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One month on a Chinese eco-farm

After 3 months of constant travelling, we both felt the urge of finding a place of quietness and nature, a place to digest the many experiences and encounters we had so far on our journey, a place to reflect upon us, a place where we could unpack for a while, a place where we could implement some daily routines, and ideally a place where we could create something with our hands. We found that place at Waldenfarm, an eco-farm that we came across on a platform called WWOOF.

Waldenfarm is a rapidly growing eco-farm in the Chinese district of Sichuan, which has been in the hands of the Lin family for over 400 years. When we first arrived and entered this huge farm complex, we were quite surprised, to say the least. It wasn´t at all how we pictured a Chinese eco-farm in our heads. We knew that the farm had to be big. I mean on the website it said that they had around 5000 pigs, 1500 chickens, 200 workers and 300 hectares of land on which they were cultivating many sorts of vegetables and fruits, but everything was scattered in different areas of the farm complex, which we couldn´t even get an overview of in the 4 weeks we were at the farm. The family welcomed us with open arms – by a Chinese standard. Chinese people are quite reserved in general and it´s hard to pass the usual chitchat, if you find someone who speaks English at all. So we found ourselves in a very modern farm complex with a newly built guesthouse, an integrated workout area, a pool, several fishponds, a café, and a basketball court. Yeah, I´m still talking about the farm. We immediately caught ourselves knitting prejudices: We probably landed in a so-called “eco-farm”, most likely subsidized, if not owned, by the government and overall more shadow than substance. We were taught otherwise. In the past years, the entire Lin family invested their knowledge and money into their vision of transforming the farm into the leading eco-farm of the region.

An honorable vision

So what constitutes a Chinese eco-farm besides the above-mentioned amenities, you might rightfully ask. It´s not easy to be serious about eco-farming in China due to several reasons. Firstly, most people, namely the rising middle-class, doesn´t have the mindset nor the willingness to spend money on ecological products yet. Second, all land in this so-called communist country, is owned by the government and things develop quickly in China. Hence, you have no guarantee that your long-term investments will show any return. If the situation changes and the government has a change of heart, you´re basically screwed. Therefore short-term profit is much more tempting and often seems more reasonable.

Under these circumstances, the commitment and passion that the Lin family put into the long-term development of the farm are admirable. Their short-term goal is to further increase their pig-stock and with that cross-subsidize the vegetable and fruit business. In the medium-term they aim at growing independent of the meat business. Their long-term vision, however, is to develop a sustainable eco-farm with an integrated school and educational center for kids, where kids not only learn the basics for everyday life, but learn from the best teacher there is, nature itself. The boss of the farm, Uncle Chan, how everyone calls him, isn´t shy to underline that their vision is big, but that it´s a journey and that they are learning on the way.

Building a goat house

Our first-hand contact was Lin, the Junior Manager and 30-year-old nephew of Uncle Chan. Before we even arrived at the farm, we had a very nice talk with him about a possible project he might entrust us with. He said they wanted to revive the family´s old vegetable garden that has been abandoned for a couple of years because Grandma Lin couldn´t take care of it anymore. They want to grow vegetables for their own use again and use the compost to “feed” the soil and by that create a closed-loop system, which they can also use for educational purposes. The first step would be to build a goat-house and a long-lasting compost. After a mediocre experience at another farm we stayed for one week just before, we were very excited. We would be in nature, create something with our hands, work with wood and at the same time acquire new skills. But what a challenge it was – in all regards: culturally, physically, material-, and relationship-wise. First, culturally: As a European, even more so as a German, you are used to planning out things when you start a project. In China you take it day by day and even planning something for a certain hour of the day seems challenging if not impossible. Since I (Manu) worked in quite an atypical German company for the past five years where flexibility and spontaneity were two of the core skills if you wanted to be successful, I mostly took on those challenging encounters. The key to progress with our project was to use every window of opportunity to get more material, to use an additional hand when it´s free or to discuss next steps with the Junior Manager. There´s always two ways of dealing with such challenges. Either you get frustrated or you take it with humor and embrace the different culture that you have the privilege of getting to know. Second, physically: The first two weeks we were either dealing with 12 hours of sun and temperatures of 30 to sometimes nearly 40 degrees or heavy rain, which left our vegetable garden either dust dry or dirt muddy. Third, material-wise: We were supplied with used old wood, mostly crooked, often mold and the nails were so soft, you could almost bend them with your bare hands – exaggerating just a bit ;). And tool-wise, well we just had to use what was there. But hey, we were supposed to build a goat house, not our new home. Fourth, relationship-wise: This was probably the greatest challenge of this project. By taking on such a project together, you really test the strength of your relationship and you get to know your significant other in an entire new context. There was a lot of anger, frustration, and some bad words. The most challenging task for both of us was to learn to acknowledge. To acknowledge different working styles and different styles of communication, to acknowledge the other one’s experience, to acknowledge when the other one had a bad day – basically to acknowledge, or even more so, to celebrate the differences you find between you and your partner. In the end we followed through, we successfully finished the project and the challenges we faced definitely brought us closer together.

Apart from the above, constructing the house itself didn´t feel like such a big challenge, even though it was the first independent building project for both of us. However, our qualities split pretty well: Mia brought most of the skills and I brought the strength.

