Growing and learning from vegetables
It was a weekend venture motivated by the desire to feed his children pesticide-free greens, but he definitely reaped more than what he expected when the farm started growing. Deng Zhangyu talks to a natural foodie.
On a bright sunny day before winter’s chill arrived, two dogs and a cat are enjoying a siesta under the shade of an old peach tree with branches weighed down by fruit. The fragrant bouquet of soil, tomatoes, cucumbers and corn floats through the warm air from nearby farms.
This little farm in Beijing’s suburbs is a small world far away from the city’s clamor, smog and gray skies. It’s also an experimental station for Tong Jia, 41, in his pursuit of a green and sustainable lifestyle, and his desire to share safe food with family and friends.
An advertising executive for 10 years, Tong founded Dandelion Farm with some friends in 2010, originally as a weekend hobby. Soon however, it took on more serious intent as food safety became a major concern for urban dwellers separated fromthe source of their food.
When Tong and his friends first laid eyes on the farm rented from a local farmer, it was full of dandelions— so DandelionFarm seemed an obvious choice for a name.
“I was an outsider, and I knew nothing about farming,” says Tong, who is now a proudly selftaught famer after years of experimenting with how to grow different types of vegetables.
Initially, Tong kept his job as creative director at a top advertising company while working on the farm on weekends. He soon found more satisfaction from growing fruits and vegetables than from thinking up fancy concepts for his clients.
He resigned from his job in March and decided to devote his full attention to the farm.
Perhaps as a result of hearing too many buzzwords in his previous job, Tong spurns the “organic” label. He is more interested in “natural” — as in waiting for food and vegetables to grow at their own pace and time.
“See, you can tell directly from the color of a tomato whether it is mature or not,” Tong says.
Tong still remembers his shock when farmers from nearby villagers tried to persuade him to use ripening agent on green tomatoes.
Tomatoes need time and light to turn red but consumers can buy tomatoes on the market as much as a month earlier because of ripening agents like ethane, says Tong.
“Some farmers keep telling me they don’t know how to grow tomatoes without using ethane.
“I have enough time to wait for them to mature. I will allow the land to be fallow for a year to let it get back to its original state,” Tong says, adding that this is less than the time required by the three to five years for organic guidelines.
The total production from his 20,000-square-meter farm is more than enough to feed Tong, his friends and their families.
In the summer of 2011, Dandelion Farm produced several hundred kilograms of cucumbers. Tong posted a Weibo micro blog message online offering people his cucumbers. Within two hours, his message was forwarded more than 300 times.
Tong kept his word. For a whole month, he became a delivery man after work. But this was when Dandelion Farm changed from a wholly private venture to a more public effort.
ButTong had another agenda. He wants more people involved in the growing and the farming, because he feels this is the best way to connect with food in the urban lifestyle.
Tong decided to divide his land into about 80 allotments and invited people interested in being weekend or part-time farmers to rent a plot and grow their own food.
“Idon’tmake a business of it. I just welcome those who share the same vision,” Tong says.
Because his tenants are mainly families, they always drive to the farm with children. That gave Tong the inspiration to offer special classes for children who are estranged from nature.
The classes are more than just teaching children about the types of vegetables. It teaches them how to understand the relationship between man and nature, says Tong.
Tong’s childhood was spent in the countryside in Hubei province where hismomworked as a teacher and he learned a lot playing around the paddy fields.
“Children living in cities rarely have access to nature. I hope they can come to my farm and enjoy themselves as I used to do,” Tong adds.
As he talked about how to grow vegetables according to different seasons, there is little indication that Tong has only been a part-time farmer since relatively recently.
“I have just about finishedmy primary school as a farming student,” he jokes.
In winter when he is not busy on the farm, Tong uses the time to travel, explore new food and visit friends.
“Being a farmer gives me a different mindset and a green lifestyle. Many urbanites have the idea of escaping from cities and returning to the soil. I’m among the fewwho really do it.” Tong is certainly putting his money where his mouth is. Contact the writer at dengzhangyu@ chinadaily.com.cn.
Tong Jia shows off vegetables harvested from his farm in suburban Beijing, where he practices safe and natural farming.
Children spend a weekend at Tong Jia’s Dandelion Farm in suburban Beijing.
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