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Organic Farming in Urban China: Reflections from a Study Tour

by Stephen Couling on 22nd July 2012

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In my imagination (perhaps childhood memories too) Chinese farming is all about small farms, terraced rice paddies, and lots of pak choi, all done in the most traditional, care-for-earth ways. Lots of manure, crop rotation, ducks and chickens, with men and women bent over hand tools wearing woven conical hats out in green fields.

The famous Chinese market gardens of south-western Sydney, Australia, of the early twentieth century spring to mind. It all looked so healthy, so fresh, and so good. Alas – that may once have been the case, but no more it seems. China, that wonderful, complicated, ancient, huge, diverse land, is undergoing massive changes and not all for the good. Even on a cool morning the air in Beijing hangs heavy and grey with smog. Out in the suburbs the canalised river is black and grey, and oozes filth – paper and plastic litter gleam dully amongst the reeds. A few dead fish float white and bloated.


Yet, all is not so terrible. Signs of a healthier, cleaner and greener China are around us. We are walking, one morning, from the bus stop some way north of the Summer Palace in Beijing to visit Little Donkey Farm, a 15 Hectare organic, open-field operation set up in 2008 in Houshajian West Village in the Haidian District in north-west Beijing. Here is Beijing’s first-ever Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme. It also had partnerships with the Haidian District Agriculture and Forestry Ministry and the Renmin University School of Agricultural, Economics and Rural Reconstruction Department. The stated mission here is “to include agriculture in the tertiary industry of culture and heritage through mobilising not just farmers, but citizens, NGOs, and governments to join the sustainable agricultural movement.” Little Donkey also seeks to use international experience to build “civic agriculture and cooperative sustainable agriculture.” And so here we are – doing just that; and shortly after we arrive from Australia, a group of Californian students join us; and so off we go on our tour.

About half the farm is given over to large plots currently growing cabbages, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and white daikon radishes. These are farmed by locals and sold into the CSA. There are also plots here for people to rent and grow their own – in England these are called ‘allotments’. They range in size from 30 to 60 square metres, and are models of intensive growing amid a host of bamboo structures.

Our hosts are a pair of young Chinese – Michael and Li – articulate, passionate, and immensely personable; proud too of the achievements of the farm, and rightly so. It seems to be to be a model of what small-scale, intensive, community supported food growing should be.

We spend the morning there, walking around the plots and fields, questioning why the pigs are in pens and not in the field (and then convinced that these happy pigs on deep litter are doing alright, as space does not allow for them to roam in this small suburban farm), marvelling at the forest of bamboo supports, and then eating a tasty lunch before a long walk off to the home of one of Little Donkey’s supporters.


This is the second organic farm we have seen in China. The first, BioFarm in Shanghai, was quite different. It lies in the Pudong New District, not far from the airport and in the eastern suburbs. Started in 2004 it is Shanghai’s oldest organic farm. At 100 acres/30Ha this is a sizeable farm out in the suburban sprawl. As with Little Donkey Farm, BioFarm has links with the local university – in this case the Organic Agriculture and Organic Food Institute of Nanjing Agricultural University. And BioFarm has another claim to fame – it set up the first organic seed-saving operation in China and now has nearly 20 varieties suitable for local sustainable growing. They also supply seeds to schools with gardens and support an on-farm education program.

Here most of the growing is done in poly-tunnels. These are long tunnels of metal framing covered in polythene sheeting. This is a cheaper form of glasshousing. Shanghai’s urban sprawl greatly affects the climate. Summers can get hot, and the winters come with cold winds. Then there is air pollution (we went up the tallest tower in Shanghai and, looking down in the late afternoon light, our horizon in the smog had shrunk to just a kilometre). The poly-tunnels at BioFarm covered a vast area; and at the entrance stood an impressive glasshouse.

It seemed to be a quiet day – indeed I wondered if there were really enough workers to support this large area. But my question was apt – the workers come early in the morning in the cool of the morning. How sensible; of course. It was us who were out in the (relative) heat of the day.

Through the middle of BioFarm ran a canalised river which, in contrast to that we saw by Little Donkey farm, looked clean. Wildlife abounded; the ducks looked healthy; the chickens were certainly happy; the goats – well their pen seemed a bit small to me, although a nanny and her two kids were allowed to wander the paths.

BioFarm feels like a good place and one with heart. The golden Buddhist shrine in the centre of the farm seemed to radiate peace and tranquility. Our gently smiling host reflected all of this.

