Warm light suffuses the air. Rows of tender lettuce and red radishes nestle in rich brown soil. A small dog noses discerningly among them. This is a greenhouse at De Run Wu, a farm in Changping dedicated to producing delicious organic vegetables for Beijing residents.
The owners are Buddhists and vegetarians; hence, there are no cows or chickens to be found. There are also no pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, or growth hormones. As a result, the veggies are fresh and delicious.
“Customers love our carrots,” says co-owner James, a slim, softs-poken man with glasses. “They say they’re very sweet. Sometimes they can’t wait to cook them – they just eat them right away!”
If crunching on carrots isn’t your thing, there’s an array of other produce to choose from. Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, and rose-hearted radishes comprise just a few vegetables from the winter ordering list. It’s easy to email or call (order at least 4 kg at RMB 80) and have the produce delivered to your door.
Farms like this are making it easier than ever to access safe, fresh, and delicious food – a major concern in a country haunted by food scandals, and a city oft-shrouded in pollution as dense as fog.
Organic produce has become a common sight in major supermarkets and small grocery stores alike in Beijing. Stroll the produce section of Carrefour or Wal-Mart and you’ll find eggplants and tomatoes with one or more round green stickers. Since 2005, the China National Organic Product Standard has set the standard for organic products with a green-edged label saying “organic.” Other organic labels include one by the OFDC (Organic Food Development Center) and the China Organic Food Certification Center of the Ministry of Agriculture. These labels, however, are only supplement to the standard one established seven years ago.
What leaves Beijing’s consumers scratching their own heads over heads of lettuce, however, is what exactly the standard is. What does the sticker bearing the name “organic” mean?
In the Q&A section of its website, the China Organic Food Certification Center defines organic food as “products produced from the kind of production rejecting the application of synthetic chemical, by using a series of sustainable agro-technologies to reduce pollution to environment and products from the producing procedure, and also to establish an ecological system in which humans and nature are harmoniously coexisting.”
Although coexisting harmoniously with nature sounds much more appealing than coexisting with chemicals and toxins, how can consumers actually trust that food labeled as organic is safe?
Shi Yan, one of the founders of Little Donkey farm in Beijing’s Haidian district, says organic certification is often profit-driven. Organic food is becoming big business in China, and farms want the organic seal on their food.
And often, they’ll do anything to get it. Lejen Chen of Green Cow Organic Farm confides that farms continue using organic labeling far past its expiration date.
“One farm had its grapes certified organic,” Chen says. “The following year they lost certification, but kept the sign up for a year afterward on their billboard.”
Just because Green Cow Organic Farm, De Run Wu, and Little Donkey farm lack the green CNOPS sticker on their vegetables, does that mean their vegetables aren’t organic?
“Not at all,” says Shi Yan.
“We have been working toward a PGS (Participatory Guarantee System). We are an organic farm, and our members trust us,” she insists.
Members of Little Donkey can engage in DIY farming, paying RMB 1,500 a year for a 30sqm plot of land. If you have neither the inclination nor time for hoeing or weeding, you can order online. A box for a family of three delivered to your door every week for half a year costs about RMB 2,500.
Previously the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box included a random assortment of seasonal produce, but starting from this year members will be able to select the vegetables they want. Little Donkey also sells free-range chicken eggs and organic pork.
What becomes apparent when visiting these farms, besides the beautiful and occasionally endearingly misshapen produce and happy, free-roaming animals, is the passion of the farmers behind it all.
In describing his business partner, known to many as “Dr. Ji,” James of De Run Wu says: “Eight years ago, he left his study in chemistry. He’s not interested in money. Several times he’s almost given up, but the customers believe in this farm, and tell him to keep going.”
He recounts how, in the first years, as the soil was acclimating to the lack of pesticides, bugs came in droves and destroyed many of the vegetables. Despite the losses, De Run Wu continued on and eventually the harvest remained mostly intact.
