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January 26, 2010

Growing China's local food movement

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China this week.

Tonight I had dinner with two rising stars of the Chinese sustainable agriculture movement, Cheng Cunwang and Shi Yan. Cheng was in the U.S. last fall as a guest of IATP, and he and Shi Yan have just finished translating Elizabeth Henderson’s classic Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Support Agriculture, into Chinese. While in the U.S., Cheng made a pilgrimage to upstate New York to visit Ms. Henderson, and we talked about cooperating on an event to celebrate the launch of the Chinese edition later this spring.

Shi Yan is a graduate student at Renmin (People’s) University who we invited to spend a season working on a CSA farm in Minnesota in 2008. Her blogging about the experience caused a sensation in China, partly due to her infectious enthusiasm about farming and life in rural America, and partly because of the novelty of an intellectual traveling all the way to the U.S. to become a peasant. On her return, Shi Yan promptly started her own CSA, called Little Donkey Farm, on a patch of land in suburban Beijing.

Over dinner, she told me about the challenges of the farm’s first year and plans for this coming summer. Overall, last year was a success, and Shi Yan’s farm has proved as popular with the media as her blog from America was. (You can read out translation of a Chinese feature story on the farm here.) But there were problems, ranging from bugs and more bugs (Shi Yan and her fellow student farmers have limited training in organic pest control) to a local government that would rather sell the land to developers than have it occupied by a scruffy-looking farm. She got some help from the well-connected Dean of her school on the land-use issues, but it sounded like she was still worried about the bugs. Even her newfound celebrity has its downside. A passionate spokesperson for both organic farming and fair prices for “peasants,” Shi Yan has been taken aside more than once by owners of organic food companies who tell her Little Donkey’s low prices make them look bad and she talks too much about the rights of farmers.

As Little Donkey’s fame grew, all sorts of other CSAs, pseudo-CSAs and businesses who thought they had spotted a branding opportunity started to come out of the woodwork. Many wanted to use the Little Donkey name, and one company wanted to list Little Donkey on the Shanghai stock exchange. (This is more a reflection of the current go-go economy here than anything else, but still!) They decided to turn down most of the offers, but as soon as all three hundred of their own CSA shares for 2010 are sold, they will be referring people to two other farms that they think really do share Little Donkey’s CSA and sustainable farming principles. Meanwhile, she told me, she is providing advice to others all over China who want to replicate Little Donkey’s model.

The speed with which this idea is catching on in China is astounding, exhilarating and a little frightening, given the many ways that a good idea can get twisted into its opposite. It is in part a reflection of the anxiety of Chinese consumers about food safety and their wish to have more control over their food supply. But it’s also just one of a number of farmer responses to an agricultural economy in which more and more control is in the hands of agribusiness and farmers’ rights to organize into cooperatives to defend their economic rights are severely constrained. IATP’s China coordinator, Chang Tianle, and I are doing research on CSA and other related forms of direct marketing that should be out later this spring.

Jim Harkness

Ben Lilliston

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