Little Donkey Farm 小毛驴市民农园 ∗ China

 Photo: Guo Ping 国平 (Weibo, Blog)

Little Donkey Farm  小毛驴市民农园 
Beijing, China Website

A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm that promotes sustainable development by aiding community involvement through visits, farmland rentals, ecological agriculture demonstrations, consulting services, training and education, technology research and development, as well as theoretical research and policy advocacy.

The context

In China, as in so many other countries, industrial agriculture has caused great damage to the environment, to the economy of small producers, and to the health of consumers.

According to the Global Institute for Tomorrow, even if China produces 20% of the food in the world, less than 50% of its population has confidence in it. This has significantly incentivized the market for organic products (which according to the same source grew from 0.36% in 2007 to 1.34% in 2013), and the design and implementation of alternative projects that assure consumers a closer relationship with the origin of their products (which promises them greater quality and safety).

The proposal

Photo by Emilia Szekely

LITTLE DONKEY FARM is located in a rural area of Beijing (China) and offers a sustainable model of agriculture, an alternative to industrial agriculture. The model is inspired by what is internationally known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which promotes agriculture more attentive to the development of communities and advocates a co-responsible and reciprocal society.

The farm rents farmland to residents of the city of Beijing so that they have access to fresh, healthy, safe and quality food. For this, it offers three membership options with variable costs:

  1. Cultivation and harvesting of the land or animals by the consumer. The farm provides technical training, tools, and ecological products to guarantee an organic production, without the use of chemical fertilizers.
  2. Same as #1 but with the help of the farm.
  3. Cultivation and harvest of the land and care of animals in charge of the farm (previous selection of food by the consumer). Delivery of food either at the farm, at one of the four delivery points in the city of Beijing, or at the address of consumers.

Both the farming and animal care processes use ecological new technologies, designed from both the knowledge that local farmers still use to assist in the care of the rented lands, and from the results of the research carried out there, conducted by partner universities – who either investigate the model of the farm, or use it as a pilot area for the exploration and implementation of innovative alternative technologies and for the formation of a talent pool. The participation of all these actors then allows the farm and its processes to be always monitored and in the process of innovation.

The project started in 2008 when Shiyan, Huang Zhiyou, Yan Xiaohui and other pioneering researchers from the Renmin University rented abandoned rural land to the Haidian District and Sujiatuo town government authorities, They wanted to financially self-sustain and scale-up their project of agricultural schools for farmers and create sustainable, safe, healthy and equitable agro-food alternatives — in the midst of a national crisis of food security, with the quality of McDonalds and the industry of milk being severely questioned.

Photo by Emilia Szekely

The farm is now operated by the Center for Development, Science and Technology of the municipality of Guoren, the University of Renmin, and the government of Beijing’s Haidian district.

Little Donkey Farm also offers school trips and talks on environmental care, sustainable agriculture and food security. For this, it has set up a demonstration garden that helps show the model to students of all ages.

As a social enterprise that serves as an integrated platform for agricultural development, the farm is maintained with the income received both from the rent of land and animals and from the school trips. In addition, it has a dining room and a store in which it sells its own products (eggs, meat, vegetables), as well as some from other collectives with similar working approaches (with commission), which makes the visit to the farm more attractive.

The farm also offers consultancies and training to officials and organizations that want to replicate the model, as well as to companies that want to adopt greener technologies. It also offers carpentry and local arts workshops.

It works with the support of volunteers, some thesis students, other young people who want to experience a way of life different from the one offered by the city. It still relies on donations from both foundations and local governments, which help to finance scholarships for interns who help manage the farm. This diversity of income sources allows the subsistence of the project in a region where land rent is expensive.

The farm project is sustainable also because it benefits several actors.

  • Researchers, students, organizations, farmers, businessmen and officials learn from its experience and can experiment with alternatives.
  • Participating citizens have access to organic products at competitive prices, a place of rest and closeness to nature that they can share with their children, and a community dynamic in which they share their products, learn recipes, etc.
  • The local communities benefit from the rent of the lands, – which rights they keep -, from the hiring of workers in the farm, from the products that they sell to it, and from the training that the farm offers them to pack and sell the leftover products of their household-farming production, (seasonal fruits for example) and to recover and improve their cultivation techniques (most of the traditional knowledge has been lost with the urbanization process).

The use of social networks such as Wechat, Weibo, Taobao and their own website, allows the farm to organize with the participating consumers, receive their feedback, disseminate its project, sell its products online and diversify the forms of payment for the convenience of the consumers (through Alipay for example).

Little Donkey Farm was the first farm to implement the model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in China, a model of sustainable agriculture that has inspired the creation of more than 500 farms and forged entrepreneurial attitudes in several of its participants (volunteers, residents, etc) — creating, as Baizigui, in charge of the communication area, suggests, an awareness within the community in regards to “organic agriculture, as well as recreational and natural education and the role of the public garden model”.

Future steps

To scale up its model of sustainable rural development, Little Donkey Farm has been providing technical consultancies and training in natural agriculture to other rural cooperatives, through a working model that includes:

  1. The establishment of a network of local community-based sales channels;
  2. The use and promotion of natural agricultural technologies;
  3. The development and strengthening of local cooperatives with a comprehensive set of services;
  4. The development of local certifications for organic production. These empower smallholder farmers by creating a verification process in which they, together with consumers and other stakeholders are directly involved— named Participatory Guarantee System (PGS);
  5. The development of stations for research, knowledge-transfer and skill-development (technical, financial, marketing and social services to smallholder farmers and their communities).