New Money: CSA farms offer inspiration to China's agriculture
Updated 22:40, 22-May-2020
By Lily Lyu, Jin Yang, Wang Xiumin

The rise of China's middle class is driving a surge in attention to food safety and eating healthier. That's where community-supported agriculture, or CSA, comes in.

The concept was born in Japan and Switzerland in the 1970s. It's also been widely practiced in the U.S., where consumers paid advance deposits at the beginning of the year for 12 months worth of agricultural products. The prepaid subscriptions help shield the farmers from instability and risks. And the farms do organic farming, using no chemicals, but only traditional farming methods.

To find out how this business model is received in China, I went to check out Shared Harvest Farm in suburban Beijing. The farm is a membership organization, with multiple farm locations and over 1,200 sign-ups. Customers pay upfront 3,000 or 8,000 yuan for a year's supply of vegetables, eggs, and meat. They can place orders online and have the food delivered to their doors in weekly boxes.

Most of the members are families with children. When it comes to children's health, spending more on organic food is not an issue. Founder of the farm, Shi Yan, said on average her farm's products are priced 30-50 percent higher than conventional markets. "But if you compare to the organic supermarket products, we are only half the price," she said.

A cucumber greenhouse at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

A cucumber greenhouse at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

The very person that brought CSA farms into China, Shi has also promoted the concept and helped to grow it. Originally a post-doctor of Tsinghua University, she started a "New Farmers" training program. People from all over the country come to learn how to start a CSA project. Today, Shared Harvest has inspired the opening of over 1,000 CSA farms across China.

Yingjie Farm in northwest China's Shaanxi Province is one of them. It started with providing professional instructions on producing organic cherries, then selling products through the CSA platforms and, eventually developing its own sales network.

"What's great about the CSA model is that it builds up trust. Trust between farms and customers, trust between humans and land. With this farm up and running, I can keep many young people working in the village instead of going to cities," said Ying Zi, founder of Yingjie farm.

Here at Shared Harvest, a farmer is made an excellent occupation under the CSA model.

Lily, CGTN's reporter, is pruning tomato plants at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

Lily, CGTN's reporter, is pruning tomato plants at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

Liu came here from northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. As she taught me how to prune tomato plants, she told me that young people at her home village have all gone to cities. She hopes one day CSA farms can go to her home, so young people will be attracted to stay in villages. "We have rich soil in the northeast," said Liu.

Her dream is shared by some young people, the so-called "new farmers." 29-year-old Li Zhi works as an apprentice at Shared Harvest. His dream is to start a CSA farm in his hometown.

Li said, "When I graduated, my father wanted me to stay in cities. But I just like being a farmer. Some people work so hard to enjoy the country life, and I'm already living this lifestyle."

When Shi Yan took me around the farm, letting me feed the rabbits and collect freshly laid eggs, she said the farm also organizes activities like farming lessons, summer camps, picking, and even built a home-stay for its members. These activities are becoming very popular, and this adds to the farm's income.

Feeding a rabbit at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

Feeding a rabbit at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

But it's not only profit that she seeks. "When I started the farm, it wasn't only for profit, but also lifestyle. It's a path I want to create for young people. "

Shi hopes to build a community, a family, that has eco-farming at its core, just like her wedding, surrounded by local villagers, wearing wildflowers in her hair and serving fresh organic vegetables. She told me she even walked down the aisle carrying broccoli.

"Which one is harder, being a farmer or an entrepreneur?" I asked. She waved off the "entrepreneur" alternative. "Being a good farmer is very hard," she grinned. "I learn knowledge every day."

Shi Yan shares her experience with Lily at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

Shi Yan shares her experience with Lily at Shared Harvest Farm. /CGTN

My final question was, "You have quite a few titles ... a post-doctorate, a vice chairman of the international CSA alliance ... how would you like to be known as?"

She didn't hesitate to pop the answer: "Just a farmer."

One thing that Shi Yan taught me is that farming concerns not only farmers but also everyone. Because each consumption we make is a vote for the world, we want.