Beijing Organic Farmers Market

China Development Brief No 59 (Autumn 2013)

中文 English

Chang Tianle’s life has never lacked inspiration. Born in the seventies, she worked as a reporter for China Daily after graduating from university. In 2003, she was part of the first group of Shanghai’s international volunteers and worked as a volunteer teacher in Laos, where she forged ties with NGOs. Subsequently, Chang left the development field to work for a large foreign company for two years, after which she returned to the budding NGO media scene as an editor for the English edition of “China Development Brief”. After changing direction once more to study in America, she returned to China in 2009 as a “returnee” high flyer, securing herself a flashy job title with an international organisation. But with the unique perspective gained from her time as an elite in the Shanghai NGO world, she became increasingly discontented. In 2010 she teamed up with a few friends to establish an organic farmers market to sell farm-fresh produce in all weathers.

Food safety issues stem from problems within society

Chang had been welcomed as a representative of the Organic Farmers Market to a conference for women leaders, run by the Federation of Youth and Social Enterprise (FYSE) in September 2013. She explained that “Many people think that organic farmers markets originated overseas. In reality, however, they were the earliest form of trade all over the world. From early times to the present day, going to the market involves a face-to-face exchange between the farmer and the buyer, with no middle-man, and no big supermarket. So we are reviving old traditions within the city,” Chang explained to the audience.

In September 2010, a few foreign artists launched an organic food related performance art project in Beijing. Held once or twice a month, it was originally intended to explore the relationship between food and society, city and the countryside. But with the input of local volunteers like Chang, everyone agreed it should become more routine and established, thereby improving its effectiveness at helping consumers find safe products, broadening farmers’ paths to markets and increasing revenue.

However, during discussions about the organization’s mission, several of the founding members stated unanimously that the market’s main goal wasn’t to cater to consumer’s demands for safe food, and it certainly wasn’t to make money. Their main concern was the impact of modern farming methods on the environment, and of China’s social rapid development on the “three rural issues1”.

The organic market provides a platform for organic farmers to sell their produce. Encouraging consumers to buy locally from small producers on the one hand reduces the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and thereby environmental pollution, and on the other supports rural development. All the market’s profits go directly into the producers’ pockets, compared to supermarkets from which producers receive 10% or less. It is not a lack of regulation that causes China’s food safety issues (that is an external factor) but rather the rapid pace of privatization, the exploitation of profits by distributors and agents, the excessive market competition, and the worsening living conditions of producers. The only way to fundamentally solve food safety issues and rebuild trust is to reduce the net cost from field to table, improve conditions for producers, and increase rural families’ income.

Setting up stalls to sell vegetables is only one part of the puzzle in achieving these aims. Organic markets should also provide training for farmers in organic cultivation techniques, and support for young people returning to the countryside to set up new businesses. Furthermore, consumers must be educated through meetings, lectures, and visits to farms as to why it is so important to buy local produce from small-scale producers. If consumers don’t appreciate the hidden underlying repercussions of their purchasing behavior, and think only of demand for organic products, they could find themselves relying on high priced big agro business to solve their problems.

Rebuilding social trust

Visiting the organic market in the New World Department Store in Beijing’s Chongwenmen area on the eve of the Mid-Autumn festival, I experienced a moment of trust rarely seen at other markets: I had paid a stall vendor, Miss Chen, but she was so busy with other customers that she forgot to give me my change. After reminding her, she apologized profusely and, taking my word without question on how much I was owed, returned my change.

This kind of face-to-face relationship between the producer and the customer obviously increases trust and emphasizes the credibility of the market as a link between the two. This is the main reason customers have faith in the produce even though most stalls have not received official organic certification. Owing to the exorbitant costs and complicated red tape involved in the certification process, only a few dairy producers have been certified.

Of course, the media and consumers still question the reliability of market produce. Faced with these suspicions, Chang explains the market in these terms: when the organic market was first set up, a Japanese woman, Emi Uemura, found the site, while Shi Yan of the Little Donkey Farm lent a hand in securing five or six reliable and independent small-sized farms from within the community of organic producers. At the same time, the first customers to shop at the market came from groups who already knew about these farms. The basis for mutual trust was built upon these social networks.

