I hurry off the bus that brought me from Beijing to Toubaihu Village in Hebei Province. The purpose of my journey is to discuss agriculture with Pengfei Cheng, who’s already been waiting in the station for an hour.
Our conversation starts with popular music in the past two decades rather than agriculture. From Tsai Chin to Jay Chou, we fervently exchanged ideas, just like two young music fans. Pengfei, this “hippie“ born in 1968, at similar age of my father, shares his songs with me. It is to this musical backdrop that we step into the land that has brought him so much joy…and so much sorrow
Pengfei was born in Toubaihu Village in 1968. Unlike most families in the area, Pengfei’s was not involved in agriculture. Instead, his parents worked for the county. He began his career as a civil servant, and in 1998 took on a sustainable livelihood project with Action Aid, an international NGO. The project represented Pengfei’s first foray into agriculture, and he would continue this work for the next 13 years.
When the project ended in 2010, Pengfei was at a crossroads. Inspired by the NGO operation model, he resigned from his job, and, together with several farmers and local officials, founded Yidunqing Rural Community Development Promotion Society. As an NGO, it would promote local education, women’s rights and sustainable livelihoods. Unfortunately, internal conflicts kept it from ever getting off the ground. The locals had a saying, “The sky takes half of the crop, and the land takes the other half, the left is farmers.” Since it’s hard to work with people, he started to work with “sky and land” on agriculture. In 2011, Pengfei founded Yidunqing Farm to promote sustainable farming and biodynamic agriculture. Refusing to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers, he wanted to show area farmers that it was possible to maintain a sustainable livelihood.
His ideal was nice, but the reality was harsh. He took several hard blows. Once again, the people he trusted let him down. Because of his limited background in agriculture, he had hired an experienced farm manager. In 2013, he discovered that the manager was embezzling funds, so Pengfei took over the daily operation of the farm. He would no longer have time to indulge in the joy singing.
“Attempt” was the keyword for his operation of the farm. Not having a traditional farming background or cases could be followed, Pengfei relied heavily on trial and error. Eventually, he discovered a promising new grain crop: quinoa. It was well suited for both the local growing conditions and the marketplace. Moreover, his cooperation with the Beijing Fuping Chuangyuan Agricultural Technology Development Company gave him access to the Beijing market. Success quickly followed, but Cheng knew “deeds are better than words”. Thus he was helping other farmers solve part of the distribution problem, and leading farmers to pass the fertilizer residue test of Fuping Chuangyuan By the end of 2015, the average annual income of local farmers had increased from 20,000 RMB to 100,000 RMB.
Despite Pengfei’s success, he had his share of detractors. Because quinoa resembles a local weed, some mocked him for cultivating a seemingly worthless crop. Others felt that his success was political—that as a former civil servant he’d received special government support. Ignoring these rumors, Pengfei persisted in operating Yidunqing Farm with the farmers who trust him during the past three years. There had been conflicts, but he persisted and received results. More and more farmers followed his ecological approach of planting. Once in an "organic farmer market" visit, He organized a trip to Beijing for local farmers who had never been to the capital, explaining, “I want farmers to know that as long as the food they grow is safe, people will buy it. And I want city people to appreciate just how difficult it is to grow food safely.”
“I grew up in the county and I like NGOs and identify with their meaning. Like them, I want to help the farmers around me. I’ve hit some bumps in the road,” he says without regret, “I’ve been tricked, been laughed at. But I will continue to promote my model and try to build a sustainable agriculture base in every poor county in China. I will invite the farmers to learn, and I will show them how to enrich their lives.
All my customers trust me a lot. I share what I’m doing on WeChat, showing people that I don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. I provide them with truly safe and tasty food. I believe if there is one industry that can preserve life-long customers, it must be agriculture. As long as I earn their trust, they will buy from me, and their kids will do the same.
My 12-year old son told me: dad, I won’t be a farmer like you, because I like English and I will continue to study it, but you make me proud.” A familiar smile appeared in Pengfei’s face, but soon faded into the deep wrinkles.
The Idea of Eco-Trust Agriculture
An Apple with Edible Skin
At Yashau National Forest Park in Shandong Province, there is a 6,600-hectare forest rising 800 meters above sea level. It is home to more than 600 varieties of herbaceous plants and over 200 species of wildlife.
Biodiversity is brought out fully here. The apples grown here are the best gifts of nature that integrate ecological environment with agricultural production. They are different from those grown anywhere else: they could be eaten after being washed thoroughly under running water, without discarding the peel.
