By Matthew A. Hale
Photos by Jane Zawadowski
It's early in the morning, and Mr. Gao and his son are making their rounds. In a small green cargo truck, they go from shop to residential community to university gate, leaving bags of fresh produce to be picked up later in the day by their customers—mainly white-collar workers and teachers—on their way home.
The Gaos and their truck came from Anlong village (安龙村), Pi County. They're not a veggie version of Santa Claus but part of an effort of eight households that provide organic food for about 120 families in Chengdu. The co-op was founded as part of a pilot project initiated by the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association to decrease pollution from villages along the upper reaches of Chengdu's rivers.
The Chengdu Urban Rivers Association is an NGO spun off from the Chengdu government's 10-year project to clean up Chengdu's rivers. In 2003, Tian Jun, a key figure in the river project, teamed up with Sichuan University environmental-science professor Ai Nanshan to determine why the rivers remained polluted after the city had updated sewage facilities and industrial-waste management. They determined that roughly 60 percent of the pollution came from villages upstream, mainly in the form of agro-chemicals.
Although China once had one of the world's most sophisticated systems of intensive organic farming, several decades of agricultural modernization under small-scale household management has led to the highest usage of inorganic fertilizer per hectare in the world, with yield per unit of fertilizer declining annually.
Besides polluting water and soil and making China's farmers increasingly dependent on the market for petroleum-based inputs, reported poisoning by agro-chemicals reached 100,000 cases annually in 1993, to say nothing of the indirect effects of such chemicals on the health of consumers.
Organic Certification vs. Producer-Consumer Relationship
In order to counter these trends, the Chinese government set up the Organic Food Development Center in 1994. But it's difficult for most of China's small-scale farmers to obtain certification, and the market for such expensive produce is limited. As a result, some Chinese farmers are beginning to circumvent the certified organic market and establish direct relationships of trust and mutual aid with urban consumers.
In 2005, CURA approached the leaders of Anlong village, who helped them to organize a meeting with households interested in the project. About 20 households expressed interest. Since their farming had mainly been for household use (their cash coming largely from urban labor and business—as in most Chinese villages), at first they didn't focus on the question of marketing their produce as organic. Instead, CURA mainly provided advice and organized workshops about techniques for organic farming and household-waste treatment, and, with funding from the government and private foundations, helped to pay for equipment such as methane stoves and special composting toilets.
Two years later, 11 households declared themselves the "Quan Riverbank Natural Farming Co-op" (全家河坝自然农业合作社), after the hamlet in Anlong where they reside.
Healthful Vegetable Delivery
The term "co-op" denoted the common ideal of going organic and helping to clean up the environment as well as the sharing of skills and experiences in this project, said member Gao Yicheng. But with the difficulties of going organic and fairly coordinating responsibilities and compensating members, seven households dropped out within the first few months. Another chose to distribute its produce independently.
Eventually four more households joined the original delivery team, bringing the number back up to seven. These farmers describe the project as "urban-rural mutual aid" (城乡互助), and when it comes to the official name of their operation, they now simply say "Healthful Vegetable Delivery" (健康蔬菜陪送).
Partly because they don't have official certification, the farmers have shunned the word "organic" in their name. A few years ago they pursued certification, but now at least some of them have decided it seems unnecessary, and they are trying to create a direct and multi-faceted relationship with a group of urban families that they hope will transcend the demeaning and one-dimensional logic of the market.
All vegetables are priced the same, regardless of type, season, or place of pick-up. And this price—currently four yuan per jin—is sufficient for the farmers to gradually expand their operations without loans, which means they're slightly better off financially than they would be with conventional farming alone. This is important considering that several young adults sacrificed their urban jobs to return to the village and help out with the project.
Spreading the Word
The farmers are also trying to enrich their relationships with consumers through hosting them as guests, teaching them to do farmwork, and holding open-house events. The Chengdu Urban Rivers Association published a blog and a monthly paper newsletter, Green Life (绿色生活), which reported on these events alongside recipes and other information related to sustainable living.
In late 2007, a group of foreign and local students helped set up a monthly organic market—first at the Bookworm, then at Lotus on the Water vegetarian restaurant—at which the farmers exhibited their produce alongside other organic foods brought in from other parts of China by the Chengdu Green Consumers' Alliance (绿色消费者联盟). The fair and the newsletter discontinued this year, mainly due to lack of consumer support and competition from commercial organic food companies, but the farmers continue to hold events in Anlong.
