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Shi Yan: Promoting organic produce in China

Shi Yan Photos: courtesy of Shi Yan

Having graduated from the Renmin University of China with a doctor’s degree in rural development, Shi Yan (石嫣) is now operating two farms in Shunyi and Tongzhou districts respectively in Beijing, while making efforts to publicize the benefits of eating organic vegetables in the city.

When Shi was studying for her master’s degree in 2008, she got the opportunity to go to the US and work in a farm called Earthrise Farm in Minnesota. “I had never planted crops before I went to work in the US. I was only involved in the social aspects of agriculture such as doing research on agricultural policies and carrying out field investigations,” she said. While working in the US, she started to realize that policymakers can formulate good policies only if they get down to “earth.” “If I hadn’t planted anything in the field, I wouldn’t have known that the eggplants that look ugly taste the same as those that look good,” she smiled.

Shi Yan works at Earthrise Farm in Minnesota

After working for half a year in the US, Shi returned to China and was appointed head of a collective farm located near the Beijing Fenghuangling Nature Park (凤凰岭自然风景区) in Haidian district. Shi began to apply what she had learned in the US to the operation of the 13-hectare farm called Little Donkey Farm (小毛驴农场).

The Little Donkey Farm operated on the business model called CSA (community-supported agriculture). The farm intended to grow organic vegetables so Shi and her team needed to place highest priority on food safety. “There is a big gap between consumers and farmers. For example, consumers usually don’t know how the meat they eat is produced, so some producers take advantage of it and engage in unethical and even illegal practices to increase meat production, which leads to food safety risks and causes damage to the environment,” Shi said.

The Little Donkey Farm provided two kinds of service. One was to supply fresh vegetables every week and the other was to rent out plots to customers to plant vegetables themselves. The prices of her products were higher than the average price in the vegetable markets but lower than that in the supermarkets. “I don’t care how much money I can make. I want to offer people better food and create a more agreeable environment,” Shi said.

Shi Yan (left) and her team

In March 2012, Shi quit the Little Donkey Farm and started her own business—Shared Harvest (分享收获). She now owns two farms; one in Shunyi district and the other in Tongzhou district. They supply fresh vegetables, meat and eggs, with over 400 regular customers. “We are promoting our products mainly by word of mouth and media coverage instead of commercials,” she said.

Besides running their own business, Shi and her team are also helping other farmers to promote their produce. For example, she mentioned that they are helping a shepherd in Inner Mongolia sell his mutton. “Many farmers in rural areas are looking for some help from various organizations like us and I think I should do whatever I can to help them. You should do something for others and give something back to the society when your money and time permit,” she said.

Working in a glasshouse of her farm

Shi has a team of 20 staff, most of them college graduates, and some have studied abroad. “I tell every recruit to start with working in the field because they need to overcome physical and mental stigma before they decide whether they really want to do this,” she said.

There are about 20–30 such farms in Beijing. When talking about competition, Shi said, “I don’t think competition is a bad thing to me. I hope more and more people will get involved in this industry and we can work together to provide people with healthy food. I don’t define success as being listed on the stock market or something like that. I think what we are doing is already a success.”

Working with a volunteer from France

Shi is making plans to expand her farms and customer base. “After 20 years’ development, the US has more than 5,000 CSA farms, but they still account for a small number of all farms in the US,” Shi said. Although it will take a long time for the public to understand the merits of eating organic food, she said she will stick with what she is doing for the rest of her life.

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