Chan En at the Green Cow Farm in 2013, when I visited.

China is in the midst of a campaign to rid itself of small farms, in favor of supposedly more productive and safer large farms. 

One victim of the current campaign is a small dairy farm outside Beijing, Green Cow Farm, which was started about a dozen years ago by an idealistic young couple intent on establishing a source of safe and nutritious food for themselves and their community. I was fortunate to visit the farm back in 2013, on a trip to China, and one of the owners, Chan En, gave my wife and me a fascinating day-long tour of the farm, the farm’s nearby restaurant, and several other businesses he ran. 

All seemed to be going well, until recent months, when local government officials informed Chan En and his wife, Lejen Chen, that small farms with livestock were forbidden in the Beijing area.  Green houses growing vegetables were okay. They had days to get rid of their cows, chickens, and pigs. There were no elected legislators to appeal to for intervention or protest demonstrations to be organized or courts to file requests for injunctions. 

The couple’s plight was described in a recent New York Times article, which devoted much space to the efforts of American food rights advocate Abby Rockefeller to get four rare pigs sent to her dairy farm in upstate New York. 

Here is how the Times described what is happening to the Green Cow Farm, and others in the vicinity: 

“China is on a campaign to shut down small farms in favor of building large-scale commercial operations like the kind in the United States. Officials say the move will improve food safety and the environment. Last year, the Beijing government said it had shut down 370 farms in its suburbs, reducing major pollutants.

“An official from the Lixian Town Agricultural Service Center, which governs the village where Green Cow Farm is situated, said that in April the local authorities started making farms comply with a policy that farms with greenhouses can be used only for growing vegetables and cannot contain livestock. The official, who declined to give his name, denied that the authorities had given the farm only a few days to get rid of all of its animals.

“Supporters of Green Cow Farm say the new policy is hogwash. The real environmental enemies, they say, are large companies that confine hundreds or thousands of pigs, chickens and cattle, increasing the risk of water pollution and outbreaks of infectious diseases. They say the government should instead protect small family farms that grow heritage breeds.”

Of course, the U.S. is way ahead of China in pushing for consolidation of small farms into ever-larger operations. We know how large corporations use their economic and political power to gain the leverage necessary to make small farms economically unviable. 

Yet we also know that small farms which figure out ways around the commodity economy can and do succeed economically. Often, that involves selling directly to consumers ever more eager to obtain safe nutrient-dense food. It’s an economic opportunity not necessarily available to Chinese farms. 

Yes, American small farms may need to fight periodically against regulators who favor the forces of consolidation. But those that are adept at organizing community resistance and using the media and courts on their behalf can and do survive and prosper. 

Yet it’s politically popular here to make light of voting and to ridicule the courts and media and legislators as corrupt and irrelevant. I always wonder who the bashers have in mind to make the big decisions about such matters as which farms stay and which go if we don’t have a system of institutional checks and balances. People like the apparatchiks in China? 

I think if we’ve learned anything over the last couple of years it is that voting  can make a huge difference in our political leadership, imperfect as it always is going to be. So take this as my personal exhortation to get out and vote Nov. 6.