Photo credit: Little Donkey Farm
The farm has become a beacon for China’s fledgling Community Supported Agriculture movement, and is attracting an increasingly young crowd of would-be growers.
Randomly pick a farmer in the United States, and there’s a good chance you’ll find somebody in their 60s. According to the latest national survey, the average age for American farmers is 58.3, a figure which has been rising in recent years. In China, farming — especially of the organic, community-supported variety — might be going in the opposite direction.
Beijing’s sprawling urbanization has come with significant costs for farmers on the city’s periphery. The city has sucked away land and talent, and agricultural work often carries little appeal for younger generations in rural areas.
Recognizing the importance of finding new ways of developing agriculture — and developing the countryside – the founders of Little Donkey Farm took over a remote piece of land outside the capital from the government ten years ago. In addition to pairing up farmers and urban dwellers, they have placed food safety and sustainable growth at the center of their operations. They’ve raised chickens and pigs to help create fertilizer, and introduced certain natural methods to control pests rather than using chemical pesticides.
Zhao Wenjuan and her boyfriend Wang Yilong, about to transport some seedlings from a green house to the field. Photo credit: Cici Zhang
Soon after their experiments began, the 2008 toxic milk powder scandal — where excessive levels of melamine were discovered in China-produced milk products — helped garner increased attention for Little Donkey. People wanted to know where their food came from. And one of the best ways to do this is to grow food themselves, without any harmful chemicals.
Essentially a B2C business, this model is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). It also helps to minimize environmental pollution that comes from long-haul transport and fossil fuel burning.
On a CSA farm, farmers and customers work alongside each other, sharing risks and profits, linked by the same plot of land beneath their feet. At Little Donkey Farm, urban dwellers can rent a small piece of land, pay an annual fee up front, and hire additional help if they are too busy to tend to the land themselves. Many bring their kids along, making it an educational experience as well.
A family harvesting fresh vegetables. Photo credit: Little Donkey Farm
Having driven more than 50km to the farm, Ms Chen and her husband are watering their vegetables when I interrupt them on a Sunday afternoon in early April. They started coming to Little Donkey Farm because they wanted their child to experience growing their own food. Now in her sixth year of tending a plot on the farm, Ms Chen says her child has started school and stopped coming. But the parents couldn’t stop. “We’ve developed emotional ties to this land,” she says.
For Huang Zhiyou, a slim, thirty-something gentleman with wind cracked lips who has devoted more than ten years to finding new ways of re-building the countryside, this is exactly the kind of sentiment he hopes to foster. “It’s the land that connects people from the city and people from the villages,” he tells me as we stroll past some of the sparse-looking fenced fields. They will become much more green as the seasons progress.
Huang Zhiyou, manager of Little Donkey Farm. Photo credit: Cici Zhang
As one of the founding members of Little Donkey Farm, Huang hopes in the next ten years CSA farms will be seen in many more small towns besides big cities — and that more Chinese customers will support local producers whenever possible. Since the arrival of CSA in China in 2005, the number of places like Little Donkey Farm has grown to 500. By contrast, according to a 2011 NPR story, there were at least 4,000 CSA farms in the US at the start of this decade.
People come to farms like Little Donkey for a variety of reasons – but nearly all stay. During her time at the farm, Zhao Wenjuan says she has seen, visitors who want to bring their kids closer to nature and to the soil, who were born and grew up in villages and have now enjoy tending to crops in their retirement, and those who have suffered illness and chosen to eat healthy organic foods that they can be confident in the origins of.
Customers checking on their cucumbers. Photo credit: Little Donkey Farm
“Last year I harvested cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, okra, and chili peppers,” Zhao says excitedly. It’s clear she cares deeply about her land and still recalls with perceptible disappointment a time when she was on a business trip and some green-leaved vegetables went left unpicked.
“Seeing seeds become seedlings, which then become fruits, is really rewarding,” she says. “Even watering makes me happy.”
She is not alone. Zhao’s Weibo posts about her land regularly trigger a lot of excitement from her friends, she says, and she’s increasingly being joined by similarly minded young people. Since the initiation of its intern program in 2008, Little Donkey has seen more than 110 college graduates come to learn about this method of agriculture. Huang says interns have been students of agriculture, urban planning, logistics, marketing, and even literature.
In the future Huang also hopes to turn Little Donkey Farm into a base for scientific research and education, even building a hands-on museum to allow people to learn more about CSA. In China, he says, “Many growing up in the city look down on farmers.” As they buy vegetables from well-lit aisles in supermarkets they no longer interact with those responsible for farming and producing these vegetables, which creates a disconnect. By linking people based on food and land, Huang says, CSA is reconnecting a previously broken relationship. “To put it in a simple way, it’s like you have a new family member in the countryside.”
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