One man’s good earth

He has been plug­ging the sus­tain­able mes­sage for the last 10 years, and his birds and his squashes are fa­mous for their qual­ity. Fan Zhen learns more about one man’s vi­sion for a bet­ter, safer world of food.

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

For the last decade or so, Lin Jian has been liv­ing a dou­ble life. On­week­days, 9 to 5, he works as a lo­gis­tics man­ager in a State-owned ship­ping com­pany. Af­ter work, he delves into a world of agri­cul­tural re­search. And on week­ends, he drives across town to a sub­urb of Bei­jing where he puts on his farmer’s hat.

His mo­ti­va­tion is sim­ple: To pro­duce safe, healthy food.

On about 3 hectares of land, Lin has built his dream into Wubo Gar­den where, with bees hum­ming and but­ter­flies flut­ter­ing, his chick­ens en­joy a whole range of pes­ti­cide-free foods. This is what he spent his sav­ings of 200,000 yuan ($33,000) on in 2003 — a 30-year lease on this piece of farm­land.

It was any­thing but idyl­lic back then. The land was se­verely com­pacted as a re­sult of ex­ces­sive use of pes­ti­cides and the soil was hard and dry.

“Build­ing and main­tain­ing healthy and fer­tile soil is the fun­da­men­tal ba­sis of eco­log­i­cal farm­ing,” Lin says. “We de­cided not to use any pes­ti­cides and try to in­crease the diver­sity of the plants.”

Lin spent the first three years just cul­ti­vat­ing the soil.

“Dig the soil and if you see earth­worms, that’s the sign of good soil.”

Healthy soil is built in ways that de­velop and pro­tect its struc­ture, fer­til­ity and the mil­lions of or­gan­isms that­make it their home.

How­ever, text­book the­o­ries are not enough, and the main prob­lem Lin faced was know­ing which an­i­mal to raise as the back­bone of the eco-cy­cle, and which sup­port­ing crops to grow.

Ten years ago, the whole idea of eco-friendly farm­ing was still very new in China and there were few prac­ti­cal ex­am­ples for Lin to re­fer to. All he could do was ex­per­i­ment.

“Pigs, rab­bits, chick­ens. I tried many dif­fer­ent species,” Lin says. “Noth­ing worked at first. They just died. With other in­vest­ments, you can some­times re­cu­per­ate some money at the end, but with farm­ing, once your an­i­mals die, you lose ev­ery­thing.”

Eco­nomic pres­sure was im­mense. His fam­ily and friends tried to talk him out of farm­ing. Lin’s part­ner had a baby­on­the­wayand­his friends thought he should not put al­most all of his 4,000 yuan salary into the farm.

Lin de­cided to raise a breed of lo­cal chicken, the Bei­jing Im­pe­rial Oily Chicken. He des­per­ately needed spe­cial­ized knowl­edge, but since he re­fused to use chem­i­cals on his farm, he had to think of other ways to keep his farm clean and the chick­ens healthy. “Even if you clean the floor ev­ery other hour, you still can­not pre­vent the chick­ens from peck­ing the waste on the ground. That’s how dis­eases spread. If one gets sick, they all get sick.”

Lin went to the Bei­jing Academy of Agri­cul­tural and Forestry Sciences to consult the pro­fes­sors and learn about fer­men­ta­tion bed tech­nol­ogy.

He in­vested 25,000 yuan to cover the floor of the hen­house with a 50-cm thick layer of wheat bran, rice husks and saw­dust. The nat­u­ral fer­men­ta­tion bed re­leases ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria, which can break down chicken waste.

“Most of the time, farm­ers just use cheap san­i­tiz­ers to save money and trou­ble.”

Lin also built an un­der­ground bio­gas con­verter right un­der the hen­house. Or­ganic waste from the farm such as the waste from the fer­men­ta­tion bed goes straight to the con­verter and trans­forms into clean en­ergy that the farm can use. The use of an­tibi­otics goes against Lin’s eco­log­i­cal farm­ing prin­ci­ples, so he grows some care­fully cho­sen plants to give his chick­ens a healthy diet.

“Pump­kins, corn, car­rots, cabbages, radishes and white gourds are what they eat ev­ery day,” says Lin, who feels that chick­ens de­serve to eat as healthily as hu­mans.

His chicken also get the ben­e­fit of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine. Lin feeds them mint in sum­mer when it gets too hot, and he uses indigo wood root and per­illa leaves when they catch colds.

“Chick­ens from nor­mal poul­try farms get dozens of dif­fer­ent vac­ci­na­tions dur­ing their life­time, and chem­i­cal residues are un­avoid­able. We only give our birds the two vac­ci­na­tions that are legally re­quired.”

In 2008, Lin joined the first batch of farm­ers in Bei­jing to try out com­mu­nity-sup­ported agri­cul­ture. “There were only three peo­ple in that group. Shi Yan, the main mo­ti­va­tor, had just in­tro­duced the idea from abroad and was in­te­grat­ing it into a project she was do­ing for a univer­sity.”

By then, Lin was al­ready a found­ing mem­ber of the Bei­jing Coun­try Fair, a weekly or­ganic farm­ers’ mar­ket where 20 or so farm­ers gather to sell their home­grown pes­ti­cide­free pro­duce. Lin says trust is the most im­por­tant thing when farm­ers sell their prod­ucts di­rectly to their cus­tomers. “I never present my prod­ucts as or­ganic be­cause of the en­vi­ron­men­tal lim­i­ta­tions and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion dif­fi­cul­ties. But I can prom­ise them the food is safe and healthy be­cause they can come to my farm to see for them­selves.”

Lin also or­ga­nizes in­ter­ac­tive ac­tiv­i­ties, such as field prac­tice for par­ents and farm­ing classes for chil­dren.

“I hope they can en­joy the nat­u­ral way of farm­ing as much as I do and can un­der­stand why some prob­lems re­main un­solved. I also in­vite other or­ganic farm­ers to come over all the time. They give me some re­ally use­ful ad­vice.”

Ev­ery Satur­day morn­ing, be­fore dawn ar­rives, Lin gets up and pre­pares for another day, be it a day at the fair or a day on his farm. He feels happy and be­lieves his hap­pi­ness some­how can travel from his food to his fam­ily, friends and clients.

Al­ready he has a steady group of reg­u­lar cus­tomers who swear by his chick­ens, eggs and pump­kins. Tir­ing as it can be some­times, Lin feels “it’s just worth it”. Con­tact the writer at fanzhen@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

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PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Lin Jian teaches chil­dren how to do farm­work in his Wubo Gar­den in sub­ur­ban Bei­jing.

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