the CSA Conference Story

Dear E.,

How is 2019 going for you so far? I thought of catching up with you around Christmas and New Year but eventually decided not to make the busy days busier. Too bad! Worrying about my greetings being reduced to a festive ritual is a poor excuse for something else :-b . Oh well … you know you have been warmly thought of and blessed.

I did go to the International CSA Summit Forum & the 10th China Community Supported Agriculture Conference in Pidu District, Chengdu, for Dec 14-15, 2018. It was a hugely successful conference and I got a lot out of it. I wanted to share my experience with you soon. But right afterwards, I had a multi-day workshop followed immediately by a few trips. I was able to spend about 10 days at Hua Dao before going on another trip. Amid changing environments, I have been slow in picking up reading, routine exercising and writing. Noticed I didn’t follow the tradition of my letter subject line? Lost count of my HD days :-b

It was sunny on Jan 10 but started foggy as usual. I had a walk by Hua Dao’s farm fields in the morning. The pavilion in the middle of the fields caught my eyes. The actual view was much brighter since my camera was against the light. I felt so grateful for being there at that moment.
The little pond in the village. In summer, it will become a kingdom of lotus.

So I still owe you a good story about the CSA conference. To my surprise, when googling the full name of the event, I found little formal English media coverage, despite its significance for the sector in China. Good news! You got an exclusive report 🙂

Fan and CHEN Zhan (a Hua Dao neighbor & project team member) by the Wall of Signatures. As Hua Dao is an organizational partner of the conference, Zhan and I checked in to represent Hua Dao.
Prof. WEN Tiejun kicked off the conference. WEN is a revered and internationally known figure in China’s New Rural Reconstruction Movement, having great influence on both grassroots efforts and government policies.

I was quite excited to see Prof. WEN Tiejun in person. I first learned about him a decade ago. Since then I came across his articles from time to time. An academic expert as well as a practitioner, he made a deep impression on me because he is outspoken on the needs and problems in new rural reconstruction movement, and because he talks down-to-earth with human warmth and academic clarity. I dug out this great interview report on Wen by Carlo Petrini, founder of the International Slow Food Movement. Coincidentally, that interview happened in Feb, 2018 in An Ren town which is just a few miles away from Hua Dao.

In the opening session. The main conference hall was full. I couldn’t find a seat at the beginning and stood between seating areas along with many others. The interior of the conference hall, especially the arrangement of the ceiling lights, recalls the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Being in such a setting for the first time, I found myself experiencing the event with a strangely foreign perspective.
One question that brought all of us here.

Judith Hitchman, president of URGENCI, the International Network for Community Supported Agriculture, asked a critical question FOR all of us. Ironically, when people talked about the accomplishment of Chinese agriculture, monoculture landscapes are often favored, only greener 🙂

This slide acknowledged the heavy environmental costs that China has been paying for the past 40 years of economic development, namely over consumption of resources, overload of the natural environment, and severe degradation of ecological system.

I really appreciated the presentation from GAO Shangbin, Deputy Director-General of Rural Energy & Environment Agency, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Areas, as it directly addressed to the environmental problems in agriculture and rural areas. Another thing I liked is that he was not reading a prepared script but really “talked” through the slides fluently 🙂

A series of regulatory articles and act from central government between 2017 and 2018, driving green development of agriculture.

The list includes subsidy policy, priority actions/campaigns, institutional innovation, technology guideline and an act to prevent and control soil pollution. I recalled my experience of studying the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 for one of my MBA courses and how much I had learned about the U.S. Smartgrid policy from reading the act and how I was excited to find the effect of the act manifested in many Smartgrid demonstration projects. The actual effects of above China’s policies and acts in the list are not clear and probably difficult to measure without systematic research, but for the very reason, who can simply deny their possible credit in the development of organic farms and CSA and the measures of green development happening in country?

Dr. SHI Yan (lower left in the photo by a podium) founder of the first CSA farm in China, and chief executive of the organizer team of multiple national CSA conferences including this one, was presenting. I liked that she is showing the faces of the empowered farmers who make our food safe.

I like to think it’s not mere coincidence that one of the prominent leaders of China’s grassroot CSA movement is a female. Dr. SHI Yan (Wikipedia), and many other female speakers in this conference demonstrate how women have been playing a key role in safeguarding the health of families, plants, soil, and above all, of Mother Nature. Dr. Shi is also a co-president of URGENCI. Her rising leadership in the organization reflects China’s increasing participation and importance to the international CSA movement, and actually, to the global sustainability movement.

Dr. Yiching Song from Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy shed light on how women play a role in the sustainable food system.
According to Dr. Song’s research data, among sampled rural households, there is a higher percentage of wife working in farming compared that of husbands. It’s mostly women in charge of selecting and acquiring seeds, especially for heirloom seeds.
Time to test your Chinese 🙂 Dr. SHI Yan summarized the challenges that CSA faces in China and suggested solutions.

Out of the 7 CSA challenges listed by Dr. SHI Yan, it’s telling that 5 are on the supply side:
#1 Shortage of talents is the bottleneck
#2 Enhance supply of organic & ecological farming technologies suitable for CSA farms;
#3 Subsidy policy for organic & ecological farming need to be more transparent and inclusive;
#4 Facility agriculture faces policy constraints on use of land;
#7 Small farms need to be connected and organized to enhance their collective bargaining power in value chain.

