Q. The November eNews mentioned your trip to China, and that generated a lot of interest among our readers. Please share why you were traveling.
EJ: I went to China as part of an international group through Urgenci, the international CSA network, which promotes CSA and offers farmers an opportunity to share resources across borders. There were two conferences taking place simultaneously –- the 7th national China CSA Conference and the 6th International Urgenci Symposium. I was there as a guest of the international conference and facilitated a workshop on starting a sustainable and successful CSA, and I also presented on how our CSA network, FairShare, is operating in the U.S. The conference was partially funded by the Chinese government.
Q. What part of the country were you in?
EJ: We were in the Shunyi district, to the northeast of Beijing, about a 40-minute drive from the city. The place where we stayed was a conference center in a more rural suburb; there were a lot of farms in the area.
Q. What was your biggest takeaway from the experience?
EJ: I was reminded of how similar people are around the world. The problems that we are facing in the United States, other countries are confronting the same things.
Q. What is happening with CSA in China? Did you visit any farms?
EJ: Food safety issues are definitely concerns of the public, which is why they are looking at CSA as a means of regaining trust in their food system.
The government has invested a lot in industrial food production in general. Throughout the countryside, we saw a lot of capital investments such as greenhouses. That infrastructure is also available for use by the farmers that we visited. They are able to lease space in a greenhouse, for instance.
Land ownership in China is really different… people don’t really own the land… the government owns it and sets up long-term lease agreements.
CSA started in China in 2008 at Little Donkey Farm, which we visited. Shi Yan, the farmer and founder, came to Minnesota and worked on Earthrise Farm. She went back to China and then started Little Donkey. Little Donkey has a broad array of activities on it. It’s a traditional CSA and it has community garden plots that people can rent and come out and garden. It has incubator plots for farm apprentices, a wood shop, a children’s area, and they keep chickens. Of all the farms we saw, that one most closely resembles a farm you’d see in US. It’s smaller scale, hand scale, but in a village facing a lot of development. They are struggling to keep their land.
Shi Yan has now left Little Donkey, and she and her husband started a different farm, Shared Harvest. They have 300 or 400 members now and grow all their food at two different farm sites; one with greenhouses, the other, fields. It’s a traditional CSA. Members sign up in the beginning of the season and pay by the weight of their veggies instead of box sizes. They deliver shares every week or every other week. A lot of the farms have people come out to the farm to pick up because they are really encouraging people to have the experience of rural life. People in the cities don’t understand what it is like out in the country.
Q. What has been the arc of the CSA movement in China? What was your big takeaway regarding CSA in that country?
EJ: In 2008, they started with one farm; there are 500 farms now. What surprised me was the diversity of farms and products and the empowerment of people through CSA. CSA everywhere really encourages people to take ownership over their life and their food. People don’t want to be stuck in the industrialized food system with all of its issues. That is the exact same thing that is happening in China. They are going back to their roots. They were an agrarian society for thousands of years. Chinese leaders recognize that the current way of producing food is not sustainable long-term. There was definitely a lot of academics pointing out problems and saying that CSA is an avenue for solutions. That shined the light back onto our system in the U.S. How can we see that CSA is solution and really highlight that?
Q. You met a lot of people from around the world. What struck you from those conversations?
EJ: A few that stand out: two gentleman from India presented on how CSA is in India and one of the stories he told was about how CSA has always been part of their agriculture. In a community, in a small village, if your neighbor has a cow and produces milk, you say, I’ll pay you to have this cow and get milk from you…. Resource sharing was common across the village.
Another was how, in a lot of countries, there is a close connection between CSA and other movements. In AMAP (the name for CSA in France), they spoke of CSAs as an association for the maintenance of peasant agriculture (AMAP), and of empowering farm workers and enabling them to make a living. CSA is an alternative economic system because there is no middleman. It’s an alternative mechanism to the standard capitalist model. The idea behind solidarity economies – something like the Dane County TimeBank — is the idea that instead of paying for goods, you are participating in a relationship economy, an alternative economic system. It’s like an economy based on community and relationships instead of solely on profit. It’s also based on the environment and what is in the common good.
Q. Anything to inform your work with the Madison group or to share with our farmers?
EJ: I think the piece of information that I felt like, ok this is really making me think of things we can do in our area, was related to engaging CSA members more in the work of the farm and looking at ways that other communities around the world are doing this. Using the farmer-to-member relationships, that connecting piece, that’s really helping to engage and educate community members about our food production, farms, and what it means to be a conscious eater.
Q. What are some examples?
EJ: The Participatory Guarantee System is a way to engage farmers and members in the production practices of the farm. It’s a way to both communicate about the way that you’re farming and to help the eaters understand the way that you produce food. It’s more of an educational tool to engage members, a community-based evaluation that is also providing feedback and answering questions and getting suggestions from other growers.
A lot of CSAs around the world are really relying on members to operate and manage aspects of the farm through core groups. Rather than the farmer having to take on all aspects of the farms, that’s something members can do to become more involved with the farm.
In Brazil, they identify a point person in a different part of the city or region, and then that person gets members in their area, so the farmer doesn’t have to do all their own marketing. Each country has its own context politically, economically, geographically. What works there may not translate to work well here, but we can take some of the ideas and customize them.
Q. Did you discuss plans for more collaboration or the need for a national CSA group in this country?
EJ: There were nine people from the U.S. at the conference. We all talked about how we want to collaborate in the U.S. and across North America. Maybe the first steps toward having a national network is finding other regional CSA networks that are already in existence. Let’s ID those groups and put together a forum where we can all share information.
People everywhere are facing the same problems. Their food isn’t safe; they don’t know where their food is coming from; they don’t want to eat industrially produced food, and the industrial food system is causing problems for the farm workers and environment. People are using the same model of direct farm-to-consumer agriculture all across the world, and being able to be connected and share our experiences is really important in supporting and growing the CSA movement here and around the rest of the country.