National Geographic : 2018 Feb
Feeding china 107 For consumers the appeal of small farms is two- fold. It’s partly about trusting the farm to supply safe food. But smaller farms also reflect China’s agricultural traditions, says Wen Tiejun, a lead- ing scholar of rural China, and that appeals to rural and urban Chinese alike. “In Asia you have 40 centuries of agriculture,” Wen says. “You not only get enough food for this big population but have a very good environment.” People know and remember this, he says. In 2008 Wen helped found Little Donkey, a model organic farm in Bei- jing. The next year it became a CSA after one of his graduate students returned from Minnesota, where she’d studied with food activists. This kind of food remains a minuscule share of China’s market. But it suggests that many Chinese aren’t completely sold on a future of industrial meals. Jiang Zhengchao understands why his par- ents would love to leave their farm behind, and he has no wish to repeat their hardships. But he’s also skeptical that industrialized farms are necessary. When I visited him, Jiang took me and some colleagues to dinner at a barbecue restaurant. We sat outside at a plastic table, watching a plump woman in a tight apron tend a narrow metal grill atop sawhorse legs. An industrial fan roared above it, spinning tendrils of smoke into the eve- ning air. The woman brought us caramelized nuggets of pork and skewered chicken hearts, fibrous enoki mushrooms doused with sauce and black sesame, grilled garlic cloves, eggplant slick with oil and vinegar, boiled peanuts tossed with soy sauce. It was more meat than Jiang had eaten as a child but far less than is typical for Ameri- cans. As the light faded into dusk, elderly farmers loitered on a corner, selling off surplus scallions. Jiang told me he liked his life and later quoted poetry to illustrate what Americans tend to call living simply: an old but comfortable house, nothing too fancy, a beautiful space in the woods. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing in the old days that the people could support themselves from their own land,” he says. “In China if you are a farmer, then people look down on you, but I just love it. Life is short, so I do what I like.” Jiang has seen the benefits of the changes that China’s farms have undergone in the past four decades. Our meal with ample pork and chick- en was part of that for him. So was the way his life encompassed a kind of time travel, looping between rural Gansu Province and hypermodern Beijing. But he wasn’t sure he’d stick it out with the CSA; it paid so little and took so much work. Maybe, he told me, he’d go back to Gansu and try to start a big farm. j Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating, wrote about hunger in the United States for the August 2014 issue of National Geographic. George Steinmetz, who has photographed assignments for the magazine for 30 years, is working on a long-term project about the global food supply.