Over lunch, I chatted with a CSA farmer who worked with Hua Dao before and runs a fairly successful CSA plan on his family farm. When asked his view about the Chinese CSA movement, he felt strongly that farmers are not connected. What contributed to his feeling is that at every step, from financing to production and to selling, there is no easy way for individual farmers like him to find supporting resources within current economic system, which supports many of SHI Yan’s points.

These two beautifully written and painted books celebrated their launch, among many of the research results presented at the conference. They are fruits of a solid multi-year research on sustaining mountain minority communities in adaptation to climate change. The research was conducted by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and local Naxi minority (纳西族) community participants. OXFAM, a Hong Kong charity NGO, supported this research.

In a few focused-subject forums I attended, the positive impact of NGOs is quite noticeable in respective projects. The research about three Naxi (纳西) villages above was conducted by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and local community participants, and was financially supported by OXFAM, a well run Hong Kong NGO dedicated to poverty alleviation and sustainable development. They make the full Chinese version downloadable on OXFAM website (book 1, 2). There is also a really nice English summary, in case you are interested.

Members from the minority Naxi (纳西族) communities who participated in the project. The gentleman on the very left, HE Jixian, is a major leader of the Farmers’ Seed Network (China) based in Lijiang, Yunnan province. I happened to have chatted with him at the Farmers’ market on the check-in day.

What also struck me is the involvement and contribution of minority communities in a few projects. In the above mentioned project, a couple Naxi group members talked about their villages and life. They appeared very calm and confident in their ethnic culture and heritage, though
a little shy to speak in public. Their villages are located in remote corners in southwest China, yet they are no less connected with the world, if not more so, thanks to the discovery of their stone village architecture and indigenous Naxi culture after an earthquake in 1996. Tourism has been growing since after, bringing in new investments and connections. Currently, Stone Village (石头城) is in the making to become a tourism brand for Yulong county, where the village is located. I wonder how much of their view towards native culture has been shaped through interactions with domestic and international visitors.

Heirloom seeds of various crops/vegetables collected by Farmers’ Seed Network (China).
Farmers and visitors exchanged seeds at the Farmers’ Market outside the conference area. (Photo by CHEN Zhan)

As pointed out by a few presentations, cultivating or finding heirloom seeds remains a big challenge for organic farmers. The ability to produce seeds adapted to local natural environment is critical to improve yield, lower cost, and equally important, to retain biodiversity. In rural areas, seed exchanges happen all the time and for various reasons: festival ceremonies, weddings, funnels, trades, casual social activities, house construction (need certain type of stalk), etc. It is partly due to such great variety of incentives, instead of the single-minded pursuit of yield performance, that retains the original characteristics of heirloom seeds.

CHEN Zhan, a member of Hua Dao ecovillage, was presenting Hua Dao’s organic rice in 1kg lovely cotton sacks. Though not yet officially certified organic, the rice was inspected through a scope of 475 pesticide residue tests by SGS, and found ZERO residue on pesticides and related chemicals.

To feed over 1,000 attendees and visitors for two days, the conference sourced organically grown / raised food from small farmers from the region. As a sponsor, Hua Dao donated 450 kg rice and sold some of its rapeseed cooking oil.

The conference officially ended on the afternoon of Dec 16. I unfortunately had to skip the 2nd day due to a planned workshop. In mere 2 full days, this conference packed 4 theme forums, 18 parallel forums, about 150 speeches and presentations, and multiple panels from over 200 experts of various fields, covering a wide range of topics such as ecological civilization, rural reconstruction, ecological agriculture, CSA development related issues, experience and policies, agriculture & biodiversity, climate change adaptation, market innovation & urban-rural interaction, protection & innovation of traditional eco-culture, CSA farm management & technology, latest research results and publications, Asian CSA network, international workshop, etc. Such scale along makes the CSA conference the most informative and influential of its kind in China.

And amazingly, the national CSA conference still counts a grassroot event, despite the fact that many domain-expert speakers are government officials and the city of Chengdu had worked hard to impress the organizer in order to become the host city. Of course, it wasn’t until the 7th conference (2015) that cities started to fight competitions for host honor. The 2nd conference (2010) was held in a student activity center in Renmin University, Beijing. If you find this “love” between local governments and a grassroot national event hard to fathom, call it a “Chinese relationship” 🙂

If I could wish something to be improved for future conferences, it would be doubling the time (i.e. from 2 day to 4 days) and adding Q&A between presentations or after all presentations on same subject. Some parallel forums I went to ran over time, even with back-to-back presentations and without Q&A. Longer conference period can maximize the travel expense of out-of-town participants and allow more interaction among attendees.

In defining Chinese CSA model, Dr. SHI Yan described the direction as “Producers maintain consumers’ lives; consumers secure producers’ living.” (“生产者维护消费者的生命,消费者保障生产者的生活。”) (Photo by WeChat public account of China CSA Network)

Based on my experience of last conference, I know their WeChat official site is going to post transcripts of highlighted speeches/presentations, and I have been reading a few lately. This recap of Dr. SHI Yan’s presentation pointed out that CSA movement in China has been evolving and adopting various farming and marketing models as they fit. In the core, CSA is a relationship that “Producers maintain consumers’ lives; consumers secure producers’ living.” Nodded 🙂

Oh my, it’s a long story again. Thank you for listening. Now I am curious about what questions you would have for me 🙂 Perhaps something we can chat about at our next call.

Take care and love with a hug,

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