In order to foster trust, the market discloses as much information as possible about each farm to its customer. The market organizers have contact information for every farm, and each stall displays a name-plate, allowing interested shoppers to read about the farm, contact the vendor, or even visit the farm themselves. In order to further educate the public about organic farming, the market organizes regular meetings and forums at the “One Yuan Commune” and other public spaces. Attendees have an interest in organic products, while speakers may be market organizers, organic farmers, or researchers and specialists in the organic foods industry. These activities actually form a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), an interesting idea that has arisen in recent years: farmers and consumers work together upon a foundation built of trust, social networks and shared knowledge, to create an evaluated system of guarantees organized by local stakeholders.

On top of this, the organic market has also set up teams of volunteers with a range of responsibilities; on the one hand, they evaluate entry requirements for new farms wishing to participate, a process sometimes lasting over a year. On the other hand, they also inspect market produce for problems which, when identified, have resulted in some participants losing their qualification.

Exploiting grey areas

Despite the recent trend towards an overall loosening in policies directed at social enterprises and social service organizations, Chang thinks organic markets cannot wait any longer for a clear green light from the relevant authorities and should actively exploit policies’ grey areas. With the help of friends and acquaintances, she and her colleagues have introduced the market to new locations, including schools, shopping malls and businesses. Generally speaking, these locations already have good relationships with local authorities, enabling the markets to run smoothly and develop quickly.

In order to attract customers, many shopping centers frequently invite outside organizations to run activities and offer to cover their costs. They have also caught on to the fact that organic farmers markets attract high quality customers who generate positive publicity through micro blogs calling on readers to support the markets. In comparison to other less reliable organizations, farmers markets prove to be worth the expense. Many shopping centers therefore waive the fees for organic farmers markets and even pay for their running costs, which contributes significantly to the markets’ income. Nowadays, within the Beijing mall sector “organic farmers markets” have already become a brand with a well known high performance-price return.

Naturally, the ongoing development of farmers markets cannot remain underground, but must enter the mainstream and be properly regulated. Currently, Chang and her co-workers are already setting up the first community service center and vegetable shop in Sanyuan Bridge, Beijing. The total area of the center is about 90 square meters, with 30 square meters reserved for sales, and 60 square meters for activities. The plan is to hold many more educational initiatives to raise consumer awareness and promote Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Several obstacles impede quick development, including the number of participating farms, the limited availability of land, and the length of time needed to establish trust. Promoting the brand name can also be problematic. At the moment the Beijing organic farmers market is promoted through Weibo, which has more than 80,000 followers, and increasingly through WeChat. However, there is a definite lack of means to communicate with people who have no web access, particularly the elderly living in cities with a strong interest in healthy produce. When I was chatting with Chang, an old lady who lived nearby fervently expressed her wish that the organic market put notices in local papers. She had seen some news about it on TV, but only after a painstaking search was she able to find more details online. However, it has proven too costly for the market to advertise in traditional media, meaning that the free-of-charge new media channels will remain the chief means of communication in the future. Moreover, with the increased costs involved in setting up the new community shop, achieving sustainability whilst preserving farmers’ profits has become a problem that needs further consideration.

Happy vendors

For a long period of time the market had no income. Back then, there was no income from working with businesses and farmers didn’t have to pay a fee to participate. Apart from a one-time grant of 2000 USD from the Global Greengrants Fund (GGF), no other foundations or businesses provided financial support. Yet, even during one of the poorest times, Chang turned down a six-figure donation because that sum of money could have been harmful to the objectives of the start-up’s mission. With the market’s increasing influence, however, it had become increasingly necessary to build a more professional, stable team to manage each aspect of operations. Therefore, it has been transforming from a volunteer-based organization to a social enterprise with team consensus. Chang and her co-workers believe that only by mining the market’s business potential will it be able to support more farmers and consumers. Likewise, this will keep even more land and water free from pollution, ultimately achieving their oscial objectives.

