Safe veggie: From farm to fork

By Han Qiao & Liu Wei (China Features)

 

Liu Yueming has been a magazine editor in Beijing for years. She moved back to her childhood rural home outside the built-up city one year ago to start a farm.

“It’s all about food safety,” says Liu, 36, a biology graduate at Beijing Normal University. “I don’t trust vegetables sold in the market. I lose my appetite every time I think about how many chemicals are used to grow them. I want to produce some safe vegetables for myself and others.”

The overuse of chemicals in growing vegetables and fruits, which resulted in pesticide-contaminated leeks, toxic bean sprouts and recurring food scandals, has been a major complaint of Chinese consumers in recent years.

Liu is committed to growing safe vegetables without using chemicals. She started her Mayland Farm last spring with three fellow farmers on 10 mu (0.67 hectare) of land in East Yinjiafu village of Shunyi, 50 kilometers northeast of downtown Beijing.

The land, granted by her family, was previously a corn field. Years of applying chemical fertilizer has increased yields, but reduced the soil’s fertility.

The first thing Liu did was to buy cattle manure from a nearby cattle farm to enrich the soil. Six weeks later, she got some exciting discoveries.

“A lot of earthworms!” she recalls. “When I was digging, I could find three to four earthworms per shovel. It was amazing!”

Liu grows sweet potatoes, peanuts, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, spring onions, celery and a few kinds of local green leafy vegetables on her farm.

“The more kinds of vegetables I grow, the fewer risks I have in terms of pest control,” says Liu. “For example, if I couldn’t exterminate the insects on the celery, I would only lose one tenth of my crops at the most.”

Growing up in a farmer’s family and majoring in biology, Liu knows quite a few organic ways of fighting pests. Last spring when she detected aphids on the tomato buds, she collected ashes from the wood-burning stove in her kitchen, soaked them in the water overnight and then sprayed the liquid on the plants. “It worked pretty well. The aphids disappeared one day later.”

“Chili powder, vinegar, and tobacco leaves are also commonly used in pest control,” she says.

However, the most troublesome thing in organic farming is not pests, but weeds, as Liu does not use herbicides. From June to August when weeds are most flourishing, Liu had to hire two more women, weeding nearly eight hours a day.

Liu’s hard work has paid off. Her Mayland Farm now has 60 stuff, three times that of one year ago.

Liu has adopted the idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), under which consumers pay money prior to a planting season and then receive deliveries on a weekly base.

They pay 2,400 yuan for a six-month delivery of a 5-kilo vegetable box or 3,600 yuan for an 8-kilo box. Each box contains about 10 kinds of vegetables.

At Mayland Farm, people can also rent a plot, work in the field once or twice a week and take home whatever they harvest from the land. The farm offers seeds, organic fertilizer and farm tools, and helps members look after their crops when they are not there. This kind of members pay 1,200 yuan to lease a 30-square-meter land.

With membership fee, Liu is less worried about market risks. “In this way, I can feel confident to invest more time and money in the vegetables.”

Liu’s vegetables sell at more than 16 yuan per kilo, more expensive than the average market price, which stands at around 12 to 14 yuan per kilo in winter and five to eight in summer.

Despite the high price, Liu’s farm has drawn increasing attention from the city’s burgeoning middle class, who have become increasingly conscious about food safety.

You Peng, mother of a three-year-old girl, became a member of Mayland Farm last summer.

Early last year, You was shocked to learn from a local farmer that farmers don’t eat vegetables that they grow for sale.  They usually set aside a garden in their courtyards to plant vegetables exclusively for their own kitchens.

You acted immediately to look for safer vegetables, and after visiting Mayland, she put in an order to buy produce from the farm.

Throughout the country, CSA farms are growing in number and size as the country’s middle-class rise. The number of CSA farms serving more than 200 members stands at around 150, according to figures from the Second National CSA Forum held last November.

Wen Tiejun, Dean of the School of Agriculture and Rural Development of Renmin University, believes CSA creates an optimistic space for China’s underdeveloped sustainable agriculture.

China, though boasting a long agrarian history, has seen its agriculture tainted with excessive chemical fertilizers and pesticides for the past decades.

According to China’s first official national census of pollution sources released in 2010, agriculture, responsible for more than two thirds of phosphorus and half of nitrogen discharges, caused more pollution than industry in China.

Wen says consumers are willing to believe in CSA farms probably because the farms are all in nearby suburbs, where they can go and meet growers. And people who rent a plot on the farm are there for on-site supervision.

As for Liu’s farm, the potential customer base is increasing. Yet, she is not in a hurry to seek more orders. She plans to raise chickens, grow some fruit trees and flowers this year.

“The more species there are in a farm, the more resilient and stable the ecosystem is likely to be,” Liu says.

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