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Young Chinese farmers sowing seeds for organic revolution

The idea of organic farming is still new to much of rural China. Some farmers hold to old traditions and even ridicule the idea of farming without pesticides.

Despite the odds against them, almost a dozen new organic farms have popped up on the island in recent years. Many, however, have yet to turn a profit.

A few miles from Chen's farm, Han Guojie, 38, another new farmer, confessed, "We'll be losing money this year - a lot, in fact."

Han gave up a high-paying job as a water quality engineer last year to start his farm. And he expects to be in the red for a while longer because the soil needs to recover from years of heavy chemicals and pesticides.

A devout Buddhist who carries prayer beads wherever he goes, Han says the motivation for him and other new farmers transcends the material.

"For years, humans have tried to conquer nature, but in doing so, they themselves became conquered. They lost their connection with the earth. They destroyed the land they were tilling," Han said. "In Buddhist belief, there are no pesticides, no bad insects, no good ones. There is only imbalance in the world. We must restore that balance."

Most young farmers on the island had similarly lofty motives.

Jia Ruiming, a former schoolteacher, began his organic rice farm after seeing the poverty of China's rural farmers. Most are in their 60s or older and unable to compete in the state-regulated system that produces most of China's food. He hopes to teach the older farmers he's hired that organic rice can sell for many times more than regular rice and wants to show them how to market it in Shanghai.

There are signs the movement is catching on. Among China's new echelon of super-rich, organic food has become a luxury fad in high-end supermarkets in recent years - a status symbol like the latest Gucci purse.

Some organic farmers, however, are leery of becoming the latest trend.

"We want to create a new market, but this isn't just about pushing consumption," said Sun Yanghuan, an accounting executive who, in her spare time, spearheads a communal farm that relies on Shanghai residents who pay to be members and pitch in to produce each season's crops. "This movement is about adopting a sustainable lifestyle, finding balance between rural and urban."

Joy exceeds pain

For Chen and wife Shen, finding that balance this first year on their farm has driven them to exhaustion at times. Shen, who began as the more idealistic of the two, has found herself physically unable to get up some weekends after hours of weeding.

She admits that her original plan for them to one day quit their jobs and work full time in the country may not be the best idea. "It gets boring in the country, because there isn't that much to do," she said.

But the joys have outweighed the pains, she adds.

This summer, she harvested their first tomato of the season. And she described the pleasure of biting into the red fruit and realizing for the first time what a real, unadulterated tomato tasted like.

"There's nothing like that," she said, "in the city."

Staff researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.

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