Working the Land the Natural Way : Chengdu Diary Organic Farming Struggles in Sichuan.
NPR logo Working the Land the Natural Way

Working the Land the Natural Way

Last week, Melissa Block and I visited an organic farm run by a really interesting guy who used to be a stock broker. He's been operating the farm for seven years now without the use of any chemicals or pesticides, and indeed, the bugs were aplenty! I still have little bites all over my hands to show for it. We'll be bringing you the story of that farm in May on the radio (May 19-23.)

This week, NPR photographer David Gilkey and I got a second look at organic farming in a place called Anlong Village. Anlong sits along the Zouma River, upstream from Chengdu. Several years ago, the local NGO Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA) chose it as a pilot site for eco-friendly agriculture, including organic farming. The idea was that by cleaning up Anlong, you'd protect a major source of water for Chengdu residents.

Anlong farmer Gao Shengjian believes there's a link between the use of pesticides and fertilizers on farms and the growing incidences of various diseases among the rural population. Inset, foregoing pesticides means bugs can be a different sort of problem. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu, NPR


It's been almost four years since the project was launched, and of the nine households who have tried organic farming, only four are still at it. The others decided it just wasn't worth it. Organic farming requires much more labor, the yield can be half or less of that of conventional farming, and besides, hardly anyone in Chengdu is eating organic. Our stock broker-turned-farmer estimates their customer base to be only 0.01% of Chengdu's population.

35-year old Gao Qingrong left a well-paid job at a textile factory in coastal Jiangsu Province to help her parents develop organic farming in the village of Anlong, Sichuan Province. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu, NPR

Which is why I found the Anlong farmers who are still persevering truly remarkable.

Take 35-year old Gao Qingrong, who around here is called Big Sister Gao. As a child, she really disliked the countryside. She wanted nothing more than to leave it behind. Two years ago, she was working in a textile factory in Jiangsu Province, near Shanghai, earning 2,000 yuan a month (about $290)- a very good salary, she says, for someone with her level of education (she'd graduated from a vocational high school).

But when her parents started small-scale organic farming under CURA's pilot program, she began to worry about them. How were they ever going to make ends meet? And now that they were in their 60s, could they actually go back to pulling weeds by hand, to carrying manure out to the fields, to working the land the way it was worked before chemicals and pesticides became the norm?

On a trip home to investigate the situation, Gao Qingrong met CURA volunteers and started reading the materials they'd brought her. And in the end, it was a Chinese translation of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" that did it. Gao moved back to Anlong, and before long had turned all of her family's land organic. On our visit, she proudly showed off the all-natural fertilizers she had fermenting in jars, and pointed out the various fragrant flowers and herbs she was growing alongside the intercropped vegetables (the various scents attract "good" bugs which, in turn, eat the "bad"bugs). Still, it's been a slog. Last year she lost an entire crop of radishes to pests. And only this year have they begun to turn a profit -- barely.

Gao Qingrong gained much of her knowledge of organic farming practices from books. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu, NPR

Gao perks up when I tell her that in the US, organic food has become quite mainstream. China clearly has a long way to go, but concern about food safety is growing. And if the pace of development of the organic food market comes anywhere close to that of other sectors, I suspect the Gao family will sooner, rather than later, find that all their hard work was worth it.

David Gilkey's photography of Anlong will be posted in May.