And also: It felt natural, like if we have done similar projects before (even more for so me, with significantly less building and wood working experience). You hammer, you saw, you drill, you screw, you calculate, you foresee, you adjust, you´re being creative, you hit a problem, you find a solution - you just do. Have you ever done something for the first time and it felt like you´ve done this many times before, but you realize that you haven´t – at least not in this life?

It felt really good to have created something with our hands, to have contributed to the revival of the old family garden of the Lin family. Shortly after we left the farm, the goats moved into their new home. A new volunteer will paint a portrait of us on one of the walls, together with all the other volunteers who helped us throughout our project, to teach children that international cooperation can create something meaningful.

Eco-farming under Chinese circumstances

We really had a great time at the farm and we so much appreciate getting close to a Chinese family business and getting to know Chinese people and it´s culture a little bit better. It was nice to see that they are not bragging about being a sustainable eco-farm, but learning and moving towards becoming just that. As a European some things just lets your jaw drop and you just can´t get it aligned with sustainability and ecological farming. Just two examples: Single cookies wrapped in plastic among other things. Generally, the amount of plastic that is being used in China is outrageous. The second example: We were lucky to attend the birthday party of Uncle Chan, where all the workers were invited to a fancy dinner in a hotel in the nearby town. We were served all kinds of exotic animals that are either in danger of extinction or need to travel a long way from their habitat to your plate. But hey, things don´t change from one day to another and we don´t want to point fingers (In terms of sustainable living and responsible consumption we still have a long way to go ourselves.). In China there´s still a generation alive, which knows what it means to starve. And the memory of that is still quite vivid. China´s prosperity has grown rapidly over the course of the past decade. And what you eat and what you drive is a way of demonstrating that you are not suffering anymore, that you can afford a life for you and your family. Also, as you can imagine, if you want to build a sustainable and long lasting family business in China, you better make sure you´re in good terms with the government. So you meet with them, you eat with them, you invite them to the farm, and better yet you are somehow inside the government. This is just the way it works in China.

Chinese eating culture

Lastly, we would like to share one of the highlights of our time at the farm. Every now and then, guests or friends are coming to the farm to get a tour of the farm or to just have a formal dinner. Whenever that happens, the volunteers are invited to join a delicious 7-course meal, where you can experience Chinese culture first hand. By that they want to show appreciation for our work and teach internationals more about Chinese culture. And maybe, they also want to show off a bit with their international “work force”… or maybe not. We were lucky to attend three dinners. Being part of a formal Chinese dinner is quite the experience. As mentioned before, the times of starvation are still very vivid in most heads, either through firsthand experience or through story telling. It so happens that you sometimes randomly meet a person or just walk by a person you know, who moves her hand across her belly in circles, meaning: ‘Have you eaten?’ So at a proper formal dinner, there is quite a list of rules you have to consider in order to not tap on someone´s feet. Whereas in Europe you mostly wait for everyone to have their meal in front of them before you start digging in, in China nobody really cares about when and how you eat. (The exception: Don´t touch food with your hands, not even bread, or a slice of pizza. And if you really need or want to, order plastic gloves.) Most dinner rules revolve around drinking. With the risk of being confusing and too detailed (and maybe not entirely accurate), here are the basics: The hosts sit on one side of the table, the guests on the other (we were considered as part of the family, meaning we were on the host side). The center seat on the opposite side of the host is usually politely argued about. No one wants to be perceived as claiming the best seat for himself. Then the host will toast to the guests and everyone cheers in. Important to mention is that there is no word for ‘Cheers’ in Chinese. There´s only ‘Kambei’, which means ‘Bottoms up’. So people are careful when to use it. The host will then toast to each guest individually. And after that the guests, together and individually, will toast to the host. The ‘side-hosts’, meaning, other family members and us, are then, in no particular order, also toasting to each guest, and they will also return the favor in due time. When this is done, you toast to each other…until the host ends the night with a last common toast to send the guests on their way. But there´s more: When you do the toast, you first fill the glass of the person you want to toast to and refill it after. When someone is toasting to you, you are supposed to drink up your glass, especially if the person who´s toasting to you is older than you or hierarchically above you. And as if this wasn´t complicated and – at least in our eyes – funny enough, there is more. In Chinese culture, the hierarchy really shows itself in the eating culture. Whenever you get the glasses together with another person, the younger or hierarchically lower person makes sure to place his or her glass below the other glass in order to show respect. This ritual becomes extremely entertaining to watch, when a boss or a elder person wants to show his or her respect to the other person as well, and the two people are battling to place their glass lower than the other one. If you didn´t know better, you would think you´re in some kind of theatre sketch. You can imagine how a formal dinner usually ends… Oh, you are probably wandering what we were drinking. Homemade red wine from the grapes of the farm (reminds more of Georgian red wine with an orange color, quite delicious especially after months of wine abstinence) and Baijiu, a really bad tasting type of Chinese Grappa (Many Chinese agree on that notion. They drink it anyway).

China is a beautiful, but also a very challenging and contradictory country. Our time on the farm was definitely one of the highlights and we are so grateful for the many enriching experiences and inspiring people we met. Further reports and stories about China will follow soon.

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