Farmers Market—a New Relationship between Local Farming and People

Yang Yan working at the Guiyang Ecological Farmers Market. (Yang Yan)

Yang Yan (Founder and Head of Ecological Farmers Market Development Centre of Wudang District of Guiyang City, former Assistant Programme Officer for Ecological Agriculture in Guizhou, PCD

Editor’s note:

Yang Yan worked in PCD between 2010 and 2014 on ecological agriculture programmes. In August 2014, she set up the Ecological Farmers Market Development Centre (EFMDC) of Wudang District of Guiyang City, which is registered as a public benefit organisation. The goal of her organisation is to restore everyday life values founded on traditional agriculture. The main areas of work of the centre are: organising the Guiyang Ecological Farmers Market, public education (education on environmental protection and sustainable living), community supported agriculture (CSA), and group purchasing. Since its establishment, the centre has been building platforms for the launching of the Guiyang Ecological Farmers Market and conducting other activities such as “Worry-Free Kitchen” to organise and promote the development of an ecological farmers market in Guiyang.

In this article, Yang Yan explains how her organisation was initiated and organised, as well as its growth and development. She shares in particular how her earlier connections and networks, the objective condition and support of like-minded NGOs have helped in the smooth start and the progress of her venture.

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Yang Yan working at the Guiyang Ecological Farmers Market. (Yang Yan) A glimpse of Guiyang Ecological Farmers Market in 2015. (EFMDC)
Ban Xiaofen and her family raise pigeons. The pigeons’ manure is composted and then used for ecological farming. (EFMDC) Ban Xiaofen engaging in ecological farming. (EFMDC)
Jakes, an ecological farmer from India, visited Ban Xiaofen and her family to find out how she practices ecological farming. (EFMDC) Jakes from India looking at the tea trees in Ban Xiaofen’s farm. (EFMDC)

I worked for five years in the Guizhou Office of PCD in ecological agricultural programmes. It provided me with the many connections that made it possible for me to launch the Guiyang Ecological Farmers Market. I often said jokingly to my friends that “PCD is like a field, and the Guiyang Ecological Farmers Market is the relationship between local farming and citizens nurtured by this field.”

A Career in Ecological Agriculture that Led to the Founding of a Farmers Market

In 2009, I worked as an intern in the village of Wayao in Guizhou (one of PCD’s ecological agriculture programme sites between 2005 and 2013). Guiyang’s farmers market invited the Wayao farmers engaged in ecological farming and husbandry to take part in the market, and I was asked to facilitate communications. It was my first contact with ecological agriculture. After I got to know the ecological farmers taking part, we chatted about what they did in ecological farming and husbandry, and I wrote down what they said on a big piece of white paper. I was thinking of turning it into a poster at the farmers’ market. I hoped that consumers would support the ecological farmers after they learnt about ecological agriculture and the problem of food safety. However, less than ten percent of the ecological produce that the farmers had cleaned and brought to the market were sold.

At the end of 2010, I met Chang Tianle and Qi Dafu of Beijing Organic Farmers Market at an annual CSA conference held in Beijing. They were enthusiastically distributing information about the farmers market to participants. My first impressions of farmers markets were linked to a concern for food safety, environmental protection and support for small-scale ecological farmers. However, I often wondered: if farmers markets and ecological agriculture were really that good, why were there so few farmers who practiced ecological farming? Why was it so difficult to sell ecological produce? I could not forget the disappointed look on the face of the farmers when they told me that they were unable to sell their vegetables, and that their products did not gain public recognition.

In the few years that followed I visited farmers market everywhere I travelled, and was able to see farmers markets in many places. What I liked most when I visited farmers markets was the opportunity to taste local traditional cuisine made from ecological products and to meet the farmers who farmed them. In 2013, after two of PCD’s ecological agricultural programmes ended, I often visited the farmers in these earlier programme sites during weekends and bought ecological products from them for my friends. In my exchanges with the farmers, I noticed that in most villages that practice ecological agriculture and husbandry, farmers consumed the ecologically farmed vegetables and animals themselves while they sold products farmed by modern farming techniques on the market. This was mainly because it was difficult to market ecological products. Consumers did not believe that it was possible to grow vegetables without using chemical fertiliser, or they did not like the look of the vegetables and thus did not find them good enough. Some farmers said that they were capable of producing ecological products for the market. However, their farms were located next to the farms of farmers practicing conventional farming, and when the latter applied pesticides; products of the former were contaminated and could not be sold as ecological farm products.

Building Networks for a Good Cause and Supporting New Ventures

In 2014, my daughter was born. Since then I have become more concerned with food safety and have joined all sorts of mothers’ groups. When we discuss issues of child care, one of our favourite subjects is collective purchase of agricultural products from farmers we trust. Sometimes we ask each other about where to buy safe agricultural products, or I share what I saw during my visits to farmers markets in other places. Soon, a group of us came up with the idea of setting up a farmers market in Guiyang so that more people may have access to safe agricultural products, that small-scale ecological farmers will have a venue to sell their products and we would get to know them, their ecological products and their land. We began work in June by conducting a survey to identify more ecological farmers and looking for ways to register our organisation. It seemed that we were in luck: while we were looking for ecological farmers, we met many of the partners I had worked with before. They were very enthusiastic and introduced us to trustworthy farmers engaged in ecological farming and new farmers as well. We were also able to register our organisation successfully with the help of our former colleagues. The process was smooth because, by coincidence, the local government of Guiyang was implementing a policy of encouraging the start-up of social organisations.

