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.

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

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.

Online

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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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