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it up, in­ad­ver­tently cre­at­ing even more work for her and her hus­band.

Once, a sud­den storm de­stroyed much of her rice crop be­cause she had not enough time to cover it prop­erly.

Shang grad­u­ally learned how to get things done through a process of trial and er­ror. She learned how to work the land, grow pro­duce and buy the right tools to get the job done. Bit by bit, she won over her neigh­bors and be­came an ac­cepted mem­ber of the com­mu­nity.

Vil­lagers now re­fer to the English lit­er­a­ture ma­jor, re­spect­fully, as dax­uesh­eng (uni­ver­sity stu­dent).

“I did not ex­pect her to stick around for so long,” said Yu, who es­ti­mates that Shang pro­duces about one-third as much rice as her neigh­bors with sim­i­lar-sized lots.

“I ad­mire her spirit. Now the lo­cal peo­ple are fi­nally start­ing to em­brace her.”

Hou said she only pro­duced about one-tenth as much rice as the av­er­age farm in her worst year.

Many of the farm­ers sell their pro­duce on Taobao.com, China’s largest on­line shop­ping plat­form, as well as at week­end food mar­kets.

“The farm’s in­come can cover its op­er­a­tional costs, while also pro­vid­ing enough food for me and my fam­ily. But it is im­pos­si­ble to get rich do­ing this,” Hou said.

Nei­ther of the two farm op­er­a­tors from Shang­hai plan to ex­pand their re­spec­tive busi­nesses, at least not yet.

“I see it as a life­style, not a busi­ness,” said Shang, who now drives a tri­cy­cle to work. Her farm cov­ers more than 13 hectares.

Dur­ing the busy sea­son, farms in Chong­ming need to em­ploy dozens of helpers. Neigh­bors are of­ten will­ing to pitch in, but most of the younger peo­ple have al­ready moved down­town to Shang­hai. Some ex­press con­cern about who will be left to tend the land in the fu­ture.

China’s agri­cul­tural pop­u­la­tion will drop to be­tween 10 per­cent and 20 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion in the near fu­ture, ac­cord­ing to Zhao Hui, an of­fi­cial at the Min­istry of Hous­ing and Ur­ban-Ru­ral Devel­op­ment. He made the re­mark dur­ing an on­line in­ter­view for the cen­tral gov­ern­ment’s of­fi­cial web­site last year.

He said vil­lages like those in Chong­ming not only guar­an­tee the food sup­ply but also func­tion as pro­tec­tors of the coun­try’s eco­log­i­cal and cul­tural her­itage.

This has ap­par­ently hit a nerve with those who have aban­doned Shang­hai’s con­gested roads for the is­land’s wide open spa­ces.

“I am ex­plor­ing a new means of co­op­er­a­tion in terms of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion,” said Shang. “Even though in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion helps, my way of nat­u­ral plant­ing still re­quires you to use your hands, and the hands of oth­ers.”

She said she has met many young vol­un­teers on­line, some of whom come over to help her plant seeds and raise her live­stock.

Two of the helpers now live on her farm. Both are men aged 24. They earn their food and keep, and get to spend their days out in the fields work­ing in the sun­shine.

Zong Kai­hua used to work in Bei­jing as a com­puter en­gi­neer. His in­ter­est in en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion ul­ti­mately led him to Shang’s Xi Yuan farm ear­lier this year.

Apart from his regular chores, he col­lects plas­tic bags and other trash from the field as part of his re­search into the topic of waste-clas­si­fi­ca­tion in ru­ral ar­eas.

Hou plans to launch an agri­cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion base tar­get­ing the younger gen­er­a­tion. She is pre­par­ing a small piece of land that she plans to share with chil­dren who are in­ter­ested in plant­ing their own pro­duce.

“I love food and agri­cul­ture, and I found that a lot of kids are in­ter­ested in this, too, but they don’t have any op­por­tu­nity to get in­volved be­cause they are buried in school work,” said Hou, who has a 14-year-old son.

She said she plans to stick with it un­til her farm con­tract ex­pires in 2028.

“Now that my life has im­proved, I’m think­ing of ways to help more peo­ple live bet­ter,” she said.


Shang Ying

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