Since we launched the farmers market in August 2014, it has been held more than 90 times in large neighbourhoods and commercial centres in Guiyang with the participation of 34 ecological farmers. Many consumers have expressed their approval and support by telling their friends to come to the market and recommending additional trustworthy farms to the market. They even help us to liaise with venues for holding the event and work as volunteers on the day the market opens. Many consumers go to the farms of the ecological farmers in the afternoon after they visit the market in the morning. I remember a lady who really liked the tofu sold at the market, and went to the farm to find out more about the process of making tofu. She told me afterwards that she understood why it was called a farmers market, as two families would work together for one whole evening to make tofu from the soybeans grown from their own land, a dish which also happens to be essential to the festivals of the village.

Training and Capacity Building that Transformed Farmers’ Ways of Thinking

In the process of organising the farmers market, what impressed me most was the change in Ban Xiaofen and her family, a farming household from Wayao. In 2009 when I worked at Wayao, her family was not even a member of the interest group for ecological farming and husbandry in a programme supported by PCD. At that time she did not believe that you could cultivate anything using ecological methods. In 2010, her family began to keep honey bees but they faced a lot of problems: the bees either died or flew away and never returned. Coincidentally PCD organised a training activity on keeping honey bees to draw farmers’ attention to the issue of biodiversity and ecological agriculture. Ban joined the full training course because she wanted to solve the problems she was facing. When she learnt that honey bees died from herbicides and that pollination by honey bees had a direct impact on crop yield, she did an experiment herself on the effect of pollination by honey bees on crop yield and recognised the importance of honey bees to agriculture. Since harvesting honey from raised bees can generate income for the family, she started to practice ecological farming and stopped using herbicide while reducing the use of chemical fertiliser. Later she also took part in other training activities organised by PCD on ecological agriculture skills. Ban’s husband, Luo, loves to keep pigeons. Over the last year, he has gradually increased the number of pigeons he keeps. Ban draws on the methods she learnt from the training and uses the manure from the pigeons for compost. Now she makes more compost than her farm can use, and has no need of chemical fertiliser at all.

I visited Ban at home while we were in the midst of planning for the farmers market, and she said she would be happy to join, because her family was equipped for ecological farming and husbandry. They used compost, never any herbicide, and pesticides were used only when there was a severe and widespread pest outbreak. She thought that if she could sell her products at the farmers market, she would win the recognition of the consumers and earn extra income. Both her family and the consumers could gain from it. I think Ban’s example shows that appropriate technology that does not rely on external resources and a mode of crop cultivation and animal husbandry that employs internal recycling is a mode of ecological agricultural production that rural families can practice long term. Our farmers market helps the farmers to promote their products and to build a relationship with the consumers. A farmer can negotiate with consumers on a farming plan that takes into consideration the farmer’s speciality. In this way, a relationship can be built between the farmer and the consumer which shares both the harvest and the responsibility — a path that Ban is now treading.

Sometimes Ban is only able to sell a few of her vegetables in the farmers market, and has to bring her products home at the end of the day. However, she and her husband have the enthusiastic support of their son. They have made many new friends in the market, and when they deliver vegetables to customers. Their vegetables and processed goods are appreciated by many customers. Because of this, Ban said she would continue to practice ecological farming.

Rebuilding Broken Links

With the gradual increase of consumers, and because of farmers like Ban, we are happy to carry on organising the local farmers market, even though we are not paid. In fact, we have other jobs to earn a living. Sometimes we meet young people who want to join us in running the market. I tell them that we are not able to pay anyone to work full time, but if they are interested and if it would not affect their study or their work, they are welcome to become a volunteer. Now our volunteers include students as well as housewives and others, and we are all striving for a common goal, each in our own way. In the process we have also got the support and help of other organisations. For example, thanks to the support of PCD, we took part in the annual national CSA conference in 2014 and 2015. We also took part in the Workshop on Localisation of Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), thanks to Beijing Organic Farmers Market, Shanghai Nonghao Farmers Market and Oxfam. (Editor’s note: PGS is an initiative to ensure products meet health standards and are environmentally friendly.) The authorities of Civil Affairs from Guiyang City and Wudang District have also provided funds for some of our activities in the farmers market. For the government, the farmers market caters to the need of consumers who are looking for safe food. It also provides small-scale farmers with a marketing channel for their ecological products. In other words, the market is valuable because it addresses people’s livelihood issues.

When organisers of the farmers market meet, we often say that we have a farmers market in Guiyang because there are problems of food safety, environmental issues, and a mismatch in the supply and demand of ecological products. In other words, the problem lies in the link between human beings, land and agriculture becoming more and more severed, and the purpose of the farmers market is to rebuild the relationship between consumers, farmers and local farming.

Over the last two years, many funding agencies have been set up in the mainland. Policy-wise, civil organisations are encouraged to register officially. These favourable circumstances have encouraged socially-conscious young people to join our endeavour. From my personal experience, there are many ways to take part, and after some research, people may find a suitable and sustainable solution which relieves their family from concerns. In such a way, one can involve in one’s endeavour for the long run.