“People kill bugs too much,” he says. “Nature will arrange the balance. If we kill too many, the bugs will come back [in numbers].”
At Green Cow Organic Farm, Lejen Chen is equally passionate about natural methods of production.
“In China, seed stores have convinced farmers they need to plant seeds coated in pesticides,” she explains. “They say the farmers will harvest more if they use these pesticide-covered seeds. I just don’t believe it’s true.”
She’s putting that belief into action, too. Green Cow can’t produce all the corn it needs to feed the pigs and chickens on its acreage, so it provides farms in Yanqing with natural corn seed to plant and sell back to them.
“We provided them with the pesticide-free seeds to grow organically, and said we would make up the difference if the yield was smaller than the pesticide-covered crops grown conventionally. But you know what?” she said gleefully. “The natural seed provided a bigger crop than the seed covered in pesticides.”
Green Cow keeps its own cows because that way the fertilizer from those cows is guaranteed to be organic and safe. If you bring in manure from outside cows, Chen says, you can’t be sure it doesn’t contain needles or asbestos.
The commitment to wholesome food and sustainability is evident in every cranny of the Green Cow farm. To be a member, you must first tour the farm with Chen to make sure it’s a good fit. If it sounds a bit like a compatibility test for a long-term relationship, that’s exactly what it is.
“Some people don’t understand what we’re doing here. They don’t understand farming or seasonality,” Chen says. “They want to be able to buy tomatoes all year round, or they want to put their CSA box on hold while they’re away on vacation. Production on a farm never stops. We can’t hold their vegetables for them while they’re out of town.”
Membership comes with a price: At RMB 20,000 a year (50 weeks) and a commitment of at least one year, that’s RMB 400 a week for a box chock-full of fresh vegetables. However, the box contains enough vegetables for some families to split with their friends and neighbors – an arrangement that Green Cow encourages.
“We think the cost is worth it,” Chen says.
For the more non-committal, there is Mrs. Shanen’s Bagels. The Shunyi restaurant stocks overflow produce from the farm for sale, in addition to many organic and natural products such as bagels, fresh peanut butter made from Green Cow’s peanuts, and dairy products.
Fifty percent of what’s grown at the farm is used at the restaurant. Whether it’s a foamy cappuccino with organic milk or a burger made with organic beef from one of their cows, there’s something at Mrs. Shanen’s to satiate every taste.
In a city rife with pollution and dubious food (organic stickers abound in chain supermarkets and import markets), it’s the small farms, backed by passionate, committed individuals working together with villagers and city-dwellers that are producing the safest food to be found. So isn’t it time you supported your local organic farmers?
有机食品 (yǒujī shípǐn): organic food
有机产品 (yǒujī chǎnpǐn): organic product
有机蔬菜 (yǒujī shūcài): organic produce
绿色食品 (lǜsè shípǐn): “green” food
De Run Wu 德润屋
Strawberry Fields, Xinzhuang, Xingshou Town, Changping District (8459 0809, email@example.com) 昌平区兴寿镇辛庄草莓园
Little Donkey Farm 小毛驴市民农园
Houshajian Village West, Sujiatuo Town, Haidian District (138 1095 6036, firstname.lastname@example.org) 海淀区苏家坨镇后沙涧村西
Green Cow Organic Farm 绿牛有机农庄
Donggezhuang (10 min north of the International Exhibition Center), Houshayu Zhen, Shunyi District (8046 4301, 135 0113 6920) 顺义区北京绿牛有机农场（北京京承高速与机场北线交汇处的东北方向董各庄附近）
Mrs. Shanen’s Bagels 单太太贝谷面包房
Sun-Thu 7.30am-8pm, Fri-Sat 7.30am-8.30pm. 5 Kaifa Jie, Xibaixinzhuang (next to Capital Paradise), Shunyi District (8046 4301) 顺义区西白辛庄开发街5号 (紧邻名都园)