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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.

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By William Wan Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 1, 2010; 8:48 PM

IN CHONGMING ISLAND, CHINA The small-scale farmer is a dying breed in China, made up mostly of the elderly left behind in the mass exodus of migrant workers to much higher-paying jobs in industrial cities.

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But on an island called Chongming, a two-hour drive east of Shanghai, a group of young urban professionals has begun to buck the trend. They are giving up high-paying salaries in the city and applying their business and Internet savvy to once-abandoned properties. They are trying to teach customers concepts such as eating local and sustainability. And they are spearheading a fledgling movement that has long existed in the Western world but is only beginning to emerge in modern China: green living.

"What we are trying to create is like a dream for us," said Chen Shuaijun, a young banker who, with his wife, has rented eight acres on Chongming.

"But it is simply bizarre to everyone else," he added, with a sigh.

Sipping coffee recently at a Shanghai Starbucks, dressed in polished black shoes and a crisply starched shirt, Chen, 30, fully embodied the success and wealth China's new generation has found in this industrial, corporate age.

Farming runs in his family, Chen explained, going back at least seven generations, including his parents.

Chen was the first in his family to go to college. He majored in computer science, got married and began climbing the ladder in Shanghai's banking industry.

Then, one day last year, his wife, Shen Hui, pitched him a wild idea.

Unlike Chen, she had grown up in the city and was tired of the smoggy air, the unnaturally green and almost tasteless grocery store broccoli and the fast-paced, high-pressure life in a cubicle.

To her and a growing number of Chinese of her generation, the countryside represented a simpler paradise. But the biggest draw for her was food safety.

In recent years, China has seen an unending string of food scandals: melamine-injected milk, counterfeit baby formula, bacteria-infected vegetables, pollution-poisoned fish and even cooking oil recycled from sewage. Imagine, Shen told Chen, knowing exactly where your food came from and what went into it.

Having spent his childhood lugging heavy buckets of water by shoulder to water his parents' fields, Chen thought he had a more realistic view of country life. But even to him, the idea held a certain appeal. Time and distance - along with several years as an office drone - lent the countryside a touch of nostalgia.

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