The market currently has 5 full-time staff who handle day to day communications, inspections and operations. Every staff member began as a long-term volunteer for periods ranging between a few months to two years. Beginning in July 2012, the market was able to provide for full time staff with a “different work but same pay” salary of 3000 RMB per month. Obviously, this is utterly inadequate in a large international city like Beijing with soaring living costs. Chang quite openly admits that the market grew upon the back of “exploited” workers and volunteers, and that the issue of low pay must be addressed. Therefore, finding a sustainable business model that can guarantee an income stream, increase worker compensation, and retain talented personnel, is a top priority. However, she also believes that the main reason people come to work and volunteer for the market is not to earn money, but for the personal fulfillment gained from working on behalf of their ideal society. There was once a staff member who worked for half a year, who then left for a job paying 780,000 RMB annually. Chang feels that if you say the market rate for a staff member is 780,000 RMB, then, excepting the 3000 RMB salary, what merits their investment must be the spirit of mutual support and positive energy emanating from the community. In addition to the mutual trust that exists between farmers and consumers, there are also many volunteers who come to help with setting up stalls, selling produce, and keeping accounts, who don’t take a penny of the profits. Why is this? Chang thinks that many people harbor their own dream of setting up a stall. One volunteer is a state owned company inspector for real estate investments and is responsible for a budget of millions of RMB. At the market, however, he is happy to help farmers manage incomes of 19 or 20 RMB. There are also a few stall helpers who come from Taiwan on holiday purely for the enjoyment of selling produce. Behind the enthusiasm of the workers and volunteers lies a simple pleasure in giving back to the community.

Apart from achieving its own objectives, the market also provides a platform for many other NGOs. The Tongxin Hehui social enterprise shops set up by the Migrant Workers Home often receive donations of second hand goods. The shops collect unwanted items and sell them at discounted prices in migrant worker neighborhoods. They also set up female cooperatives to repair old items, thereby reducing waste and helping migrant workers lower their cost of living. The farmer’s cooperative Beijing Guoren Green Alliance also has a special stall. The aim of this organization is to help small and dispersed farms band together to sell their environmentally friendly produce. When Mid-Autumn Festival nears, many markets sell the Little Donkey Farm traditional home-made mooncakes. Following this year’s scandal in which shops were found to be selling shoddy mass-produced five flavour mooncakes (with strange horrible flavourings and low quality ingredients), the Little Donkey Farm’s mooncakes provided a welcomed alternative. Traditionally prepared with only the finest quality ingredients, they were rapidly sold out on the Beijing organic farmers market and restored the good reputation of the traditional five flavoured mooncake.


  1. Editor’s Note: The “three rural issues” are: the modernization of agriculture, the urban/rural unequal development and the improvement of farmers’ living conditions. There were highlighted by the Hu-Wen administration, and emphasized on by Wen Jiabao during a speech he gave at the 2006 National People’s Congress. 

北京有机农夫市集

常天乐的人生中,从来不乏奇思妙想。作为“70后”的尾巴,大学毕业后,她一度在《中国日报》做记者,2003年成为上海第一批国际志愿者赴老挝支教,就此与NGO结缘。后来,她脱离体制,先在一家500强外企工作了两年,之后跳到“不稳定”的NGO业内媒体《中国发展简报》英文版做编辑;几年后,又跑到美国读书。2009年学成归来,顶着“海归”和国际组织驻华官员的鲜亮头衔,有着“光明”的海派精英NGOer前景,偏偏不安分,在2010年和几个朋友共同组织有机农夫市集,成了泥土中来、风雨中去的“卖菜农夫”。

食品安全始于社会问题

“很多人都认为有机农夫市集自国外舶来,但其实在世界各地,农夫市集都是最早的交易形式,从古代到现在农村的赶集,都是如此,没有中间商、没有大超市,生产者与消费者直接面对面。因此,我们是在城市里复兴传统。”2013年9月中的一天,常天乐——北京有机农夫市集的组织者在芳新(FYSE)社会企业女性领导力峰会上作为女性创业代表如此向听众介绍。

2010年9月,一些外国艺术家在北京发起有机食品相关的行为艺术,起初旨在观察和探讨食物和社会、城市与农村的关系,一个月一次,甚至两个月一次。但随着常天乐这样的本土志愿者的加入,大家普遍认为这项活动应该更加常规与固定,才能真正起到实效,既帮助消费者找到安全、放心的产品,也帮助农户拓宽市场渠道、增加收入。

但几个发起人在讨论组织使命时,她们一致认为,市集的首要使命并非满足消费者的食品安全需求,更不是赚钱。市集发起者首先关心的是现代农业技术发展带来的环境问题,以及社会发展中的三农问题。

