Can Young Chinese Farm?

Sacha Cody first visited China in 1999 and he has lived, studied and worked there since 2002. He has worked with a global brand research consultancy, and is now a PhD candidate in anthropology. His research is focussed on the organic farming movement in and around Shanghai.—The Editors

Exemplary Agriculture and the Future of Sustainable Farming in China

‘What happens when we’re all dead?’ Old Chen, one of the regular workers at Chuantong Farm, asked me as we sat talking one December afternoon in 2013. Chuantong Farm is about ten minutes from the town of Deqing in Zhejiang province. It is one of my field sites. Despite the blue sky and a bright sun, it was piercing cold as winter advanced.

Chuantong Farm was set up by Liu Shan two years ago. Liu Shan is one of many small-scale farmers new to agriculture across China. Since giving up his city life and successful retail business in Shanghai, he has been practicing traditional farming (传统农业), foregoing chemical input and offering urban customers safe and quality food.

A farmers market in Shanghai (May 2014). Image by Sacha Cody.

A farmers’ market in Shanghai (May 2014). Photo by Sacha Cody.

Old Chen’s comments echoed across the field we were working on. A rural farmer all his life, sixty-four year old Chen was lamenting about the uncertain future of farming in China. He was pessimistic about whether there would be people who knew how to actually work the fields once his generation has either retired or passed away. He was fiddling with the pile of goat manure we were fertilising the field with, a finger conspicuously absent, no doubt because of a machine accident from years ago. He continued, lashing out at China’s young generation: ‘They sleep in until ten a.m. and even later. What kind of work can they do?’ (他们干什么活呢)?

I was startled by his sharp tone. The plight of rural communities across China, which have witnessed an exodus as young Chinese have left their villages to become part of China’s vast migrant population, is well known. Few still farm in rural communities across China. Those that do are old and tired. I was also moved by his expression of helplessness concerning what will become of the land and soil, to which his emotional connection was evident and deep. He spoke with passion about having toiled in this area of Zhejiang province all his life.

Chuantong Farm in Zhejiang, practicing traditional agriculture (December 2013). Photo by Sacha Cody.

Chuantong Farm in Zhejiang, practicing traditional agriculture (December 2013). Photo by Sacha Cody.

In my first few weeks at Chuantong Farm I thought I was the only volunteer. Then Liu Shan showed me the emails he had received from other people who like me were interested in working on the farm as volunteers. Some of these people turned up later though they never stayed very long. The increase in volunteers at Chuantong Farm and other similar farms is in fact part of a wider trend. Today, Chinese of all ages, with young people being in the majority, want to be involved in agriculture. While new farmers such as Liu Shan are certainly more visible, there are in fact many people active in what I call exemplary agriculture.

This is a philosophy and approach to agriculture that emphasises sustainable farming techniques. Its advocates profess a heartfelt nostalgic appreciation for China’s agrarian history and the depth of indigenous knowledge about farming. Their discourse revolves around the idea of huigui (回归, literally ‘to return’ to the past), and they seek ultimately to spread their ideas to others. They see themselves as Chinese consumer-citizens equipped with the right approach and attitude to farming. The field of exemplary agriculture has developed out of new farmers and sometimes local governments working in collaboration with volunteers. This hybrid economy is one that I have witnessed, observed and participated in since beginning my ethnographic fieldwork in 2012, spending extended time with a group of new farmers in and around Shanghai.

Recently the number of training programs designed to introduce Chinese to farming has increased. For example, a community supported agriculture (CSA) (社区支持农业) training was held in Beijing in March this year. This was the third CSA training workshop, following two workshops in 2013. Later in April, an inaugural week-long program was run focused on natural farming (自然农法). Along with dozens of others, I attended both as a student.

The CSA training was sponsored by Little Donkey Farm (小毛驴农场), a model sustainable farm on the outskirts of Beijing, established in the late 2000’s. It has close connections with Wen Tiejun 温铁军, a well-known intellectual and government advisor who has been instrumental in promoting the interests of China’s rural communities. The natural farming training program in April was jointly organised by the Qiandaohu county level government and a Buddhist group called The Centre for the Promotion of Natural Farming (自然农法推广中心). Qiandaohu, or Thousand Islands Lake, is a large national park and protected nature area in Zhejiang province. The county government, buoyed by the state discourse of balanced development, has sought to test the viability of natural farming in the Qiandaohu wilderness. The Buddhist group is responsible for carrying out the actual farming.

CSA and natural farming differ in philosophy and agricultural approach. CSA is open to support any sustainable farming technique and is aimed at community and customer involvement; natural farming has its origins in Japan and is modelled on the ‘do-nothing’ (i.e. inaction) and ‘learn from nature’ movement of the late Masanobu Fukuoka. Both have received local or county level government interest in the form of funding, sponsorship, and endorsement for their potential to involve more Chinese in agriculture. Official interest in such training programs is also due to their potential to make rural communities once again attractive as locations for migrant workers to return to and live and work. This development, ironically, has come at a time when the official discourse is concerned with promoting large-scale industrial agriculture that relies on chemical input for much of its efficiency.

