A farmer carries a bucket of manure at an organic farm at Anlong Village near Chengdu.
A farmer carries a bucket of manure at an organic farm at Anlong Village near Chengdu. David Gilkey/NPR
Stockbroker-turned-farmer Luo Yu (below) owns an organic farm outside Chengdu, in China's southwestern Sichuan province.
Luo points out the telltale sign of organic produce: holes from bugs.
Luo points out the telltale sign of organic produce: holes from bugs. Melissa Block/NPR
A worker on the farm holds wosun — a Chinese vegetable.
A worker on the farm holds wosun — a Chinese vegetable. Andrea Hsu/NPR
Luo earns most of his money from the organic lunches he serves to the farm's visitors.
Luo earns most of his money from the organic lunches he serves to the farm's visitors. Andrea Hsu/NPR
Customers of Luo's farm know to expect imperfect vegetables, such as cabbage with bug bites. But such produce wouldn't sell on the conventional market in China.
Customers of Luo's farm know to expect imperfect vegetables, such as cabbage with bug bites. But such produce wouldn't sell on the conventional market in China. Andrea Hsu/NPR
In recent years, Americans have been concerned about what's in Chinese products, including the food we eat and the toys we buy. In China, a small but growing number of people are worried about the same issues.
You can see one result of this growing concern at an organic farm about 15 miles south of the city of Chengdu, in China's southwestern Sichuan province. The farm is called Fruit Garden, Fragrant Pig.
Luo Yu is the farm's 37-year-old owner. Slim, with wire-frame glasses, he is an unlikely farmer.
He used to be a stockbroker earning several thousand U.S. dollars a month. But his job stressed him out. Then he heard about organic farming from Taiwanese friends. He read some books and was intrigued. He spent six months driving around China, looking at conventional farms.
Fear Of A 'Silent Spring'
What Luo saw terrified him, he says. Agriculture was depleting the soil and destroying the ecosystem. Food was riddled with pesticides and unsafe to eat.
Seven years later, Luo is running his own organic farm, with fruit trees, vegetables and pigs.
During a recent visit, Luo walked through his farm, pointing out plastic bottles hanging off plum and peach trees. They each have a big hole cut out and are filled with sugar water to attract and trap bugs.
Luo says he expects to lose one-third of his crops to bugs and another third to birds — leaving just one-third for him to sell.
"Those bugs have the right to stay here. They're part of the food chain. If we kill them, then there will be no birds on the farm," Luo says.
"Eventually, there will be only human beings on the planet — and it will be a silent spring," he says, evoking Rachel Carson's seminal book, which brought environmental concerns to the attention of a broad U.S. audience.
Organics: 'A Move Forward'
Luo's well-educated parents were surprised when he told them he was leaving the world of finance and going "back to the land." After all, this is a country where people aspire to move up and out of the countryside. His parents said he was "crazy" and "going back to ancient times."
But that's not the way Luo sees it. "I don't see this as moving backward. I'm moving forward," he says.
During his walk around the farm, Luo calls out a greeting to some farmers working in rice paddies at a neighboring farm, which is not organic.
But Luo notes that while those farmers don't use pesticides or chemicals on the produce they grow to eat themselves, they do use pesticides on the produce that they sell — because they are going after yield.
"They'll do whatever will earn them the most money," he says.
Profits Prove Elusive
The economics of organic food in China don't work in Luo Yu's favor. For starters, there is the lower yield. And in the market, organic food costs two to three times more than conventional food, which can be a tough sell.
For example, vegetables that have been grown without pesticides often sport holes in their leaves — where bugs have eaten. Luo says his customers know to expect that.
But such "imperfect" vegetables could "never be sold on the conventional market," he says.
Luo has about 50 buyers for his weekly market baskets. He used to make most of his money serving organic lunches to visitors. But that business plummeted after the May earthquake. Same with the restaurants who buy from him. He's selling about 10 percent of what he used to sell to them. Even before the earthquake, Luo Yo hadn't been able to turn a profit in his seven years of farming. He's managed to stay afloat with the help of some local investors.
Keeping The Faith
Still, he is committed to bringing more farmers into the organic fold — and promoting organic food to a public that's increasingly concerned about healthy living.
Luo's job is demanding, but he is also determined to make his farm work.
"In the past, it was just a dream, a hope. But this year, we are so much closer. We've proved that we've been heading in the right direction this whole time," he says. "I believe that once you start something, you should stick with it. If you stumble, stand up again. As long as you keep the faith, there's nothing that can defeat you."