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.
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.
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. ↩