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.
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 email@example.com.
Lin Jian teaches children how to do farmwork in his Wubo Garden in suburban Beijing.