Consuming an apple with the peel on - it sounds like a joke but actually indicates a serious problem. Apple is one of the most common and popular fruits. China’s apple cultivation areas and production comprise 46.19% and 49.10% of world’s total respectively. No doubt China is the world’s leading apple grower and producer. However, a number of research on pesticide use and residue levels suggest that China’s apples are in a poor quality as a perennial rosacea plant, apple trees’ root system is highly developed, absorbing large amount of mineral elements and microelements from soil each year. The problem is that the use of chemical fertilizers in China is far more than American or other developed countries’ standards, and the overuse of chemical fertilizers has a detrimental effect on the soil, the groundwater, and the area’s overall biodiversity.
It’s proved that discarding the apple peel won’t necessarily eliminate the risk of ingesting harmful substances. Yet, Chinese consumers are understandably sceptical. They have no idea where to get genuinely healthy food. Even when given assurances that food is free from contamination, they remain wary and are reluctant to enjoy this delicious fruit. The eco-friendly and organic cultivation pattern is needed, but the first step is to restore consumers’ confidence on food security, and to convince them that farmers can grow trustworthy food.
For the Love of Apples
The Apple Guy
Xie Ming moved to Shandong Province for the love of his girlfriend, who now is his wife. . If Xie left hometown and gave up living a life on his Japanese major for love, what made him stay at this unfamiliar place for 6 years is not only love, but also a career as “the apple guy”. Xie is currently the owner of Enran Nature Farm.
When asked why he decided to become the “Apple Guy”, Xie Ming recalls “the paper bag scandal in 2012 alarmed me and many other growers.Since then, we wanted to produce apples that were good for people.” As a result, Xie Ming had spent four years to find the best region for growing apples. In 2015, a friend suggested that he visit Yashan National Forest Park, which has a 36,667 m2 apple orchard out of its 287,000 m2 total area. Xie Ming “The moment I walked into the orchard I told myself, this is it!” Xie Ming recalls.
In 2016, Xie Ming made the decision to cooperate with Fuping and grow apples in accordance with the Fuping-Land Eco-trust Agriculture Standards and Regulations, and his own Enran’s Natural Growing Law, reducing the use of pesticides and publishing the whole production process, aiming to provide consumers with safe, nutritious, tasty apples.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Only love can make someone stick on to one thing for a long time. “Now I can finally say that I’m proud of myself for insisting on doing the thing that I like.” “The apple guy” is now a father, and the apple trees had already taught him how to be responsible and dedicated as a father.
Growing Peel-Free Apples, Gaining Consumer Trust
How to Grow Peel-Free Apples?
Xie Ming’s apples are grown in consistent with eco-trust agriculture standard. This standard is not like any other agriculture standard. Rather than regulating the individual details of production, the standards take into account actual situations faced by farmers, and, produce the safest food through coordination with them. To consumers, it doesn’t provide any evaluation summary but the real record of production and third-party chemical residue report By ensuring transparency so that consumers can fully enjoy the right to know and judge themselves. This is the innovation of eco-trust agriculture, which aims to build the trust between farmers and consumers.
The trusted ecological standards are comprised of four key elements: (1) cultivation commitment, (2) production records, (3) regular inspections and (4) test reports, which ensure the farmers get professional guidance as well as the truthfulness and accuracy of recording.
The whole life cycle of the eco-trust agriculture is like a poem, expressing the precious intimacy of nature, farmers and customers.
(1) Cultivation Commitment
Cultivation commitment is the beginning of the whole eco-trust agriculture. It is a pledge. The Cultivation Commitment limits the areas that can be used for growing apples. Farmers grow apples in accordance with the principle of eco-trust agriculture, and follow the Fuping-Land Eco-trust Agriculture Standards and Regulations in their operation. The purpose of this commitment is to grow safe and nutritious apples. Maybe other people would see contract as shackes, but to us, this is a solemn commitment to honesty, integrity and mate our words with deeds.
(2) Production Records
Production Report is the key of eco-trust agriculture. Cultivation Commitment regulated the standards of growing apples. In accordance with the standards, every aspect of apple production like trimming, gardening, fertilizing, watering, picking out flowers and fruits, the use of pesticides and protective bags, are all recorded in the Production Report. We would like to present food without secrets. Therefore, we expose the whole process lay bare under public scrutiny. After all, this is the right to know is an inherent right of customers.
(3) Field Inspection
To ensure that Production Reports are complete and accurate, regular inspections from a third party are conducted. Equipped with expertise and down-to-earth attitude, we address any discrepancies between the reports and actual practices and make the appropriate adjustments.
