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Shi Yan, Founder of “Sharing Harvest”: A Woman Protecting the Earth – “a New Farmer”
Jun 27.2018 07:23 PM


Shi Yan, lightly made-up, with a slight smile, stepped slowly onto the platform of China Social Enterprise and Investment Forum 2018 Conference. She is gentle and lives a frugal life like traditional oriental women, but her speech reveals self-confidence.


As the founder of “Sharing Harvest” Community Supported Agriculture (hereinafter referred to as CSA), Shi Yan is known as “a female doctor growing vegetables in the countryside”. She is a scholar, as she studied agriculture in the USA; meanwhile, she is also a farmer, as she started her career of growing vegetables at a farm in the suburb of Beijing after she returned home from abroad.


From thousands of years of traditional Chinese agricultural civilization to farming technology and organic farm mode of “a new farmer”, Shi Yan and her team enable more people to have brand-new knowledge of food safety and make a farmer an enviable occupation. For 2018 Shape the Future Social Enterprise and Investment Awards, the organizing committee includes “Annual Female Social Entrepreneur” on the award list for the first time, and Shi Yan won this honor. This oriental woman introduces CSA mode of modern civilization to the traditional farming industry, and her splendid story is continuing.


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A returnee “new farmer” Shi Yan


In Chinese farming culture, emphasis is laid on intensive cultivation, diversity, and cyclicity. As an agricultural scholar born after 1980, Shi Yan is always considering how to innovate traditional agriculture with modern technology. In April 2008, Shi Yan firstly knew CSA at a farm in Minnesota, Central America.


The concept of CSA was born in Japan and Switzerland in the 1970s. At that time, in order to find safe food and re-understand the relationship between mankind and nature, consumers initiatively cooperated with those farmers who hoped to establish stable sources of customers and conducted healthy cultivation. Consumers paid deposit for one year’s agricultural products in advance at the beginning of the year, and farms delivered fresh organic vegetables on schedule at harvest time. Both parties jointly undertook risk and established a Teikei (in case of misunderstanding ) relationship.


In order to have a deep understanding of CSA, Shi Yan needed to work at the farm. The labor intensity is enormous, for there were only five people and one small tractor for a farm nearly 100 mu. After she came back to China, she wrote a book I Worked as a Farmer in USA. In the book, she interprets the concept of CSA to Chinese readers by combining her own experiences at the American farm.


In Shi Yan’s opinion, CSA not only recovers soil fertility of farmland and provides healthy food, but more importantly shortens the distance between people and fills a community with vitality.


After she returned home from the USA, Shi Yan established a CSA farm, “Little Donkey Farm” in 2009. In 2012, she left “Little Donkey Farm” and started a new undertaking, independently managing “Sharing Harvest” CSA project, devoted to studying and promoting community food safety. Meanwhile, this project is also the practice base of Renmin University of China and Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University.


Shi Yan says “Sharing Harvest” contains three aspects of content: Direct selling, friendship, and locality. Consumers pay in advance, and no loans are needed. “This mode is very applicable to small and medium-sized farms that barely have funds at the early stage; on the other hand, sellers are producers themselves, so they directly face consumers and are more capable of being responsible for their own products.”


She calls farmers in CSA mode “new farmers”. Every year, Sharing Harvest holds “New Farmer Trainee” project at the farm to train a great number of young people nationwide who return to their home town. Shi Yan says, “We are ready to make people proud of growing vegetables well, not just to establish a company. Our objective is always to provide the most nutritious products and lay the least impact on the environment….”


Teacher of “CSA” Shi Yan


“Sharing Harvest”, just as its name implies, accepts the idea of “sharing”. In practice, Sharing Harvest is a social enterprise with promoting eco-agriculture and mutual trust between producers and consumers as its mission, and does not aim at profit maximization. Its objective is to achieve comprehensive development in three aspects - society, ecology, and economy. Its income mainly comes from the fees for vegetables paid by the members and the expenses collected for summer camps, new farmers training activities and pickings.


Specifically, Sharing Harvest directly delivers healthy vegetables, meat, eggs produced by the base and agricultural products of cooperative ecological farms (farmers) that meet the standards of Sharing Harvest to the homes of the members through the logistics established by Sharing Harvest, and organizes all kinds of member community activities to promote the mutual trust and unity relationship between consumers and farms.


