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Going Organic in China

Huanyin, huanyin!” (“Welcome, welcome!”)

As I climb out of the rented minivan Gao Yicheng, a moon-faced Buddha look-alike in his mid-40s, approaches, grinning and extending his hands in greeting.

I’ve come to Anlong, a village in the center of Sichuan province, to visit Gao and his family — father Gao Chengjian, mother Li Zhilan, a brother and a sister and their spouses — and tour their organic farm, one hearty sprout in the movement to rethink rural development in China. Out here, less than an hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu, the monotonous grayness of urban China recedes, and signs of rural life emerge. Grandparents fuss over toddlers in the courtyards of squat tile-roofed houses. Farmers bend over patchwork fields divided by rows of mandarin trees laden with fruit. Ducks search for stray grains in spent rice paddies. Instead of Chengdu’s exhaust and coal smoke, I breathe in the scent of wet grass, compost and, not unpleasantly, cow manure.

As members of the Quan Riverbank Natural Farming Co-Op, Gao’s family grows organic vegetables and then makes twice-weekly, direct-to-consumer deliveries to about 140 households in Chengdu. Their co-op represents a nascent movement in China — sometimes referred to as New Rural Reconstruction — to promote alternative means of rural development. The result of a joint effort by left-leaning Chinese academics, non-governmental organizations and community activists, NRR proponents seek to remedy the adverse effects on rural communities of the market-based kaifang gaige (“opening and reform”) economic reforms introduced by the Chinese government in the early 1980s. Organic farming, direct-to-consumer distribution, and the reconstruction of the relationship between city and countryside are NRR hallmarks.

The co-op was founded with the help of the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, a locally-run nonprofit organization that in 2003 teamed with a Sichuan University professor of environmental science to study pollution in the city’s waterways. They found that despite a decade of government efforts to modernize sewage facilities and industrial waste management procedures, the rivers were still terribly contaminated. CURA traced more than half of the pollution to agriculture-use chemicals from villages upstream.

CURA responded to the findings by initiating a project to teach villagers how to farm organically and more sustainably manage household waste. Of the 20 Anlong households that expressed interest in participating when it began in 2005, the Gao family and seven other remain active. The Quan Riverbank co-op avoids using the word organic — pursuing such certification from the Chinese government is costly — instead describing its farming techniques as “natural” and its vegetables as “healthful.”

“Let’s have a look around,” Gao suggests, leading us to a square of earth packed with neat rows of you cai (oil rape), a flowering green vegetable loved by Sichuanese for its mustard-like bitterness (its seeds are also made into cooking oil). The mint spreading freely along the bed’s borders, Gao tells us, repels insects with its pungent fragrance. Other natural pesticides used by the Gaos on their little more than 1½-acre farm include sprays made with tobacco leaves and huajiao (Sichuan peppercorn), a variety of prickly ash that’s a common ingredient in the local cuisine.

On our way to another set of beds thick with red you cai, kohlrabi, and plump heads of broccoli — all interspersed with clumps of bitter mustard, another natural insect repellent — we pass others left to fallow, a rare sight for China’s intensively farmed rural landscapes. Nearby, a hillock of compost steams from a fresh addition of cow manure supplied by a neighboring household. Rice bran, corn husks, vegetable leaves, grass and household waste are other components.

Chemical fertilizers still pervasive in China

Three decades after the Chinese government initiated a series of reforms designed to boost efficiency in agricultural production, China’s farms use the most inorganic fertilizer per acre in the world. Still, despite the heavy fertilization, the productivity of China’s farms is declining year after year.

It wasn’t always so, says Gao. “When I was a child, my parents didn’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides and the plants grew well. Now so much land is unhealthy.”

Gao’s parents were farming primarily for their own consumption when CURA began working in Anlong. They decided to go organic out of concern for their own health and for that of the environment. At the time Gao and his sister were working away from Anlong, two among the tens of millions of rural dwellers in China who’ve migrated to cities in search of employment. Swayed by their parents’ determination to change the way that they farmed and lived, they returned home to help.

