Shared Harvest CSA, Farm Tours, and People Care
There would be little point to traveling half way across the world just to go to workshops and meetings. You can do that by skype or teleconferencing. The many encounters and personal connections around a conference are at least as valuable as the formal agenda. At meals and late into the evenings I had wonderful talks with friends old and new. Here are a few glimpses.
One of my dearest friends in the international CSA network is Shinji Hashimoto. I had the pleasure of touring his farm on my first trip to Japan and four years later staying for two days with his family during the Urgenci conference in Kobe in 2010. I was a guest at a special dinner to celebrate 17 new farmers in his area whom Shinji helped train. Then I returned the favor by arranging for Shinji to be a keynote speaker at a NOFA-NY conference in 2013. In Beijing he had some sad and disturbing news. Fukushima and radioactive contamination have caused a serious and perhaps irreparable split among the members of the board of the Japanese Organic Agriculture Association (JOAA), which has championed Teikei since its origins in the mid 1970’s. JOAA has been very supportive of the Fukushima area farmers who are determined to stay on their family lands despite the contamination. Michio Uozumi, a Teikei farmer and JOAA board member, has been able to demonstrate soil management methods that tie up the cesium in the soil so that the produce does not contain dangerous levels of radioactivity.
JOAA has also supported sending young farmers to help those who remain in the contaminated zone. Shinji Hashimoto is vehemently opposed to this program. Shinji’s father was a child in Hiroshima when the US dropped the atom bomb on that city at the end of WWII and has spent all his life observing what that exposure did to survivors. Shinji accedes that farmers may be able to make the produce safe, but the whole area continues to have dangerously high radiation levels. He has taken a Geiger counter there to do his own testing and considers it immoral to expose young farmers to this level of contamination. Shinji also shared the much happier story of how his Teikei members and fellow farmers dug out his farm after the landslide last summer.
A few months before the China trip, I had received in the mail two copies of a Thai translation of my book Sharing the Harvest, so I was very happy to meet Wallapa and Hans van Willenswaard, the translators and publishers! They told me that they have sold 65% of the first edition of 2000 copies. Wallapa is about my size, a lovely Thai woman who bubbles with friendliness and cheer. She talks about CSA as “marriage between farmer and consumer.” Her husband Hans is a long tall Dutchman whose quiet dignity contrasts with his wife’s animation. They gave me a copy of their book – Mindful Markets: Producer-Consumer Partnerships towards a New Economy (Garden of Fruition, 2015), a collection of essays on direct marketing in SE Asian countries. In his introductory chapter “What kind of markets do we want?” Hans sums up a lot of the feeling from the Urgenci conference and echoes Andre Leu’s Organic 3.0: “Organic is a ‘commons’. It should not be owned by certifiers, organic food chains or governments who increasingly proclaim that they have the exclusive right to determine what is organic and what not. Organic is owned by all of us. It is a big basket for the full diversity of practices: agroecology, permaculture, natural agriculture, etc. By stating that MINDFUL MARKETS stand for ‘organic food for all’ we reclaim organic and join all the practitioners, pioneers and visionaries who uphold organic agriculture as the heart of global transformation towards a genuine sustainable future.”(p. 21.)
I was excited to meet Isa Alvarez, from Basque country, Spain. She comes from a farming family, but they do not own land at this time. Neskarea, the farmers union that Isa works for, initiated CSA in their region using the French model. There are now 45 CSAs with about 125 farms in Basque country. Isa is a coordinator whose job is to train both consumers and farmers and she has written guides for campesino a campesino (farmer to farmer) practical training. Each Neskarea consumer group gets products from several farms and the farms supply several CSA groups.
I learned from Isa that the Basques have banned GMOs and have a public declaration against them. She reports that young Basque people in their industrialized areas want to return to the land. I was disappointed to hear that Mondragon includes supermarkets and has not been supportive of CSA development. Isa has taken over from Judith Hitchman as Urgenci’s representative to the civil society mechanism of the Food Security Committee (FSC) which has a Letter of Agreement to advise the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN and also makes recommendations to governments on the human right to food. There are two consumer seats – Urgenci and Consumers Union-Mexico, and Urgenci participates in two working groups – livestock and local markets.