Similar to the quintessence of traditional Chinese culture, CSA mode of Sharing Harvest is featured by its diversity, sustainability, and sharing harvest. Different from traditional farming which has a few varieties, farms of Sharing Harvest can produce 80-90 varieties of vegetables all the year by using modern “plantation management data-based” method, and it is capable to provide about 40 varieties of vegetables for families every week.


Specifically, “Sharing Harvest” shows order data in the past few years by a digitized database and formulates the production plan for this year in accordance with consumers’ order quantity and total quantity consumed during the previous year. For example, to estimate how many, Sharing Harvest can generally balance supply and production with the number of tomatoes need to be planted this year.


Meanwhile, Sharing Harvest is also promoting the direction of social movement, offering “CSA” education to consumers, containing from the original consumers to farm experience, gradually developing to canteen and “CSA” courses.


In 2013, Shi Yan established the project of “Children of the Earth of Sharing Harvest”: On the one hand, CSA education teachers of Sharing Harvest can give lessons on subjects at the school and help to open up vegetable fields. On the other hand, teachers and students can carry out onsite practice at the campus of Children of the Earth to have closer contact with sources of food and experience vividly.


Shi Yan was originally a post-doctor of Tsinghua University. She acts as a teacher of CSA from time to time in the project. She prefers working with children at the farm to abundant theoretical knowledge. In her opinion, the nature of human beings can return to nature as they get close to nature. It is more important to let children know where food comes from.


“Female farmer” Shi Yan


“Early in summer, I was buying vegetables on the market. An old vender said to me: "Take a look at my goods." The tomatoes on his stall looked like pinkish ping-pong balls and were piled like pyramid. I picked one up, whose stem was pinnate green and slightly hurt my hand. "Greenish and so small," I said, "Far from being as good as those I ate in winter."


"Can tomatoes in winter be called tomatoes? When you eat them, you are definitely taking chemicals not vegetables" said he, offended somewhat. I was surprised, wondering how they could be chemicals, "they are big and red, as beautiful as lanterns." The old vender replied: "They are planted in a hothouse, first roasted over a furnace fire, and then cultivated with chemicals. They get fattened out of proportion and are preserved in green-keeping agent or red-keeping agent. They look much prettier than those in pictures. Just as there are some traitors among people, there are ‘traitors’ among tomatoes as well. Tomatoes in winter are exactly fake of this kind."


The above is a passage in Shi Yan’s blog quoted from Bi Shumin, a writer. With this passage, she wants to express the idea that Sharing Harvest has been adhering to all the time: To advocate eating local, food in season, local production, buying local, and buying fresh. This interesting description is impressive.


As a female social entrepreneur, Shi Yan has delicate and emotional feelings which are peculiar to women. She earnestly calls herself “Shi Yan a farmer”. The most important wedding ceremony in Shi Yan’s life is a footnote to her ardent love and emotion for the farm.


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In October 2011, Shi Yan and Cheng Cunwang got married at the farm. The two once studied together under Wen Tiejun, an expert of issues concerning agriculture, countryside and farmers. The bride Shi Yan “got married carrying a broccoli”, and the food materials were all the vegetables grown in their own fields.


Real food, true farmers, and sincere community. Shi Yan’s original intention of starting up business is to build a bridge of trust, mitigate air pollution through eco-agriculture, as well as ensure that consumers can have access to healthy and safe food, and producers are guaranteed to get fair and reasonable profit, so as to facilitate the establishment and development of safe food communities.


So far, directly or indirectly influenced by Sharing Harvest, more than 1,000 CSA farms have been established across the country. Shi Yan would rather be called Farmer of “Sharing Harvest” than the post-doctor of a famous university or vice-chairman of International CSA Alliance.


“Every five consumers are involved, one mu of land can detoxicate; every ten consumers are involved, one farmer can farm in a sound way; every hundred consumers are involved, five young people can stay and work in the village; every thousand consumers are involved, a village can develop more sustainably.” Shi Yan is forthright, sincere and persistent just as a farmer. She says, “Everyone’s consumption is a vote for the world we want.”