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Who knew there was such a plethora of organic farming in Shanghai?!?

Underneath the Hermes scarf and the Italian driving loafers, I must confess…I have an inner hippie. She lurks beneath the surface and pops out occasionally. I think it has something to do with growing up in the South and spending time on a family farm, living in the ultra-liberal town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina as well as attending a few Grateful Dead shows along the way (and yes, wearing tie dye at a few points). So my inner hippie was tickled when I found out about the burgeoning organic farming and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scene in Shanghai. What I had heard more about were the food scandals like melamine and milk and exploding watermelons, so the last thing I expected was the true passion and commitment of some Chinese farmers to raise organic, free range chickens and grow whole, completely natural foods…and in fact very close to the city center of Shanghai.

Knowing I am all about food and food related things, my friend Phyllis invited me to go with her to visit an organic farm just outside Shanghai. I was intrigued, for the reasons mentioned earlier, but also because I had sought this sort of thing out in Singapore when I lived there. You would think that CSA farms and home deliveries would be common in 1st world countries – they are in the US and Europe. But in fact in Singapore, there were simply no viable options short of trekking up to Malaysia, and even there, options were scarce.

Off we went to Yi Mu Tian Farm, a Chinese owned and operated organic farm on Chongming Island about 1.5 hours outside of Shanghai city center. On Yi Mu Tian, they have everything from pumpkins, strawberries, tomatoes, chilis and herbs to organic chickens (only 180RMB / 2 Euro) and eggs. They grow everything in greenhouse style houses for 2 reasons. One it protects the crop during inclimate weather and two, it keeps the bugs out. The use no chemicals at all on the crops and in fact when they do spot some undesirable bugs and worms, they send the chickens in to eat them! In fact, this is why they got the chickens in the first place, but then they realized there was also a market for their free range chicken workers

;)

As it should be Yi Mu Tian, along with all other organic farms, they only grow seasonally. So crops are not forced based on consumer demand for year round strawberries. Rather they grow them in the season where they will prosper and in fact taste the best. As we walked the farm I pulled a couple of strawberries off the vine and I can say with confidence, I have never tasted a more naturally sweet strawberry in my life. Not the bloated yet perfect supermarket strawberry, but a small morsel of goodness. I can imagine eating a bowl for dessert and completely sating my sweet tooth.

And it turns out there was an option to have lunch at the farm where a vegetarian lunch of all their current products in season would be presented. Everything was fresh from the field and you could see it in the vibrant color of the veggies as well as taste it. Have you ever had the experience where seafood is so fresh, you feel like you can taste the sea? Well imagine that experience translated to vegetables. The cherry tomatoes were so good, I was popping them in my mouth like potato chips. Seriously.

I started to wonder…were there more places like this in Shanghai. And I found out there are several, all doing home delivery. So you can order produce (and chicken in some cases) and have it delivered to your door the same day it was picked! As I thought about the sad little packages at my local supermarket of vaguely wilted produce imported from Australia and New Zealand, I vowed to change my shopping habits.

So I have been experimenting with various CSA home delivery providers in Shanghai. Some places are more convenient than others, where you can pick the date and time of delivery, others less so. But all have been quite impressive in terms of the quality of the foods.

  • Yu Mu Tian –  as mentioned above, has a wide variety of produce, eggs, chicken and herbs and delivers once a week. The biggest issue for me at the moment is that the website is currently in Chinese (they are adding English), so it’s hard for me to order online.
  • Shanghai Organic  – has a very user friendly website in English and Chinese, and offers over 120 different kinds of produce and organic rices. They deliver Mon – Sun, which creates a lot of flexibility.
  • Tony’s Farm – this is probably the biggest organic farm in Shanghai and is operated more like a traditional CSA in the sense that you get a “mystery box” every week of what is available and fresh that week. I know a lot of home cooks who love this because it forces them to be creative. For me, I travel a lot and an often dining out so committing to the minimum 3kg of veg a week is a bit daunting. The website also has recipes which can help you with those unusual veggies that you might not quite know how to handle.
  • Fields – this isn’t a farm, but an online organic grocery store.  It has pretty much everything you would expect from produce and grains, to fruits and herbs, to personal care products and bakery goods. But what really got me was the variety and quality of the organic meats and seafood. Real bacon, tiger prawns and thick US / Aussie style steaks in particular  got my attention.

And this is just in Shanghai.   As it turns out, this is part of an overall sustainability / green movement in China. Unlike other countries in the world where green awareness was driven by the government, in China it started with a generation. The 25 – 34 year-old generation that grew up with an open China and a great deal of exposure to the outside world, living in a richer, more globally-integrated China. They tend to be more outwardly motivated, preferring foreign brands and often seeking to emulate American or European models of lifestyle and success vs. the older generations. And in doing so have brought environmental concerns into the conversation in China.

Who knew in Shanghai I would find such a plethora of organic options?  There is something special about seeing where your food is grown. And I don’t know about you, but I prefer to eat a ripe, juicy tomato fresh from the field vs. a perfectly red grocery store specimen with no flavor.

Just another reason to be inspired by China.

 

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