(4) Product Inspection
Test reports are powerful proof of our work. Here we present a test report that records apples produced in accordance with the trusted ecological standards will be thoroughly evaluated by means of a test covering 275 items. In addition, apples available through various sales channels will be randomly tested for pesticide residue this year to provide consumers with a general overview of the safety level of apples available in the market.
We believe in the nature’s bounty. That is why we work with the nature in the way of eco-trust agriculture, record the whole process in words and present it to everyone who cares about nature, like you. There is no way to gain your trust by merely writing a report, but we would like to take it as a beginning. We believe the warmth of trust can be felt through these cold papers.
Lin Chen was born in 1976 in Hanzhong City, Shaanxi Province. The culinary habits—eating rice rather than noodles, spicy skewers rather than paomo (a kind of bread similar to pita)—and lifestyle of Hanzhong people are closer to that of Sichuan than Shaanxi Province. Therefore, Lin is also a mixed-blood of Shaanxi’s toughness and Sichuan’s gentleness. If there is one word that sums up his character more precisely, that is “fastidious”, which coincides with his zodiac sign: Virgo. So, what it is like to be a “virgo farmer”?
Before becoming a farmer of Leping’s eco-trust program, he was trained in a farm of Daichi wo Mamoru Kai (Earth Protection Association) in Japan for three years. There, he engaged in farming using agroecology principles, without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He put much time and effort into gaining more knowledge about ecological farming technologies.
In 2012, at a time when food safety issues were escalating in China, Lin Chen came back to his home country at the news that Leping and Daichi wo Mamoru Kai were going to build an agricultural production base together. Stayed at home for only three months, he came to Zhongyuan Farm. Next year, the Tianjin Zhongyuan Vegetable Planting Co-op, a farm based on “eco-trust agriculture” officially came into being.
“I had never expected it would be so difficult.” Determined not to be over optimistic, Lin was still struck by harsh reality when he first set foot on the farm. Zhongyuan Farm is located at the Jinghai District in the metropolis of Tianjin. It's an industrial area with saline-alkali soil, hard, glistening and barren. Wheat farmers and corn farmers came and gone, just like the occasional birds across the sky, and the bullet trains on Beijing-Shanghai railway roared past, without leaving a trace. However, Lin was here to stay. “Let’s take a leap of faith on this barren land and see how hard it can be. If we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.” He stood true to his words in the past three years and successfully grew safe vegetables with zero chemical fertilizer and pesticide using agroecological technologies, while improving the local environment at the same time. The farm deployed a comprehensive system of physical, chemical and biological measures to prevent pest and disease damage and ensure output, and by using organic bacterial manure and compost, it improved soil quality. Vitality came back to the land: earthworms, insects and birds are the best testimony.
“In the past three years, using biological pest and disease control, organic bacterial manure and compost rather than pesticides and chemical fertilizers, we managed to produce safe vegetables and improve soil quality.” Lin said as he took out a neatly written notebook from a stack of them on the bookshelf, which record everyday farming activity and treatment. “We allow some mild pests and diseases, as long as they don't compromise the output and quality. Although agroecological farming doesn’t provide quick solutions, it builds a good ecosystem that allows nature and ecological chains to cure minor diseases and fend off pests. ” He repeated these words again and again to pupils, Japanese students, consumers and R&D specialists who visited the farm. In the past three years, colleagues and interns came and went, he still adhered to this exact principle.
In this age, as long as you shine, nobody can block out your light. Reporters from Tianjin TV Station, teachers from Tianjin Agricultural University and experts from Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences came following the success of Zhongyuan Farm. The teachers and experts were not here for appraisal, but to cooperate and learn from Zhongyuan with their advanced farming techniques.
“Working here at the base is hard, which I know better than anyone else. So you have the freedom to do what you want, like conducting an experiment or try a new variety of plant, as long as you don’t violate the principle. If you success, then you’ll have the reward, but if you fail, I will take the responsibility for it.” As the head of farm, Lin always encourage interns to let their experiment and expression run wild. In the three years, both people stayed and left the farm were tied together closely by it. Zhongyuan Farm is not only a demonstration base that fosters the transformation of agricultural production that is sustainable both environmentally and economically, but also a cradle for young people with brand new understanding of agriculture, and facilitate them to achieve long-term goals.
Lin doesn’t have high aspirations, nor does he talk about big dreams. What he admits and is proud of, though, is that today’s Zhongyuan Farm was built by him and colleagues on saline-alkali soil step by step.
“He who stands on his tiptoes does not stand firm; he who stretches his legs does not walk easily.” (from The Tao-te Ching) Lin must have got the ancient Chinese wisdom distilled in this proverb, because he is a fastidious farmer who stands steady and focus on one thing at a time.