Another new acquaintance was Antonio Onorati, a farmer from Italy and an activist with the International Planning Committee (IPC), which has played an important role in the UN Civil Society Mechanism, pressuring FAO to recognize and support agroecology. I was captivated by his stories of travel and run-ins with authorities as a young man in the 1960’s in Poland and Bulgaria. He comes from a family of sharecroppers near Bologna that finally got title to the land they had lived on for generations in 1956 – 7 with the post-WWII reform legislation that gave land to the peasants. His parents (dad 91, and ma 87), Antonio and two brothers own 8 hectares and rent another 10 hectares on edge of town where they grow fruit trees and produce milk and meat. Till ’84, they sold the fruit to a fancy little shop that picked up at farm. Then supermarkets put the small shops out of business. A Grup di Acquisti Solidale (GAS) saved his family’s farm. Antonio is an old friend of Carlos Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, and is very critical of him, accusing him of suffering from a swollen ego. Selling fancy cheese at high prices, Antonio declares, is bad for the rest of the peasants and most consumers.
After long goodbys to these and other friends from many countries, the sun emerged for a few hours as we left the Sun-Town Hotspring Resort. Mercury still below freezing. A van took us over snowy roads to Shared Harvest Farm in Liu Zhuang Hu village where we planned to stay for five extra days of farm tours. In the fields on either side of the roads we saw acres and acres of newly planted trees. We also saw many greenhouses like the ones we had toured sitting empty and abandoned. Another sight was a Hyundai plant that seemed to extend for over a mile.
The Liu Zhuang Hu village party chairman who has been very supportive of the farm, invited our little party – Erin Bullock, Scott Chaskey and me – to lunch with him and the town party chairman, the vice chair and two TV people who later interviewed each of us. The village chief is exploring the possibility of adding a restaurant for his eco-tourism initiative and wanted to see if we would like the meal. We drove to a nearby village that has not been refurbished like Liu Zhuang Hu, and has no high rises. We stopped at a small restaurant-store complex that looked very plain on the outside, more like a village general store.
We took our seats on benches at a round table set in an alcove. The room was not heated but heat, a lot of heat, came from below, under our benches. The highest ranking guy insisted on filling and refilling Scott’s glass with rice liquor and wanted him to drink bottoms up. After a few toasts with liquor, he moved on to the same game with beer. Scott gracefully avoided the competition by saying he could have done it 35 years ago, but not now at age 65. Ladies are not expected to join this orgy, and Erin and I were able to switch Scott’s alcohol for a cup of tea.
They served us a truly sumptuous meal. There were dishes of pigs ear, pigs intestines, greens, pancakes, a wonderful Chinese cabbage-carrots-mushroom combination. So many dishes, they had to pile serving plates on top of one another. Some dishes were on hot plates with flames. Erin had the wit to ask them to open the windows. There were many toasts and much laughter. Complete with rice liquor and beer, this meal for 12 cost only 500 yuan. We gave the village chief a thumbs up, with one reservation – US tourists would prefer serving spoons instead of everyone helping themselves to all the dishes with their own chopsticks.
On the ride back from the restaurant, we could see the nearby mountains and we passed a monument to villagers who had dug underground passages to ambush the Japanese during the occupation.
We got back to Shared Harvest too late for the planned drive to another farm. The two Africans from the conference, Oumar Diabate from Mali and Simon Anoumou Todzro from Togo had also arrived and it took a while to solve the problem of enough beds for us all. Oumar’s flight home had been cancelled due to bad weather and then they misplaced his luggage. A few of the “new farmers” offered to double up to make room for us.
As the stars came out, we took a stroll through village. We explored the park with its attractive mural of village history, three cages of farm animals, deer and rabbits, and birds (pea cocks, pheasant, pigeons, geese, and two ostriches), light exercise equipment for elders, and a play area for children. Once a separate administrative unit, the village has been engulfed by Beijing.
Another visitor to Shared Harvest told us her story. Her father was a left deviationist, exiled to a remote village during the years of the Great Leap Forward. Having grown up in the village, she has a deep connection with the peasants left behind there. So she has set up a CSA with 30 farmers and she delivers the shares to Shandung, 1 ½ hours’ drive away.
We ate dinner with the Shared Harvest crew in the attractive, but unheated dining area. A woman in her 40’s did the cooking – rice, millet, soup, bok choi, Chinese cabbage and buns. Hot sauce. Each person washed his or her own dishes in cold water with wheat chaff to rub off the grease. In the evening, Shi Yan and thirteen of her “new farmers” listened while Erin, Scott, Simon and I told about our farms. At his farm in Togo, Simon runs a training program in ecological growing for both local people and visiting Europeans. One of the “swarming” expeditions from the French AMAP inspired him to start CSA in 2011. The new farmers asked us about labor on our farms, seed sources, and how we deal with pests. Erin asked them what the obstacles are to becoming farmers. Lack of experience, markets, and parents’ expectations were their answers. Simon asked what they will do when they leave Shared Harvest. Most of them did not yet have clear plans.