有机农夫市集为有机种植农户提供售卖平台、鼓励消费者购买本地小农户的产品,一方面鼓励减少农药使用从而减轻环境污染,另一方面能支持农村发展——市集上所有产品收入都会进入生产者的口袋,而在超市售卖的农产品,其比例很可能只有10%甚至更少。中国食品安全问题的根源不在于社会监管的缺失(那只是外因),而在于国退民进现实下,以及经销商层层利润的盘剥下,过度的市场竞争与生产者生存环境的恶化。减少从菜园到餐桌过程中的成本、改善生产者的生存环境,提高农户的收入,才能从根源上消除食品安全问题,并重建社会信任。

要实现这些使命,除了摆摊卖菜之外,有机农夫市集还尝试为农户提供有机种植培训,开展返乡青年的创业指导工作,以及举办包含沙龙、讲座、农场探访在内的消费者教育活动,让消费者理解,为什么要购买本地的、小农的产品。因为如果他们不理解购买行为背后隐藏的意义,而仅仅出于对有机食品的,完全可以通过高价购买有机公司产品的方式解决问题。

重建社会信任

中秋前夕,笔者到位于北京崇文门新世界女子百货的有机农夫市集“赶集”买菜时,体验了一把在其他市场交易中已很少遇到的信任:给农户陈大姐买菜钱后,她忙于招呼客人,忘了找零,笔者一提醒,她便连连致歉,并完全没有细究方才交易的流程,按照笔者说的数额找了零钱。

这种消费者和农户面对面的沟通交流,显然增加了彼此的信任度,加上市集作为消费者和农户对接平台所具有的公信力,成为市集产品虽大多未经有机认证,却受到消费者信任的原因之一。由于高昂的认证费用和繁琐的流程,在市集中,只有个别农户如一些牛奶商进行了有机认证。

当然,依然有消费者和媒体对市集产品的可靠性萌生疑虑。面对质疑,常天乐通常这样解释:有机市集最初建立,是日本女孩植村绘美找到场地,小毛驴农场的石嫣帮忙找来五六个在有机生产圈里比较靠谱、独立的中小农场;同时,赶集者也多是对这些农场有所了解的群体,熟人社会形成了最基本的信任[1]

为进一步促进信任,市集尽可能做到农户对消费者的信息公开。市集工作人员那里有每家农户的联络表,每家摊位也都有名片,赶集的消费者可以随意取阅,并随时联系商户,乃至自行组织赴农场参观、探访活动。为了拓展市民对有机农业的知识、与农户之间的交流,市集还定期在一元公社等公共空间举办沙龙、对话活动,参与者都是对有机产品有兴趣的消费者,主讲人则既包括市集的组织者、也有开展有机种植的农户,还有做有机产品研究的学者、专家。这实际构成了一种近年来兴起的参与式保障体系(Participatory Guarantee Systems,PGS),即由其服务的农户和消费者共同创建,在信任、社会网络和知识共享的基础上,由本地利益相关者组织对生产农户进行评估的保障体系。

此外,市集也设立了志愿者考核团队,一方面通过考核为更多想加入的农户设立门槛——考核过程常常持续一年多,另一方面也在市集上巡查是否有问题产品,一经查出,即取消参集资格。

石头中找缝隙

近年来,虽然对社会企业和社会服务组织的政策总体趋向宽松,但常天乐认为,市集的开展不能等着相关部门明文规定给你开绿灯,而是要在石头里找缝隙。在熟人、朋友介绍下,她们选择在百货商场、学校、商业地产举办市集,这些场地一般与当地政府部门关系较好,能够保障市集的顺利举办。市集就此起步,并发展迅速。

为了吸引客流,很多商场都时常会邀请外部相关方做活动并为活动付费。它们很快发现,举办有机农夫市集能给商场带去高质量的客流,且市集在微博上有强大的宣传和号召能力,能为商场做传播,远比一些“不靠谱”的活动更划算。因此,许多商场不仅免收市集场地费,还给她们组织费,这也成为市集的重要收入来源。现在“有机农夫市集”已经成为北京商场界一个知名的高性价比活动品牌。

当然,市集发展到一定规模必须走正规化的道路,不能永远是游击战。目前,常天乐和她的同事们正筹划在北京三元桥地区开设第一家社区菜店和社区服务中心,店面大约90平米,其中30平米作为固定摊位,另外60平米则辟为活动场地,计划开展更多与消费者教育和社区支持农业(CSA)推广有关的活动。