Training for both CSA and natural farming is based on a kind of rural literacy. Participants are taught to appreciate China’s rich agrarian heritage and the relevance of this heritage in today’s modern urban risk society. The CSA training was very direct in this regard: each morning different students would share what they had learned and reflect on how their attitudes toward Chinese rural farmers had changed. It was not uncommon to hear genuine empathy from urbanites for the rural Chinese whom they had previously looked down on as somehow inadequate and ill prepared for the modern society that China had become. Part of the training involved watching CCTV programs that seemed critical of the behavior of rural farmers. This TV viewing was followed by small group discussions in which we would critically dissect the program’s representation of rural Chinese and present a counter argument from the farmer’s perspective. At least four times a day we would break to sing rural songs and discuss their meaning. One of the favourite songs in my group was called The Farmer’s Song (农夫歌) of which the last line was ‘Without farmers, who can survive?’ (没有农夫谁能过天地间?)

CSA training and sharing session (March 2014). Photo by Sacha Cody.

CSA training and sharing session (March 2014). Photo by Sacha Cody.

The natural farming training was more subtle. The emphasis was on preparing one’s heart and mind for the task of learning from nature and distancing oneself from preconceived notions that humans are somehow better than and capable of controlling nature. As Masanobu Fukuoka, widely regarded as the founder of the natural farming movement, says in his well-known work The One-Straw Revolution, ‘Ultimately, it is not the growing technique which is the most important, but rather the state of mind of the farmer’ (2009: 46). Thus, discussions in this training program revolved around problems encountered while working on the farm. We were asked to reflect on these problems in relation to our emotional state (e.g. ‘my crop is not growing, is it because my mood is wrong?’). Discussing specific techniques of farming came second to more general discussions about the need for self-reflection and for sharing personal experiences about farming. There was a pervasive sense of people embarking on a journey toward spiritual enlightenment and self-cleansing. This approach, as it was explained to me, would allow one to enter rural communities in China with the right attitude. One would then be able to learn from rural Chinese farmers rather than, as is common now, adopt a superior attitude by advising them on what they need to do to ‘modernise’ themselves.

I had anticipated my participation in the training programs to consist of days of toil and sweat in the field, digging, planting, pruning, weeding, and so forth. I had imagined that we would learn the essentials of farming, balanced with a few days of classroom discussions about basic approaches. Indeed, prior to attending the trainings, I had romantic notions that afterwards I would have the basic skills to farm a small piece of land myself. Not so. As I was to discover, the five-day CSA training contained only one visit to a farm and no actual farm work. Furthermore, there was only one two-hour session on the actual farming cycle (i.e. turning the soil, planting seedlings, watering, etc.). The natural farming training, after three and a half days of lectures, included a half-day on a practice field doing some weeding and planting of pumpkins. There was no farm visit. Yes, there were points raised and questions asked about specific farming situations but these were not the focus of either training program.

Throughout my time at these two training programs my mind kept returning to Old Chen’s comments: ‘What happens when we’re all dead?’ These experiences have left me pondering that despite all the effort and good intentions introducing farming to young Chinese, when it comes to exemplary agriculture and sustainable farming – which can be very labour intensive – the glaringly obvious question of who will actually do the farming remains highly ambiguous.

A number of factors may help to explain the conspicuous absence of actual farming in these two training programs that I had attended. First, in the field of exemplary agriculture, the emphasis appears to be on retraining the modern, urbanised, and desensitised Chinese self to become more appreciative of (what has become distant) rural lifestyles and ways of living. Second, the entrenched distain that urban Chinese have for their rural counterparts is a legacy of the household registration system, or hukou (户口), which had previously tied Chinese citizens to their place of birth and restricted their social and economic mobility. Third, the practice of Chinese leaders (e.g., senior executives, department heads, and farm owners) to delegate perceived ‘menial’ tasks to underlings is well entrenched. I heard many stories of Chinese investing in farms and setting them up but never getting their hands dirty by going into the fields.

Yet at the very core of the exemplary agriculture movement in and around Shanghai, there is a group of new farmers who do work their own fields. These new farmers have been the focus of my ethnographic fieldwork. Furthermore they all have developed close relationships with local farmers in their community who work on their farms. While this is often simply as paid labour, I have witnessed savvy rural farmers who have co-invested with urban Chinese to establish farms. In some cases, new farmers are returning to their hometown, and their parents help them run the farm.

These new farmers keep trying to attract young urban Chinese to help with farm work. Little Donkey Farm has a large number of young Chinese as volunteers, attracted as much by the peri-urban lifestyle and the chance to mingle with other like-minded peers as by the prospect of farming itself. Yet this farm is an exception, and some of the farmers in my Greater Shanghai network question how much Little Donkey Farm’s volunteers really learn about farming. Most new farmers I know have enormous difficulties in getting their young Chinese volunteers to seriously consider agriculture as a career. Most volunteers move on after a few days, as I witnessed at Chuantong Farm. To be fair, new farmers do not always make it easy. Living conditions on the farm are still more suited to urbanites seeking a few days of ‘bitter’ (吃苦) introspection before returning to the city. Comfort for the long-term is limited. Moreover, the application forms and expectations for volunteering can sometimes be as detailed and demanding as those for senior executive roles in Shanghai.

The success of the exemplary agriculture movement, and small-scale sustainable farming, depends on attracting young Chinese to farm for a living. So far, while many have come to work and to participate in marketing and sales functions, fewer are interested in rolling up their sleeves and doing the actual farming. This has instead fallen on the shoulders of rural Chinese farmers who, with their subsistence lifestyle, are supplementing their meager incomes with paid wage labour on sustainable farms across China. Making farming attractive for young Chinese, whether as full-time staff or regular weekend volunteers, is important to ensure in the future that home-grown, sustainably produced and chemical-free farm produce is a viable and available option for Chinese people.

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution: an introduction to natural farming, New York: New York Review Books, 2009.