Erin and I shared a big room. One major drawback – the toilet stank like a sewer. There was no running water between 9 pm and 7 am. I dreamed that Erin and I are on the shore of a river –the water flowing before us with mountains beyond. A huge ship turns into our dock. It looks like for sure it is going to crash into us. Then it suddenly turns sharply enough to pull parallel to the dock and lets down the plank with steps. Relief. I wake up. After two nights, we moved to the Winery next door, a curious establishment with an extensive wine tasting area, a kitchen staff of five, though hardly any other guests. Shi Yan told us the building had been a piggery till people with money invested in its transformation. We sprang for one bottle of their least expensive wine, a hefty $35 a bottle – not up to NY standards.
The next morning, a frosty day with a light coating of snow on the ground, Caroline Merrifield acted as our translator-guide for a visit to the Cherry Valley Coop, just a few miles from Shared Harvest. Fifty three families are members of the coop. Each family manages 6 to 7 mu (a little over 1 acre) of cherry trees. Our guide, Du Juan, a lovely slim woman of 30, returned to her home village five years ago after studying agricultural sales and marketing at a technical college to help resolve their marketing crisis. Her father heads the coop. He has introduced a flock of 31 geese for pest control.
They eat grass, weeds, and fallen fruit, fertilizing as they go. He is pleased with the system and has been able to stop spraying pesticides. Du Juan’s older brother, worked as a mechanic, before also coming back with his wife and small child to work with their dad. They use ecological methods but do not sell as organic since certification is complicated and expensive. She says of their apples, a variety from Japan that has a pattern of russet dots on the skin, that they are– “not pretty on the outside, but on the inside. Customers fall in love with the taste.” And are willing to pay 3 times the conventional price.
Recently, when the central Chinese government cracked down on bribes and food gifts, the coop found itself in financial trouble since much of their sales had been to government members. Du Juan has helped the coop develop direct sales and steadier markets. Slowly and carefully, she has introduced u-pick for the ripe cherries. She thinks this is the best path since the varieties are soft and sweet, and the farmers are getting old. Each family has its own section of trees and sales stand so there is some competition. She also started internet sales for her own family’s special variety of apples, sold in 20 pound boxes with tastefully designed labels. At her suggestion, the coop holds a cherry blossom festival and coordinates with neighboring villages that have eco-tourism ventures. The government had paid 25 yuan for the ripe cherries. Du Juan raised the price to 40 yuan and introduced cherry picking gift certificates. She is hoping to build collective feeling and has organized group trips to other farms. When people feel collective spirit, she says, they are more likely to act together. It is a delicate balancing act since then the government gets upset and some people are wary. The government wants coops but not empowered farmer collectives.
Du Juan’s father refuses to allow the coop to pay her a salary since he wants her to go back to the city and get married. Most of the people her age have left. Some villagers regard her as odd and whisper that there must be something wrong with her. The CSA conferences since 2010 have meant a lot to her and she believes that what her coop is doing has much in common with CSA – steady pricing, long term relationships. Her mother sells some of their apples to people who come to the farm and grateful customers send her presents. Du Juan worries that CSA is growing too quickly in China, not in an organic way and risks getting like the fake coops. While Du Juan shared her reflections about the coop with us, her mother was cooking one of those weeder geese on a grill in the yard, her brother was repairing broken equipment, and her dad was grinding corn for feed.
Their home is on the classical Chinese model –the outer door to the street opens into a courtyard surrounded by the other rooms. The whole family joined in the delicious meal they prepared for us with vegetables from Shared Harvest, the goose and their own cherry liqueur.
From Cherry Valley, we drove to another nearby village to witness tofu making by our driver, Jiao Jinlong, and his wife. Shared Harvest includes their tofu in the boxes they supply to members of their CSA. The young couple make the tofu in their own home – a large kitchen and a small bedroom. They grind and cook the soybeans, then filter the milk and congeal it into tofu cakes.
A 70-year old aunt helps out by stoking the fire with corn husks.
Two other aunties in their seventies hung out kibitzing. One of them said of the aunt who was hard at work that she looked older because she had had a hard life. I wish we had been able to learn her story. As the tofu was hardening up, Caroline, our translator, overheard the three women talking about me, examining my hair and skin and comparing with their own. One of them concluded – “organic farming in the US must have some special formula to keep you young.” We posed together for a photo.
