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Raising food safety, an egg at a time
Chen spoke to Mandy Zuo
With food-safety scandals seemingly springing up left and right, Chen Yanhong is among those filling a growing demand for quality foods that people can trust. Organic farming has become a fashionable profession these days, and Chen has seen her business burgeon as more and more city-dwellers pursue healthier options. On a 2,000-square-metre plot of farmland in Beijing's suburban district of Shunyi, the 43-year-old Chen grows vegetables and corn while also raising more than 600 chickens. Though her goods are much more expensive than those sold at an ordinary market, they have become quite popular at a weekly organic food fair and online.
When did you start your business?
In March of last year. Before that I grew vegetables and raised several chickens too, but they were just for personal consumption, not for sale. During one chat with my nephew, who is studying at China Foreign Affairs University, he gave me the idea of selling vegetables and chickens downtown. He told me that many urban residents today liked to eat vegetables like mine, and he advised me grow more and sell them at the 'Country Fair'. It's a market where organic growers across Beijing gather in a certain place to sell their produce once a week, usually on weekends. Some volunteers organise it and don't charge farmers to enter the market.
How much can you sell at the fair?
I usually take, at most, 10 kilograms of vegetables, eight to 10 chickens - butchered beforehand - chicken eggs and goose eggs. Usually I can sell them all at the fair. I don't have a car or a truck, so I take a taxi to the fair. There are fellow villagers who drive a taxi in the city for a living. I can get a ride when they leave for work. If the fair is not far, it usually costs 100 yuan (HK$123) to get there. I take a bus to return home, and with my transport cots deducted, I can make 200 to 300 yuan each time.
How do you guarantee that your products are organic?
It's the original way of farming, as our ancestors did - using organic fertilisers and no pesticides. Since I raise chickens, I have chicken excrement. I sometimes also ask for sheep excrement from my neighbours, mix it with the chicken excrement, and use the mixture as fertiliser after fermenting it. As for the geese and chickens, I feed them corn, bran, vegetables and wild herbs.
Organisers of the fair visit my farm to check the conditions, and to see whether I use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. There are also some customers who buy a small amount and take it to be tested for pesticide residue. Once a young woman bought a handful of cornflour and took it to be tested. Another time a customer said he had taken my eggs for testing. They wouldn't have come back to me if my products failed the tests.
How would you describe your customers?
Mostly as white-collar workers downtown. Blue-collar ones think my products are too expensive. They would rather buy goods at ordinary community markets, where they can buy several more kilograms vegetables with the same money. But there are also elderly people who are willing to spend the money for healthier food. There's a retired couple that comes to me every time I go to the fair. They check my Sina microblog account [under the user name 'Shunyi farmer Chen Yanhong'] for what I plan on selling every time.
How do you advertise?
Volunteers from China Foreign Affairs University taught me how to use a computer and to microblog. They registered an account for me when I first started selling produce at the fair. They helped me write posts and advertise what I would sell at the fair, up until February, when I finally learned how to create a post and check the comments. Sometimes when I have trouble typing [in pinyin to find the correct characters], I still call them for help.
People learned about me at the fair, and gradually some started coming to my home to buy, because they want to see with their own eyes that what they are buying is truly organic. If they live far away, some ask me to cook for them and to stay for a meal. There are two or three such visits a week. Some other customers call to ask for a delivery. For deliveries, the order should be at least 200 yuan, since it takes me a long time to travel to and from the city.
How do you decide on the prices?
The current prices are 6 yuan for a package of leafy vegetables, 150 yuan for one chicken, 50 yuan for a kilogram of chicken eggs, and 15 yuan for one goose egg. My goal is to ensure I can make a profit of a few hundred for a trip to the fair. The overhead costs are mainly transportation fees, water for irrigation, and my time. So I am able to offer lower prices than bigger farms that need to rent land and hire workers. Some customers have complained that my goose eggs are too expensive, saying that 3 to 4 yuan would be reasonable. But one should know that one goose can produce only 60 to 70 eggs in a whole year, but they eat 3-yuan to 4-yuan worth of feed every day.
Are you making more money now than you did before?
I used to do odd jobs and had to tighten my belt. Now I can make nearly 2,000 yuan a month. With this money I can at least provide for myself and be generous when my son asks for some pocket money.
What do other people in the village use their land for?
They grow wheat and corn for their own consumption. Some also sell grain if there's more than enough. But instead of full-time farming, most people in the village work at companies. I'm the only one who sells organic food in the whole town.
Do you have plans to expand your business?
I would like to, but I don't have the money to rent more land at the moment.