My tour bus last week was just passing Tiananmen Square where, in one of the huge official buildings, The Peoples Congress was being held to address Chinas major issues, such as pollution and agriculture expansion. I expected a respectful assessment from our articulate tour guide about how the congress was organized and conducted its business.
Nothing doing. Most of my friends and I dont care too much about politics, he said. We care about one thing–making money. He chuckled, and most of the Western tourists chuckled as well.
But he was serious. Its always difficult to generalize from just a few people (especially in a country of 1.2 billion or so), yet that refrain was one I heard any number of times from Chinese I met. One of them was Shanen, a 46-year-old farmer-entrepreneur. He is the husband of Lejen Chen, whom I had met a little over two years ago when she visited the U.S., and whose involvement in making clean milk available in China I described in a blog post.
When I knew I was going to visit Beijing, I made contact with Lejen and Shanen, and arranged to visit the farm, on the outskirts of Beijing (Lejen was out of the country then).
Shanen, an energetic and upbeat man (even in the endless traffic jams that plague Beijing), spent a day showing my wife and me around his business empire. First on the agenda was the 12-acre farm, where he and Lejen have 14 Holstein cows, four of which are producing milk. (He apologized for not having jerseys, but said that they are not available in the Beijing area…even with the organic hay he has shipped to the farm from Inner Mongolia, because of bad experiences with inferior quality local hay.)
The milk the cows produce is low-temperature pasteurized, to comply with regulations, and is not homogenized. There are also a few dozen pigs and a couple hundred chickens, and four long greenhouses full of several varieties of lettuce, Swiss chard, onions, and other green delicacies.
The farms milk, eggs, pork, chicken, and veggies are used to supply two main enterprises–a twenty-member CSA and a delicatessen restaurant catering to Americans, Canadians, and Europeans associated with an area private school. In addition, some food is sold to a few of the city’s five-star hotels, whose chefs are increasingly committed to searching out safe top-quality food.
Besides the commitment to producing high-quality wholesome food, Shanen and Lejen have made a commitment to spreading the word about their food production techniques. They have set up multiple classrooms around the farm, where school groups come and watch demonstrations of planting, equipment usage, and such.
We stopped for lunch at Mrs. Shanen’s which is just a few miles from the farm, and had a delicious lunch, including mozzarella and tomato salads, sausage pizzas (the cheese and sausage from the farm), and even a very respectable matzoball chicken soup.
In the afternoon, we drove back into Beijing proper and stopped at the enterprises factory–the low-ceiling series of rooms with stainless steel machinery where about half a dozen workers cook up dozens and dozens of bagels and breads. Those supply the deli, as well as the hotels.
Shanen was as disinclined to discuss politics as the tour guide. For all the discouraging aspects of Beijing life–the brutal traffic, the seriously worsening air pollution, the corruption that gets routinely exposed–he was appreciative of all the progress the country has experienced via its economic expansion. There is a huge amount of opportunity here. It is exciting to be part of such exciting growth.
His enterprise is benefiting from the expanding concerns over the integrity of Chinas food system. Increasing numbers of knowledgeable and concerned families are seeking out serious food producers like Shanen and paying premium prices to access his food.
Even the likely possibility that Mrs. Shanen’s, the deli, will be displaced by an expanding apartment development doesnt faze him. Hes already picked out a site a couple of kilometers away, on a lake, where he is prepared to move the business. Will customers be inclined to find his new place? Yes, many people love our food. They will come to the new location.
(This post has been edited further since it was first published.)