Scott, Erin and I had planned to spend one day hiking on the Great Wall, but the cold weather spoiled our plans – there was too much ice from the recent snow fall and we were not equipped. Instead, we took a trip to the central city of Beijing to see the Yonghe Lama Temple and to give a talk for a student group at Renmin University.
Shi Yan’s husband Cunwang Cheng drove us to the metro. He is no longer working on the farm. Instead, he works in Beijing at a company he founded to make a special app for CSAs. So far, he supplies it free to farmers. Cheng has developed a sophisticated way to enable people to order produce each week. Customers deposit money in their accounts and the app subtracts the value of each vegetable, mushrooms, rice, tofu, etc. that they order. Shared Harvest packs individual orders and delivers directly to each home. $1 per kilo, price for delivery.
The trip to the Temple took two hours – an hour to reach the metro and then another hour on a train. The Temple is truly magnificent, but I think I was a better tourist when I was twelve and toured the great cathedrals of Europe with my parents. Great monuments out of context are harder for me to absorb and my ignorance of Chinese history and culture is lamentable. We had lunch in a vegetarian restaurant that sources some of its food from Shared Harvest, then dashed across town to the university where we repeated our horse and pony show – Scott, Simon, Erin and me telling about our CSAs to a disappointingly small student club.
The students joined us for dinner at a hot pot restaurant, a new culinary experience for me. You select ingredients to mix and cook in your own soup.
For the final day of our visit, we spent more time exploring Shared Harvest Farm and doing some packing work with the new farmers. We also had the chance to interview Uncle Ma – see part 1 of this blog. While Erin, Scott and Caroline joined in preparations for a farewell party-Thanksgiving dinner, I had a little time alone with Shi Yan. She told me how she won her parents over to supporting her chosen path and talked frankly about the conflicts inherent in running a farm with your life partner. Their life together runs more smoothly now that Cunwang is inventing apps. Shi Yan claims to work only 8 to 10 hours a day, but admits that she has neglected taking time for herself. She hopes to get back to Tai Chi. Our chat was interrupted by phone calls and cut short when Shi Yan had to run off to see about the delivery service the farm has hired to replace the villagers who were using their own vehicles. I would have liked to talk much more about the rural reconstruction movement, the relations between the “new” and “old” farmers”, and so much more.
In an interview with a reporter for Al Jazeera that was published the last day of our visit, Shi Yan claimed that the grassroots movement combining university students and their professors with rural development people in some areas of China has official blessing. She admitted that CSAs are only part of the solution to agricultural pollution, but pointed out that the right people seem to be taking notice. Not only has a local district government been a major sponsor of this year’s November CSA conference, but last September, she was asked to write a report about CSA for China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang. In conclusion, Shi Yan said, “Interest is really growing, and it’s not just on the surface. People are really passionate. Change won’t be fast, but the impact is deep. CSA is not just a company or business, it’s a social movement.”(You can read the full interview in “Meet the woman leading China’s new organic farming army” -Shi Yan’s approach to organic farming is helping to break the country’s “addiction to pesticides.” Katrina Yu | 25 Nov 2015 13:15)
The farewell party more than made up for missing Thanksgiving at home. Together with the Shared Harvest crew, we feasted on dishes created by the conference chef. The whole group helped make the dumplings which require many hands to seal the dough around dollops of meat or vegetable filling. There were hot and sour fish and pork, and light fluffy squares made with egg, veggies and lots of finely chopped mushrooms. We were so full from all this that we overlooked the soup. And for dessert, we ate apple and pumpkin pies made by the Erin, Caroline, Scott team.
None of the Chinese participants had ever eaten pies like these before. Shi Yan’s farm manager Young Ma, the only plump guy among the “new” farmers, could not get enough of them. An avid eater/drinker, he works hard and jokes continually. There is a business opportunity lurking here– a chain of pie shops to encourage the Chinese to eat more of their own fruit and stop shipping concentrated apple juice to undersell US farms! After food came speeches expressing gratitude and appreciation for the well-run conferences and international exchanges. Finally, a young woman who has great skills as a translator and who told us that work on the conference has caused her to reconsider her career, led us in Chinese folk dances and songs. To my eye, her style took as much from hip hop as from Chinese tradition – but what do I know! It was a joyous occasion.
Early the next morning, Erin and I headed for the long flight home, our ride to the airport only very slightly delayed by a flock of goats on the 2-lane road.