We had come to BioFarm fresh from the organic trade fair BioFach China (an international trade fair for all things organic. Originating in Nuremberg, there are BioFach Trade Fairs in the USA, South America, China, Japan and India). My expectations were low; they were well exceeded. Here was a thoroughly professional, high-standard show of about 190 stands, showing all kinds of produce and products. There was even a couple from South Australia selling organic honey. What struck me was the young age of most of the presenters; that and their passion for organics. This is a small but rapidly growing movement in China – with issues I will explain shortly.

Three of the biggest stalls here were Shanghai Organics, Tony’s Farm and Just Organics on Chonqing Island. Just Organics looked like a vast greenhouse; Shanghai Organics was also largely under glass; and Tony’s Farm used poly-tunnels extensively. It’s worth looking at their websites – especially Tony’s Farm. Climate control under cover makes for dependable harvests. But it also prevents the energising weather from stimulating soil life. We were left wondering how the long-term future of the soil and plants will fare under this industrial-scale operation.

Farmer’s Markets are a new thing in China – in Beijing, one co-ordinator, Tianle Chang, has to find a new venue for her market each month. Our visit to Beijing coincided with the market’s Saturday opening, so we went along. Not a large affair – about 30 stalls – but it had all the hallmarks of Farmer’s Markets I generally visit in Australia. Fresh produce, products made only with fresh and organic ingredients (Tianle is hot on this) and a few other more general stalls which added flair to the whole event. It lasted only four hours but the produce sold out. Again, this was a young and enthusiastic crowd. Tianle herself is something of a dynamo. No sooner had I met her and explained that we were students on a study tour of organics in China, than she was arranging for us to talk to a group of farmers the following night.

Actually this was the highlight of our trip. Our tutor from the National Environment Centre – NEC (near Albury, Australia) led our presentation in a brand new organic restaurant in central Beijing. A lively evening amongst over 30 stall holders and other interested folk confirmed the spirit behind the fledgling organic movement in China. We came away with a long contact list. There will be more trips to China with the NEC.

Post study tour reflections and reading, I found an interesting article in China Dialogue. Big business is getting in on the act. Indeed, in 2010 Tony’s Farm received an investment of US$10 million – and in the same year made a profit of US$8 million. Other national and international firms are funnelling considerable funds into organic farming. Some think this is smart given a number of recent scandals in the Chinese food industry have scared people. On the one hand, anything that promotes organic farming must be good; on the other hand venture capitalists will want a return – and a culture of corruption is still alive and well.

Big business will also demand economy of scale – indeed the Chinese government has been doing the same since the Cultural Revolution of 1948. We were told by our Little Donkey Farm guide that the government sets production quotas for farmers – and if they don’t achieve them, they lose their land. With this they are reclassified as ‘citizens’ and, once a citizen, always a citizen. They are not allowed to return to the land, which causes considerable grief.

This is a great dichotomy in China. Amazing things can be achieved in their controlled system. We saw miles of new tree plantings along the roads out of Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. There is an acute awareness of environmental damage and a visible will to repair. At the same time, if the government requires land for some other purpose (read factory, power station, city) there is no compensation. In Australia, farmers losing land to mining concerns do at least have the freedom to object – it seems to me, though, that the end result is the same under both regimes… and ours is called ‘Democracy’.


And yet, and yet, and yet… I thought our study tour in China would be circumscribed, limited in what we could see and with whom we could talk. There was none of that. My overall impression of China is actually very positive. But maybe that was partly because we stayed in three cities of international significance and reputation. There was not time, nor budget, to venture out into the country and see the different conditions there. What we did see was immensely encouraging.

We who are involved in organic agriculture should watch China with interest. The Western fascination with these varied and extraordinary cultures that make up that vast country seems to be inexhaustible. I am glad I went there.

This post was written by

avatar Stephen Couling is the first Market Gardener at Milkwood Permaculture. He kept a weekly Blog of the adventure of starting a new organic market garden there from August 2011. He is also completing a Certificate IV in Organic Agriculture through TAFE NSW (Riverina Institute) through the National Environment Centre (NEC). This study tour of Organic Farming in China was organised through the NEC and funded by the Australian Federal Government.

Stephen has written 1 posts on Post Growth Institute.


avatar Kate Cooper August 2, 2012 at 04:12

I’ve added mention of the Beijing and the Shanghai urban farm initiatives here after reading this blogpost:

I hope that’s OK with you.

avatar Linda October 20, 2012 at 17:52

Thank you so much for sharing your experience … there has been a lot of negative sharing about foods coming from China, especially berries.

I guess we need to keep on doing our homework.

Kind regards Linda

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