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Organic Farming Takes Root In China

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Organic Farming Takes Root In China

Organic Farming Takes Root In China

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Back in April, I went to Chengdu, China to gather material for a week's worth of programs that would air in May. Needless to say, the Sichuan earthquake on May 12th changed those plans. Some of the feature stories I've put together never aired. They were simply wrong for the time. But now, we think, we hope, it's a better time to hear them.

So this week, we'll have stories from Chengdu before the earthquake, stories we've updated since. We start today with a visit to an organic farm just south of Chengdu. Its name translates to Fruit Garden Fragrant Pig, but it sounds a lot better in Chinese.

CHEN SHIA: (Chinese Spoken)

BLOCK: That's Chen Shia(ph). She's a graduate student active in the organic farming movement around Chengdu. And in April, she brought me to meet the farm's owner, 37-year-old Luo Yu. Good morning. (C)

Mr. LUO YU (Owner, Fruit Garden Fragrant Pig) (Chinese Spoken)

BLOCK: Luo Yu is slim, with wire-frame glasses, an unlikely farmer. He used to be a stockbroker earning several thousand dollars a month. But he was stressed out. Then he heard about organic farming from some Taiwanese friends. He read some books and was intrigued. So, he spent six months driving around China, looking at conventional farms. And what he saw terrified him agriculture that was depleting the soil, destroying the ecosystem, food riddled with pesticides, unsafe to eat.

So here he is seven years later, running his own organic farm, lots of fruit trees, vegetables and pigs.

YU: (Chinese Spoken)

SHIA: We are now going to see a mother pig who has given birth to 11 little pigs. But we have to be quiet.

BLOCK: Oh, okay. When did she have the babies?

YU: (Chinese Spoken)

SHIA: This morning.

BLOCK: This morning she had the babies? Oh, there they are, big mama. And they're tiny, they must be about a little bit bigger than my hand.

YU: (Chinese Spoken)

BLOCK: As Luo Yu leads me to his farm, he points out the plastic bottles hanging off the plum and peach trees. They have a big hole cut in them, and they're filled with sugar water to attract and trap bugs. Luo Yu tells me he expects to loose one-third of his crops to bugs, another third to birds, leaving him just one-third to sell.

YU: (Speaking in foreign language) (Through translator) 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. Eventually, there will be only human beings on the planet. It will be a silent spring.

BLOCK: Silent spring like Rachel Carson. Imagine the surprise of Luo Yu's well- educated parents when he told them he was leaving the world of finance and going back to the land. This is, after all, a country where people aspire to move up and out of the countryside. His parents said, you're crazy. You're going back to ancient times. But he says, I don't see this as moving backward. I'm moving forward.

YU: (Chinese spoken)

BLOCK: As we walk, Luo Yu calls out a greeting to some farmers working in rice paddies at a neighboring farm. It's not organic.

YU: (Through translator) In fact, they don't use pesticides or chemicals on the produce they grow to eat themselves. But they do use pesticides on the produce they sell because they're going after yield. They'll do whatever will earn them the most money.

BLOCK: And the economics of organic food in China don't work in Luo Yu's favor. There's the lower yield for starters. And in the market, organic food costs two to three times more than conventional food. It can be a tough sell. As we walk, Luo Yu bends down and turns over a cabbage leaf to point out its imperfections.

YU: (Chinese Spoken)

BLOCK: Uh-huh. There are holes underneath this huge cabbage leaf. Do you find that your customers now, when they're buying your organic produce, wouldn't mind finding holes in their cabbage leaves? They don't expect the perfect vegetable right now?

YU: (Through translator) Right. They're reassured to see the holes on these green leaves because they know this means we don't use any chemicals. But this could never be sold on a conventional market.

BLOCK: Luo Yu has about 50 buyers now for his weekly market baskets. He used to make most of his money serving organic lunches to visitors. But that business plummeted after the earthquake, same with the restaurants who buy from him. He's selling them about 10 percent of what he used to. Even before the earthquake, Luo Yu 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 and his own savings. Still, he's committed to bringing more farmers into the organic fold and promoting organic food to people increasingly concerned about healthy living. He's tired but also determined to make this farm work.

YU: (Through translator) In the past, it was just a dream, a hope. But this year, we're so much closer. We proved that we've been heading in the right direction this whole time. I believe that once you start something, you should stick with it. You stumble, stand up again. As long as you keep the faith, nothing can defeat you.

BLOCK: That's Luo Yu, who runs the Fruit Garden, Fragrant Pig Organic Farm outside Chengdu, China. And at npr.org, you'll find a video report about a nearby community where longtime local farmers have made the switch to organic farming despite the odds. Tomorrow on the program, we'll visit a cooking school in Chengdu where they're training the next generation of chefs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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