These efforts, through small-scale and voluntary cooperation among rural households in collaboration with urbanites, to clean up the environment, combat deleterious effects of China's development, and reconstruct the urban-rural relationship, are hallmarks of China's alternative rural development movement, sometimes referred to as New Rural Reconstruction (新乡村建设). This NGO-based movement emerged around 2002 through the convergence of several dozen left-leaning academics and grassroots activists concerned with the dissolution of China's rural communities since the 1990s.
Over the years, numerous projects such as the Anlong co-op have taken shape through the direct or indirect influence of New Rural Reconstruction: Although CURA originally intended the Anlong project to be a simple matter of decreasing pollution, both villagers and CURA volunteers learned of experiments elsewhere and came to see their project as part of this broader movement.
Like many of the projects associated with New Rural Reconstruction, the Anlong project isn't based on any blueprint, and it's shaped by local conditions and idiosyncrasies. For example, the most active family in the co-op, the Gaos (see sidebar), are home practitioners of Buddhism (居士), so while the project resonates with their beliefs, those beliefs also reshaped the project.
The co-op's relationship with consumers was in part established through Chengdu's Buddhist community, with the Buddhist-run Lotus on the Water near Wenshu Temple serving as a drop-off point and venue for events, as well as housing an affiliated "green life" library. And the co-op has found support and inspiration from the larger Buddhist community in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Experiments like this have been springing up throughout China over the past few years—in part through the influence of the Hong Kong-based Partnership for Community Development—but also, as in Chengdu, through local innovation in response to the universal pressures of "development" and the increasing dominance of a one-dimensional market logic over all spheres of rural and urban life. Among the hundreds of projects that could be considered part of China's alternative rural-development movement, similar food-centered experiments exist in Guizhou, Guangxi, Guangdong, Beijing, and Henan, and there are probably more. But the long-term results of such experiments remain to be seen.
Matthew (email@example.com) is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Washington currently researching the New Rural Reconstruction movement and the contestation of "development" in rural Sichuan and Guizhou.
Can Do in Chengdu: a family experience
Get Your Greens with the Gaos
I'm in China six weeks and already missing my organic veggies, farmers markets and relationships with my farmers back home. I've got three kids, aged 6 and under, and the pressure's on to find them some organic food.
Enter our trip to the Gao family farm, one in the community of households who comprise the Healthful Vegetable Delivery service. During a stay there, visitors learn about the processes of natural farming and, if the occasion arises, may join in seasonal farm work.
Upon our arrival, we meandered down a rose- and tree-lined lane and entered a modest courtyard where sturdy baskets held squashes, eggplants, and green and red okra. Soybeans hung up to dry. Trellises with chayotes dangled beckoningly. My children delighted in "discovering" the pomelos hanging lusciously from tree branches.
All this is not just for show: A large part of the visit entails preparing the food for a delicious home-cooked meal, and the Gaos' ability to feed a crowd is matched only by their guests' ability to savor the delicious, home-style meals. Devout Buddhists, the Gaos eat and serve vegetarian meals: sweet potatoes, warmed peanuts, shimmering tofu with sesame paste, sweet-potato greens, soup with okra, mushrooms and chayote, home-pickled greens and chilies; hearty, wheat- and bean-based mock meats garnished with green onion; tender eggplant, and their own brown rice.
Although we saw the struggles of going organic—vegetables that in some areas had fallen susceptible to pests—we also saw the composting piles and learned to use the special toilet that filters out waste before it enters the water table. My kids reconnected with nature, playing with big sticks and marveling at huge spiders while I photographed flowers in bloom. Later, we were served tea with mint my boys helped pick. Gao Qingrong flashed her broad smile and showed me how to chop the vegetables and seitan ("wheat meat") while my boys scooped it into bowls and helped feed the wood-fired stove. In the evening, we winnowed rice together.
Best of all, we were able to sign up to receive semi-weekly shares. Vegetable delivery is Tuesdays and Fridays at various locations in and around Chengdu. We receive 5 jin (2.5 kilograms) that, at RMB4 per jin, cost us RMB20 per delivery. Now if we can just learn to cook like the Gaos.
For more information on visiting and/or dining with the family, or signing up for vegetable delivery, contact Gao Yicheng at 13194990983 (Chinese only) or Matthew Hale at firstname.lastname@example.org (English).
Directions: From Jinsha Station in Chengdu, take bus line 320 to the Pixian Long-Distance Coach Station (郫县客运中心). From there, take bus line 705 (not 705q) to Tiantai Shipin Chang (天台食品厂), where the Gaos can meet you beside the road. Bring mosquito repellant during mosquito season.
Jane Zawadowski arrived in China in summer 2009. When she's not teaching English at Xihua University, she teaches her children about China and the world, learning just as much herself along the way.