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Rebirth of artisanal farming

A
s China moves to industrialize agriculture, one farmer looks to the past.
8 months ago
Michelle Winglee
Farmer Wang checks to see if the corn is ready for harvest. / Photo courtesy of Michelle Winglee

On a farm tucked into a mountainside in Miyun County, about a two-hour drive northeast of Beijing, a former Peking University teacher turned farmer named Wang Qingsong holds out two dark green leaves in his suntanned hands. With the strong accent of China’s central Henan Province, he asks whether I could tell the difference.

The two sweet potato leaves had just been picked: one from his chemical-free farm plot and another from that of a neighbor, who had already sprayed pesticides three times since the start of the season. “The difference lies in these two leaves,” says Wang. “One hurts the earth and hurts your body. They are two different things.”

Standing on a dirt road alongside farm fields, under a blue sky with no traces of the Beijing city pollution, I note how the leaf from his farm feels softer between my fingers and has a shade of deeper green. Wang nods, and explains the fundamental reason behind his decision to leave a prestigious academic job to till the soil: “I went into farming to resolve my own food security needs.”

Farmer Wang holds out two sweet potato leaves. / Courtesy of Michelle Winglee
Farmer Wang holds out two sweet potato leaves. / Photo courtesy of Michelle Winglee

Decades of China’s rapid industrial development have taken its toll on the country’s environment and farmlands. “My favorite place to play when I was five has turned into a trash disposal area,” says Wang about the changes in his hometown. “There used to be fish in the river, but now you can’t see any.”

A study conducted by China’s environmental ministry released in 2014 reported that 20 percent of the country’s farmland was hazardously polluted. And while facing environmental challenges to food safety, China is at a moment of agricultural transition. China’s five-year plan to modernize agriculture looks to industrialize the agriculture sector, promote domestic land reforms to consolidate small farm plots, and support large agricultural enterprises while encouraging farmers to move into cities. Farmer Wang is defying the trend.

Born in the rural Xinyang township to illiterate parents, Wang graduated from China’s most elite university in 1979 with a major in politics. He then pursued studies in law and philosophy while earning a reputation and following as a master in qigong, a traditional Chinese martial art.

For the past 20 years, with the exception of salt, Wang has only eaten food that he has grown himself. Starting with garden plots and farmland owned by his in-laws in Miyun, Wang and his wife, Zhang Mei, also a teacher at Peking University, started growing a few fruits and vegetables, then gradually expanded to livestock and grains.

In 2002, they decided to leave their established careers and urban lifestyle to live on a 340-acre forested mountain near the Miyun Reservoir. Without electricity and ties to society, the couple drank from water trickling down from a nearby rock crevice, and grew their own food using China’s traditional agricultural methods. “We wanted to live in the serenity of nature,” says Zhang, who believes in Chinese lore that mountains hold secrets to spiritual purification, renewal, and longevity.

Ten years later, the couple decided to reengage with society, sending their eight-year-old son who was born in the mountains to school in the city, and starting to sell their sustainable produce. Since leaving their home in the mountains, now primarily for grazing livestock, Wang rents two other nearby plots of about 40 acres under a 50-year contract. Now he grows over 20 different varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains while producing his own soy sauce, vinegar, and even baijiu, a Chinese grain-based wine.

“I only eat what I grow, so I had to expand to all different varieties,” says Wang. “You should watch what the farmer eats,” he advises. “Is he eating his own produce? Is he healthy?” Aside from a visit to the doctor’s office for a certificate needed to establish his son’s Beijing residency, Wang hasn’t been to see a doctor in the past 25 years.

Ms. Zhang recognizes the baby calves that have been left to graze freely on their former mountainside home and are now mothers of their own. / Courtesy of Michelle Winglee
Ms. Zhang recognizes the baby calves that have been left to graze freely on their former mountainside home and are now mothers of their own. / Photo courtesy of Michelle Winglee

While the couple had missed out on the release of the first iPhone and the rise of internet giants like Alibaba, their traditional farming practices were timely — catering to a country undergoing a food safety crisis. Since the 2008 melamine-tainted infant formula scandal that sickened over 50,000 babies, killing six, and reports of high levels of heavy metal cadmium in rice and exploding watermelons pumped with growth hormones, food safety has been a top concern of most Chinese citizens. A 2016 McKinsey study showed that 72 percent of Chinese consumers worry that the food they eat is harmful to their health.

While Wang is not officially organically certified, his produce is set apart by the unpolluted soil that he farms on, a clean source of water, and the practice of closed-loop farming without the use of outside inputs such as chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Livestock, including domestic breeds of cows, goats, and black pigs, are left to graze freely on the mountain or are fed weeds and other leftovers in open pens by the farmhouse. Wang then uses fertilizer from his livestock to grow over 20 different varieties of fruits and vegetables. Using his own fertilizer also provides quality assurance, as “organic” manure fertilizers sometimes contain antibiotics and hormones depending on the way the livestock was raised. Also, while organic produce has been gaining popularity in China, Wang stands out from the growing pool of sustainable farmers for his commitment to using traditional methods. According to Wang, mechanization to grind wheat diminishes nutritional content and qi, a Chinese term for vital energy.

Wang’s Beijing customer base, now over 100 WeChat followers, is continuing to grow. However, having free-ranging cattle and employing a team of local villagers to hand-pick weeds instead of spraying pesticide or herbicides has its costs. Moreover, Wang’s produce sells for about 10 times that of conventional market prices — a limiting factor for most consumers.

Though Wang faces a steep challenge in trying to make traditional practices profitable, often working from sunrise to sunset seven days a week, when he compares himself with others, including peers from Peking University, he is grateful for his life. “Most people pursue money. I pursued health. Though they have a car and a house, they have poor health. Though I wear poor clothes, now I am their teacher.” Wang’s acquaintances and former students frequently call upon him for health advice.

Wang attributes the rise in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, now the top causes of deaths in China, to nutrition problems related to the way food is produced and lifestyles that lack physical activity. Wang knows he cannot change entrenched incentives for farmers to turn to low-cost chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or consumer mindsets about why his type of production method is worth the cost; however, for Wang, the reasons are clear. “What kind of logic is putting in the least possible input to maximize profit when you’re talking about health?”

Wang Xue (no relation), who has been buying produce from Wang for the past two years, didn’t believe in organic food until she was introduced to his farm. “I didn’t trust organic before, but after I tried his produce and had a bite of corn, it reminded me of tastes from my childhood. It’s so sweet!” she exclaims. Her six-year-old daughter, a picky eater, will not eat vegetables other than those grown by Wang. Another mother, who exclusively eats produce from Wang’s farm, remarked that all other produce she ate while pregnant made her feel sick.

Wang Xue and her daughter grind wheat on a traditional stone mill. / Courtesy of Michelle Winglee
Wang Xue and her daughter grind wheat on a traditional stone mill. / Photo courtesy of Michelle Winglee

Wang aspires to teach a younger generation how to develop a taste for what he calls “real food.” Welcoming families with young kids up to the farm to escape city confinements, pollution, and pressures, Wang hopes that the outdoors and simple farm labor can help children and parents reconnect with nature and China’s agricultural past. As for aspirations for his own son, now going to school in Beijing, Wang has no demands for grades or hopes for what he will become. “I just want him to be healthy,” he says.

By Michelle Winglee
Michelle Winglee writes on topics related to China’s environment, agriculture, and energy. She previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before embarking on a year-long Mandarin fellowship in Taipei and Beijing. She now works for the Office of China Affairs at the University of Maryland. You can follow her @MichelleWinglee.
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