Farmer Boy, Farmer Girl: Allotment Farming in China

Meet the delightfully friendly Farmer Xi Hu Li, who at nearly seventy years of age has two things to show for a life of hard work - a neat little half-acre farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, and a pair of very fancy silver teeth.

He's a quietly spoken man, well shy of five feet tall with a soft weathered face and a ready smile, but completely mystified as to why a foreign woman, myself, would suddenly show up in one of his greenhouses. He is far too polite to make a fuss about it though.

I'll have to go back a few steps to explain how I came to be in his greenhouse. Every time I travel by road or train out of Shanghai I see hundreds of tiny farms, often with rows of arched plastic-covered greenhouses crammed like sardines on the city's outskirts. I wanted and meet some of these small plot farmers and see what their life is like, how they farm, and where they sell the food they grow. 

The constant scaremongering in China about food safety gets a bit tiring, and everyone seems to live and eat in a state of perpetual alarm-readiness. What's on the blacklist today? Yesterday someone told me that strawberries sold in Shanghai are injected with sugar solution to make them sweeter and heavier. What? Where does the truth lie? I wanted to see farming in action for myself but until recently I had no idea how to even meet any farmers, let alone wangle an invite back to their farms.

Then I had a lucky break - when I went to Mr Xu's metal workshop recently I noticed it was smack bang in the middle of a village of small farms, and after taking his portrait he agreed to lend me one of his staff, Little Chen, to meet the local farmers of San Tuan village this week.

The chosen day dawned grey and dismal - pouring with rain, feezing cold and windy, with bouts of sleet. A sunny day would have been lovelier but this is the reality of farming - you have to go to work in any weather. 

Little Chen thought we should go to the local market first to find the farmers, who would be there selling their wares, and we could hopefully coerce one or two into showing us their farms.

The first farmer I met was Dong Ai Xian, selling baby celery so fresh there was still earth clinging to the roots. The seventy year old mother of four children goes to market at four in the morning three days a week, earning 50 yuan a day ($8) selling the vegetables she grows herself. It's very little money, and the days are long but she says every bit helps.

On the other side of the market I met a row of women selling vegetables, all local farmers, and among them the very shy Feng Wu Bao, who for reasons still unknown to me agreed to take Little Chen and I back to her farm for the morning and meet her husband Xi Hu Li who was mending their greenhouse. I wish you could have seen the hastily suppressed look of surprise on his face when we turned up!

Feng Wu Bao and Xi Hu Li have a traditional zi liu di farm - a small allotment assigned to individual families at the close of the Cultural Revolution, derived from the breakdown of large communal farms. All the farms in this area are run on the same basis and are small, no more than an acre each. The farms can be handed down from generation to generation but can't be bought or sold.

Farmers Feng and Xi, like all their neighbours, grow vegetables and raise ducks and chickens for their own use, and for their children and grandchildren too, with any surplus taken to market to sell. Because their family are all eating the food they grow their foremost concern is that the food be safe, and for this reason they don't use any pesticides or herbicides, and the only fertilizer utilized is the manure and straw mulch from their duck pen. 

They've farmed this way for over forty years, growing only what's in season, with the only nod to modernity being the construction of an arched plastic-covered greenhouse in which there is a healthy crop of tomatoes thriving. Greenhouse farming helps them conserve water and prevents crop loss due to birds and pests.

Although they might not be familiar with the term 'organic' these farmers have, in fact, been using organic farming principles for a very long time.

Back at their house, I poke around the chicken pen, the duck pen, the storage shed and the tool shed. Not a skerrick of chemicals anywhere. By now, Feng's best friend and neighour has popped around to see what's going on. There are smiles and giggles all round as these sixty-somethings share a private joke and have their photo taken.

To be honest, I feel quite elated myself - despite the sleet, the mud, and the miserable grey skies I feel very optimistic that there are many, many farms like this one all over China, not organic, no, but clean, well-cared for and chemical free. It's nice to know the next time I go to my wet market I can ask: 

你自己种得吗?Nǐ zìjǐ zhòng de ma? Did you grow this yourself?

As I leave Feng presses a bowl of the palest blue duck eggs into my hands, for my family. They're practically the loveliest things I've ever seen.

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