China may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about places that American organic farmers could learn from. But a group of American advocates of a safe and sustainable food chain learned a few things on their recent trip to organic farms near Beijing.
The chickens at this farm seem happy. They're outside, with room to move around, and an airy, sunny coop to go into when they want to rest, or lay an egg.
The farmer who takes care of them, Yang Li, is pretty happy, too. He can get three times the normal price for these chickens and their eggs, because ever more Chinese are willing to pay a premium to have free range chickens free of antibiotics and chemicals.
Corby Kummer, food editor for The Atlantic magazine, who's visiting this farm, comments that these Chinese chickens have it better than most in the U.S.
"In an American chicken house, they're not allowed to go outside until they're five weeks old. So they're afraid to go outside," Kummer said.
Another difference at this farm is that they repurpose the chicken manure. Some is used for fertilizer; the rest is put in a methane digester, which creates enough cooking gas for 1,700 households in seven villages.
Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Food Rules," asked how long it takes to go from manure to gas. He's surprised to learn it only takes one week. What comes out is a liquid.
"It's pretty amazingly good, considering," said Robert Kenner, director of the film "Food, Inc."
All three Americans food experts were just in Beijing for a US-China Arts and Culture Festival — and no culture is complete without its food.
But as Chinese culture has modernized, it's taken a more industrial approach to producing food – more pesticides, more chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified crops. Meanwhile, middle-class Chinese have increasingly embraced the American habit of grabbing fast food and soft drinks, and obesity and diabetes in China are on the rise.
Still, Michael Pollan is heartened to see that at least some Chinese are looking for change.
"I think there's a group of Chinese, still quite small, that's beginning to question the industrial food system here, largely because of concerns over food safety," Pollan said. "I'm amazed at the levels of distrust of food. There are people who ask, 'are you eating at restaurants in Beijing?' — as though they were talking about unprotected sex."
Here on this farm, the vegetables are safe — no chemicals, no pesticides — though you might occasionally have to pick off a slug, or eat a leaf with a few holes nibbled out of it. We walk into a greenhouse — they call it a hoop house here because of the arched roof.
"You really just get hit with the aroma," said Kenner, talking about the scent of tomatoes on the vine.
He and the others also notice that on one side of the greenhouse, there's an earthen wall, 15 feet thick at its base. This helps store heat. The place is toasty, even though it's in the 40s outside, and Corby Kummer is impressed.
"In Maine, where I live, they're not as inventive about the architecture," Kummer said. "There's a lot New England could learn from this, though I don't know that they could solve the brick or cement wall problem."
By that he means that building these sorts of heat-storing walls would be more expensive in New England. Michael Pollan agreed, but said he does see other things that might be replicable.
"I'm really impressed with the diversity of these farms, how many different crops they have, and combining animals and plants, and taking advantage of the recycling abilities when you can produce manure to feed your crops, and produce feed for your animals," Pollan said. "When you can close that nutrient loop, you can have real sustainable farming."
But how to do that profitably, at scale, remains a challenge, in China as in the United States. This farm, at 100 acres, is on the large side for an organic farm in China — and there still aren't many.
On the way back to Beijing, Pollan asked Chinese organic food advocate Zhang Yinghui how realistic she thinks an organic future is for China, given Chinese reliance on fertilizer.
"I can imagine," Zhang said. "But I don't know how long it would take. I hope it would happen."
Even in the United States, where more people can afford to pay extra for organic food, industrialized farming still rules. In China, where most people can't afford to pay a premium for organic food, eating is like breathing the polluted air — just don't think too much about what you're putting into your body, and hope for healthier options ahead.