至于市集下一步发展的瓶颈,一方面在于参与农户数量,由于场地有限、信任度的建立需要时间,因此难以快速增加。此外,品牌推广也是个问题。目前市集活动信息集中发布在新浪微博上,其粉丝有八万多人,微信也已经开始起步。但针对非网民尤其是重视健康食品的老年城市居民,仍然缺乏有效的宣传途径。笔者在市集上和常天乐聊天时,一位就住在附近的大妈热切的表达了想从报纸等其他途径看到市集活动预告的愿望,她从电视上看到相关新闻、后来费尽周折才在网上查到活动预告。但对市集来说,目前在传统媒体上打广告的成本依然太高,不花钱的新媒体传播仍然是未来的主要渠道。而在开设社区菜店之后,由于成本的增加,如何实现可持续,又不妨碍农户的利益,也是需要考虑的问题。

快乐的小贩

曾有很长一段时间,市集没有收入。当时既没有商业合作的收入,也不向农户收费,除了全球绿色资助基金会(GGF)曾经给过2000美元的资助外,也没有来自基金会或企业的捐助。但就在最穷的时候,常天乐也曾对六位数的捐赠说不,因为那笔钱可能会伤害市集开办的使命目标。但是随着市集影响力的扩大,市集越来越需要有一个专业、稳定的团队来正规运营各个项目,因此把市集从一个志愿者团队转型成为一个社会企业也成为团队的共识。常天乐和她的同事认为,只有深挖市集的商业潜力,市集才能有足够的能力服务更多的农友和消费者,保护更多耕地和水域免受污染,实现其社会目标。

目前市集有5名全职员工,从事日常联络、考察、咨询、组织工作,所有人都曾经是市集的长期志愿者,义务劳动长则两年,短则数月,从2012年7月开始,市集能够开始负担全职工作人员“不同工但同酬”的3000元月薪,这在物价飞涨的国际大都市北京,显然是杯水车薪。常天乐坦言,市集的发展是建立在“剥削”工作人员和志愿者的基础上的,低薪的问题必须得以改变,因此探索可持续的商业模式,为市集寻找收入来源,提高员工福利,留住人才,也是市集的当务之急。但是她也认为,团队和志愿者来市集工作首先不是为了钱,而是为了快乐和实现自己的社会理想。

曾有个员工在市集做了半年之后,找到一份年薪78万元的工作离开。常天乐觉得,如果说员工的市场价值是78万,那么每月3000元之外吸引他们投入的就是市集里人与人相互支持关系的氛围、以及为社会带来一些积极向上的正能量。除了彼此信任的农户和消费者外,市集里还有大量志愿者,他们帮忙摆摊、售卖、记账、最后分文不取将产品售卖所得交给农户。所为何来?在常天乐看来,很多人心里都有个“小贩梦”。市集的一位志愿者是国企负责房地产项目投资的总监,经手的资金数以亿计,但在市集上帮农户摆摊收每笔十几、二十元的卖菜钱,也很开心;还有摊位的卖菜伙计都是台湾人,他们来大陆旅行,纯粹为了卖东西好玩参与摆摊。回归简单、纯粹好玩,这是市集员工和志愿者们热情参与的根源。

除了实现自身的使命外,市集还为多家NGO提供着平台。工友之家创办的社会企业同心互惠商店常常在市集上接受消费者捐赠的物品——这家店通过征集社会闲置物品,在打工者社区进行低价义卖、成立女工合作社进行旧物改造,在减少浪费的同时,帮助打工者降低生活成本。农民合作组织的联合体北京国仁绿色联盟在市集上也有个专门的摊位,这家机构的宗旨就是帮助大量更为分散弱小的农户联合起来售卖绿色产品。临近中秋,小毛驴市民农园自制的传统月饼也出现在多场市集上。今年,在普通商店中售卖的五仁月饼因现代工艺偷工减料而口感欠佳遭遇“五仁月饼滚出月饼界”的风波时,小毛驴用传统工艺和纯正原料制作的五仁月饼却在集市上很快被一抢而空,为五仁月饼正了名。

 

CDB Deputy Editor

Translated by Fay Bermingham

Reviewed by Kate Smith

Edited by CDB Staff

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