FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
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.