Shared Harvest is an innovative, groundbreaking Community Supported Agriculture farm in Liuzhuanghu Village on the outskirts of Beijing. Its founder and participants have played a key role in the development of China’s CSA Alliance. This group, which now includes nearly one thousand participants, mostly CSA farmers spread throughout China, has grown rapidly in the last decade since its first gathering of primarily academics and advocates in 2010. The next meeting will be in December, 2017 in Tongren in Guizhou Province in southwestern China, home of several ethnic minorities and among the poorest areas in the country.
Shared Harvest was established in 2012 after its founder, Shi Yan, had left one of the first CSA farms in China, Little Donkey Farm, in a dispute over the structure and purpose of the CSA model. With its founding, it sought to combine the knowledge of older farmers with whom it had established relations and a number of new, young recruits to farming from places like Renmin University in Beijing, which has been the center of what is known as the Rural Reconstruction movement. In its first blog, written in the weeks prior to creating its first deliveries to subscribers, the new farm group stated: “We cannot use a purely economic lens to evaluate our agricultural system; its significance vastly exceeds its strictly ‘economic’ attributes, as it provides the basis for healthy human existence. In the face of food safety problems, environmental pollution, and the decline of village life, we cannot help but feel alarmed. However, we believe that through collective action and the sharing of knowledge, we can change the present and work towards a better future. The success of our social enterprise relies upon the active support and participation of local communities.”
Today, Shared Harvest has succeeded beyond its expectations, even as it faces enormous challenges in the face of China’s relentless drive to create a form of capitalist agriculture with Chinese characteristics. It has a subscriber base of 800 members and uses an effective set of social media strategies to establish a twice a week delivery system grouped into various neighborhoods in Beijing. It has developed an active and continuous feedback loop between the farm and its CSA members to link its planting decisions with subscriber/consumer interest in what to eat and vice versa. The farm, now consisting of three different locations and connections with other farms and organic food suppliers, has a strong social and environmental agenda, maintaining its ties to rural reconstruction advocates who seek to re-invigorate rural life with a new environmental and social urban consciousness about rural roots and connections, including the value of farming and healthy food. Its primary location in Liuzhuanghu Village has a constant flow of youthful interns, farm partners, researchers, and various food and farming advocates from China and throughout the world. They even have several living quarters available for researchers and visitors and when Bob visited the farm in September, an international group from Slow Food passed through on their way to the Slow Food International gathering soon to take place in Chengdu in Sichuan Province.
Shared Harvest’s founder, Shi Yan, is a whirlwind of activity. She is currently the vice chair of Urgenci, the international CSA network, and she has been able to maintain a pipeline to key central government officials about new strategies to develop sustainable farming and rural development strategies. She is on the road giving talks, meeting new and old farmers, and coming back to the farm to participate in the growing, harvesting, and other CSA-related activities. In many ways, Shi Yan has become the face of an alternative to the dominant trends in Chinese agriculture and food production which is increasingly structured by its focus on marketization, urbanization, global forces, and food system integration from seed to plate.
Shared Harvest’s challenges — and the challenges to the CSA and alternative food and rural reconstruction movements in China (and in the US) — are as substantial as ever; perhaps even more so with its own success. Equity remains a constant concern, both in expanding its subscriber/customer base (for example, through its tentative explorations of a farm to school approach). So too is the issue of scale. Even though the farm and its subscriber base has expanded and the CSA Alliance has grown substantially, it will only remain a niche part of China’s food system until and unless major policy changes at the local, provincial, and central government level also shift the dynamic to encourage more collective, communal, and social enterprise development in rural areas, and restructure the rural-urban relationship on a more equal basis. Finally, Shared Harvest and its allies and advocates need to see themselves as part of a broader sea change in attitudes, values, and the overall discourse about food; a change that includes embracing the old Chinese proverb’s wisdom that “the common people value food as they value the heavens — above all else.”