U.S. Sustainable Agriculture Through Chinese Eyes

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by Jim Harkness, 8/26/08 • “You should tell more people around the world about America’s non-mainstream agriculture and food system. Then they won’t hate you so much!”

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

This was the blunt advice I got from Professor Wen Tiejun, as I bade him farewell at the Minneapolis airport in September 2006. Wen, an old acquaintance and influential advisor to the Chinese leadership on agricultural issues, had stopped in Minnesota for a few days on his way to give a lecture at Harvard University. During his visits with IATP staff and his lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, he had been surprised at how many people seemed to agree with his harsh critique of U.S. industrial agriculture and the policies that support it. He was even more surprised when I took him to visit The Wedge, America’s largest grocery co-operative, and several Community Supported Agriculture farms. Where was the McDonald’s and KFC, the junk food? Where were the massive government subsidies and terrible environmental damage? The emergence of a fairer and more sustainable way of growing and selling food within the home of globalized industrial agriculture (Cargill is based in Minnesota, after all) was a bit of a shock to this champion of China’s small, family farmers.

At first glance, farming in China and the U.S. seem to have nothing in common. China has about 300 million farms, the U.S. only 2 million. The average farm size in the U.S. is about 450 acres, and it’s not uncommon for a farmer to have a million dollars or more tied up in machinery. A typical farm in China covers only about one acre, and family members do much of the cultivation by hand. And although China’s communes were broken up over 25 years ago, ownership of farmland remains in the hands of village governments or the State. But despite these huge differences, a closer look reveals similar challenges facing farmers in both countries. In both places:

• farmers are losing their land or getting stuck in contract arrangements that make them effectively hired hands on their own farms;

• supply chains are getting longer and more complex, cutting into farmers’ profits and endangering food safety;

• over-dependence on chemical inputs and a narrowing range of hybrid seed varieties is poisoning the environment, threatening human health and taking more and more control of the food system out of the hands of the people who grow or eat food and putting it under the control of corporations.

To foster greater understanding between Americans and Chinese about the farming systems in each country, and share some of Minnesota’s experience with sustainable agriculture, we decided to invite a student from Professor Wen’s School of Agriculture and Rural Development to spend a season on an American farm. The School, part of People’s University, was involved in experiments with rural cooperatives, and following Wen’s visit to IATP had worked to develop pioneering Community Supported Agriculture and consumer food co-operative projects. To gain a better understanding of how a working CSA operates, incoming doctoral candidate Shi Yan arrived in Minnesota in the second week of April 2008 to start a 5-month internship at the Earthrise Farm.

Ms. Shi has been blogging in Chinese about her experiences at Earthrise, a small CSA farm run by two Catholic nuns near the Minnesota-South Dakota border, since the day she arrived. We present translated selections from her blog entries to date, and will upload subsequent entries until the end of her sojourn, which she wryly refers to as a contemporary twist on the Cultural Revolution movement to send educated youths to the countryside.