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September 10, 2008

China Meets Lou T Fisk

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I drove out to Western Minnesota to check in on Ms. Shi Yan. She has been working at the Earthrise Farm, an organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, since early April, as part of IATP’s ongoing relationship with the School of Agriculture and Rural Development at People’s University in China. Shi Yan’s blog posts (read translated posts here) have been wonderful. She opens a window not only into the everyday life of a CSA farm but also into the heart of a young Chinese woman from a city of 20 million coming to the U.S. for the first time and finding herself on a farm. Reading the blog, it seemed that Shi Yan had fallen in love with this doubly foreign environment, but I had enough experience with farm work and Chinese politeness to worry that she might be having a harder time than she let on.

Lou_t_fisk_5Pulling into the driveway of Earthrise Farm around supper time, I was dismayed to see broken trees, damaged crops and big piles of brush and tree limbs scattered around the yard. A big storm had come through a few days before, with hail and 90 m.p.h. winds, and although no one was hurt, it clearly hit the farm hard. One casualty of the storm was Lou T Fisk (see right), the town mascot of Madison, MN. (pop. 1654). A Norwegian-American community worthy of A Prairie Home Companion, Madison calls itself the Lutefisk capitol of the world, and old timers still say, “Takk,” instead of, “Thanks.”

After exchanging greetings, Nick, one of the full-time farm managers at Earthrise, said, “We have just been dealing with downed trees and other storm damage for the past few days. Tomorrow’ll be the first time we can actually get back into the fields.”

Shi Yan came up and gave me a big, un-Chinese hug. She looked right at home in work clothes, with an armful of vegetables she had picked for supper. She was happy to see the Chinese ingredients I had brought from Minneapolis, but quickly put them aside and joined in with the meal preparation. I got an introduction to the farm from Nick and Joan (the other manager) over supper, and met the other intern, Emma.

Only after dinner, back at the small farmhouse where the interns sleep, was I able to talk with Shi Yan alone about her experience. And to my relief, she was just as excited about organic, community-supported agriculture in person as she had been in her blog posts. She spoke with admiration about the kindness and dedication of the Fernholz Sisters, founders of Earthrise; the hard-working Nick and Joan; and her friendships with her fellow interns, one of whom had already left for school. It has been a momentous summer back in China, with the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake and the triumphant Olympic Games in Beijing, but thanks to the internet Shi Yan has been in touch with her boyfriend and family almost daily.

Above all, organic farming has been a revelation to her. She described her plans for managing a CSA farm on a plot of land owned by her university in Beijing’s northern suburbs, how she would use student labor and get organic certification and sell vegetables on campus. And she asked about visiting farmers’ markets and grocery co-ops when she comes to Minneapolis on her way back to China, in October.

Weeding_5 When I asked what she liked most about working at Earthrise, she beamed and said, “Weeding.” 

It was wonderful to see how Shi Yan has taken to rural Minnesotan life, and how the people of Chippewa County have taken to her. Thanks to the rarity of Chinese nationals in those parts, and a long profile of her in the local paper, Shi Yan is a bit of a local celebrity, but she is also clearly well-liked by those who have met her.  When we visited another farm, a local Fair Trade coffeeshop or a County Board meeting, people already knew her and there were always hugs all around.

Pakistani_farmer In tiny Rogers, MN (pop. 194), Shi Yan met a kindred spirit, a Pakistani-American gardener raising the Asian vegetable bitter gourd (see right).

As we weeded the storm-damaged pumpkins and carrots at the farm, Shi Yan would look up and wave at every pickup that rumbled past. (And they’d wave back.) This last point might not sound odd to most readers, but take my word for it: it’s not standard operating procedure in China. Social relationships there are more formalized, and there is a much sharper distinction between people you have a relationship with and strangers. (Hence the incredibly strong Chinese family unit and gracious spirit of hospitality to guests on one hand and the regular spectacle of shoving matches or fights between strangers waiting at ticket windows or bus stops on the other.)

Intellectually, Shi Yan is getting more focused on the comparative research that she will take back with her, honing in on the aspects of her American sustainable farming experience that are and are not relevant to small farmers back home in China. But her summer as a Minnesota farmer has also been a wonderful cultural exchange that I think neither she nor the people of Chippewa County will soon forget.

Jim Harkness

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