The Wheels on the Bus to Xi’an’s Agricultural Fun(ny) Farm
It began much like a lot of my outings in China. On a bus…. on route to, absolutely ‘no idea’ where!
There were about 20 of us, a jovial mix of Australians, Americans, English, Singaporean, Malaysian and Chinese. It was 9am Saturday morning and we were in China on the happy bus to the funny farm! (Who wouldn’t be laughing!)
Some of us had been in Xi’an longer than others, so the ‘unusual’ sights looking out the window, weren’t as hair raising; some were long-stay guests at the hotel, who come for a month, then (said without a hint of jealousy) escape. Some were friends visiting — the eye boggle more prominent than ever as we drove through ramshackle villages. Lunchtime?
In my mind we were going to a farm to “pick veggies”….which as much as I’m not really a farm kind of girl, I was intrigued. Xi’an is after all, the cradle of farming civilisation. (True Fact: There’s evidence of farming around these parts as many as 7000 years ago!)
And with our apples the size of bowling balls, not to mention the reddest of red, juiciest strawberries and baseball-sized onions, it’s hard not to think of China and agriculture without thinking about those scandals involving exploding watermelons, melamine tainted milk and detergent-soaked pork.
This trip was all part of an outing the Westin Hotel had lovingly prepared for valued guests to see Xi’an in all her glory. And let’s face it, I know they’ll always be packed with action and amusement! (You may remember the cultural day out?!)
This day was clearly going to be no different. After a 20 minute ride or so, we found ourselves mid country-side, rather arid looking pieces of land splayed out either side of us…..and then amongst it every so often, a rare patch of growth…spring vegetation. We came to a halt and let out a cheer, but alas this wasn’t our stop; our bus was just pulling over to the side of the road to ask for directions. We were a little lost. The gate had mysteriously moved, as it so often does in China.
Ten minutes later we arrive….at the Fendong Modern Urban Agricultural Demonstration Park.
It’s a showpiece ripe for the tourist’s picking.
Leading into the grand theme park, lavish lawns, streams gently trickling, arched stone bridges, magic pathways and sheep. Plenty of sheep in all manner of poses, all looking suspiciously like that well known British character, Shaun the Sheep!
Unsure of his relevance apart from the obvious, the kids loved him.
On the way in, a few cartoon cut-outs, for good measure, where you can pose for a (sheepish) Disney shot…or not.
Then before us, four giant greenhouses….
The first one packed with rows of lush, oh so green vegetables growing in all their fresh hydroponic, organic glory! (Which I’m pretty confident is a rarity around these parts.)
We’re each handed a red basket. Our mission: to pluck the veggies we hope to cook and eat later. Many of them look familiar: tomatoes, lettuce in all sizes and shapes, radish, chives… but there are others we don’t know. Many are medicinal herbs, of which I’m eager to know more about! Should I be secretly stowing them in my handbag?
We’re told the butter lettuce makes great bouquets for Valentine’s Day. And it’s no joke. Their exclusivity means they’re expensive but not as expensive as a dozen red roses and of course they last longer….until she gets hungry.
Once we’ve got our stash, it’s handed over to the chefs (the real ones), while we continue our glass house tour.
Stalls are ever so conveniently set up on the short walk between each green house, selling everything from strawberry juice to trinkets, lavender potions and strange tasting nuts. I waver and cave, purchasing a bottle of blueberry juice.
The other greenhouses are like overgrown jungles….very exotic we’re proudly told!
Mostly they appeared to be of the tropical variety which I dare not tell her, can typically be found in many a back yard Down Under.
Up here though, in north west China, a stone’s throw from the desert, they’re clearly an anomaly.
Paraded before us, among other flora and fauna, banana trees, flowering hibiscus, a Frangipani, and a group of cacti…I try my best to look impressed. (Unlike the little boy who takes it upon himself to relieve himself in the midst of all these cherished nursery plants)!
For the locals this is akin to a tropical oasis in the middle of a dust coated plain …it’s regularly booked for wedding shoots; loved up couples happy to pose in a hot house amongst the geraniums for the perfect shot. Lettuce bouquets optional.
Just don’t get too close to the poisonous flowers….we’re repeatedly told they are highly toxic, but that doesn’t stop one local getting extremely up close and personal with the pollen.
Once the tour’s over, we’re herded out back for a Masterchef cook off!
Several cooking stations set up for each team to mimic the chef’s dish using our own handpicked produce!
With Ava, my girlfriend from Down Under and I on the hotelier’s team….he was going to have to work for his supper. Masterchefs we’re not!
Thankfully others were!
It was a stark reminder that while many of us take fresh, safe produce and lush green gardens for granted…here….it’s still a luxury that’s by no means afforded to all.
It seems like a strange contradiction though, when I read that China ranks first in the world for farm output and feeds 22 per cent of the world’s population with seven percent of the planet’s arable land but is also the biggest importer of agricultural products, unable to feed its own burgeoning population.
A little over a decade ago China had 700-million farmers, today there are around 200-million. Farm land is still owned and controlled by the state and leased to farmers, so they can’t sell it. With little reward for their efforts, and China’s rapid urbanisation plan, farmers are moving in their droves to the cities. China plans to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities over the next decade! (And that’s a story for another day.)
Farming in China is still very labour intensive with heavy reliance on fertiliser and pesticides to maintain high food production; as a developing country, keeping standards acceptable on a global level is challenging. (Errr hello fake eggs and rotten meat scandals.)
Following a string of these food safety scandals, China’s people are now demanding better standards — but the reality is, while China has advanced agricultural research centres and laboratories for research, getting that data and educating the the millions of small, rural farmers on the ground is extremely difficult. The majority of farmers don’t know how to produce organically, let alone what it stands for.
The Fengdong Agricultural Centre website boasts it’s recruited more than 2,000 local farmers to work for them, who mainly grow corn and wheat. No matter how hard they struggle, the best gross profit they can make is around 1,500 RMB a year (US$230). According to Fengdong, one farmer can earn at least 1,800 RMB per month with them plus extra income to rent out their land.
One of the local farmer’s is reported to have said: “I’ve only seen such a modern plant factory on TV and I feel thrilled to personally work here and get exposed to the latest agricultural technology!” A telling quote.
They say their goal is to transform traditional farmers into modern agricultural labourers.
So perhaps this agricultural theme park is on the money. One small step in the fight against scandals like those exploding watermelons?
Butter lettuce bouquets all round?
Don’t even think about it. 😉
This is China.