The Gaos may be pioneers, but they’re not alone. Organic farming in China is on an upswing, says Matthew A. Hale, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Washington who’s researching rural development and alternative food networks in Sichuan and elsewhere.

“Organic / local / CSA-type things like the Anlong project have grown a lot more since about 2006,” he says, for a number of reasons, including concerns about food safety, support provided by non-governmental organizations such as CURA, and the realization by entrepreneurs that organic farming can be profitable.

For the Gao family the years immediately after they stopped using chemical fertilizer and pesticides were rough going. Remembers Gao, “The land was lifeless. We had so many insects. If you use chemicals, farming’s not so troublesome; now we work harder. It takes longer to grow our vegetables, and they’re smaller and uglier.”

“But,” he says, smiling, “they’re tastier too.”

Quan Riverbank farmers eschew the “community-supported agriculture” label, instead describing their project as “urban-rural mutual aid.” In the farmers’ view, their customers enable them to avoid middlemen, and thus make a decent living from work that’s often undervalued in urban-centric China. Though the Gaos wouldn’t be considered rich, in the last few years they have managed to set aside enough money to purchase the new cargo truck in which Gao makes the co-op’s deliveries.

In addition to farming for themselves and their customers, the family rents small plots to 20 urban households. Most renters drive out from Chengdu on the weekend for a morning of planting, weeding and harvesting, followed by lunch.

Teacher He Xiao Dan, who was born in Chengdu, and her businessman husband, who grew up on a farm in southern Sichuan, have been tending two beds of daikon, red carrots, leafy greens and corn for almost a year.

“More and more people in Chengdu are getting interested in this type of activity,” says He. “For us and our daughter, it’s the best part of the weekend. We can be outdoors, and we go home with enough vegetables for a week.”

Chi fan le!” (“Time to eat!”)

Summoned back to the house by Gao’s mother’s call, we enter the courtyard to find two tables set for lunch. The Gaos are devout Buddhists and strict vegetarians, but the food — prepared by Gao’s mother and sister — is so delicious we don’t spare a thought for meat.

The Gao family welcomes visitors by pre-arrangement and on weekends only. They don't speak English but it's possible to hire an English-speaking driver in Chengdu through your hotel. Plan to arrive mid-morning and stay for lunch. An offer of compensation for the meal is appropriate. Contact Gao Yicheng at 86-13/19499-0983.

There’s broccoli mixed with batons of savory smoked tofu (a gift from He and her family); three types of leafy vegetables (sweet pea leaves and tendrils with fresh wood ear mushrooms, grassy local spinach stir-fried with dried chillies and huajiao, and napa cabbage; peanuts with hollow-stemmed morning glory and sharp Chinese celery in a mild sauce; and creamy white beans in a broth that, thanks to the addition of strips of seaweed, tastes like a fine seafood stock.

Over bowls of nutty brown rice, Gao’s mother shares recipes for two unusual accompaniments: a salty pickle made from chopped mustard tuber and cornmeal, and a piquant cheese-like condiment made by fermenting daikon and mustard leaves with ground peanuts. I’m left speechless by the dishes’ bright flavors and myriad textures, all conjured from nothing — save the tofu and seaweed — but what’s pulled from the earth a stone’s throw from where we eat.

Sipping glasses of hot mint and lemongrass infusion (the latter, not native to Sichuan, grows thanks to the gift of a single stalk from a visiting Malaysian researcher), Gao and his mother and father describe the satisfaction of knowing that what they’re doing is good for the environment and helping their customers to live more healthily.

“Life is precious. Land is precious,” says Gao. “We shouldn’t hurt it. We shouldn’t waste it.”

Zester Daily contributor  David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.comRobyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.

Zester Daily contributors based in Malaysia, journalist Robyn Eckhardt and photographer David Hagerman collaborate for publications such as New York Times Travel and Wall Street Journal Asia. Their food blog EatingAsia was named Editor's Choice for Culinary Travel in the 2014 Saveur Blog Awards. "Istanbul and Beyond," their first cookbook, is forthcoming from Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Follow them on Twitter at @EatingAsia and @DaveHagerman and on Instagram at @davehagerman.