By Lara Berendt
Every day around 4 a.m., Zhang Yihua drives his van from Xiejiaqiao village to a market at the center of his rural township. There he picks up about 500 pounds of vegetables, meat, rice and noodles to bring back and sell at his general store. This routine is remarkable considering just 15 years ago his family and many others in Xiejiaqiao grew most of their vegetables and raised animals for meat in their own backyards.
“Before, villagers didn’t have enough extra income to buy food,” said 51-year-old Zhang. “But after they earned their first capital from pecan and bamboo harvests, they had the money to buy their food instead of growing it, which is very energy-intensive.”
As middle- and upper-class Americans increasingly seek out organic, local and sustainably produced foods, the prosperous villagers of Xiejiaqiao outside the Chinese city of Hangzhou are eagerly abandoning the hard labor and time commitment of subsistence farming for a market-based food system. The issues of sustainability that keep Western environmentalists awake at night have little resonance in this rural village of 800, as residents begin to enjoy the improved quality of life that accompanies a consumer economy.
“It used to be that the rural areas produced food for the cities, but now there is the opposite trend,” said Xiejiaqiao village mayor Mo Yi Yang, 43.
Over the years, Xiejiaqiao’s villagers have planted pecan trees throughout their tract of steep hillsides and lush bamboo-groves sustained by a rushing local river. Villagers earn 10,000 RMB ($1,543) per capita annually from pecan farming and 4,000 RMB ($615) from the sale of bamboo shoots, making Xiejiaqiao the richest of the seven villages in the Heng-Lu township, Mo said.
Since this shift to commercial farming, the village imports about 50 percent of its food, he said. Although Mo said locals still grow most of the vegetables they consume, several residents said the village is moving away from the home-farming tradition.
“With the new development, fewer villagers have time to grow their own vegetables because it’s very time-consuming with little monetary outcome,” said 48-year-old Liu Linan. Her husband owns a business selling quartz crystals used in glass production and her extended family earns money from bamboo farming, she said.
A decade ago, Liu’s family grew rice and raised pigs and chickens on their property, but she said it was dirty, smelly work. Now that she has a newly built home, she said she doesn’t want to spoil it by raising animals on the grounds.
Although she no longer raises pigs, Liu said her pork consumption hasn’t really decreased. She buys meat, eggs, vegetables and, occasionally, packaged sweets from Zhang’s village store. “Of course we eat better now because we have far more wealth than before,” she said.
Liu’s immediate family only eats pork every two days or so, but she said her parents, who grew up when meat was more scarce, frequently advise her to eat more meat and fewer vegetables.
Wu Aijiao, 68, has lived in the village her entire life, and said she recalls a time during the planned economic era of the ‘50s and ‘60s when residents were issued food vouchers. During the period of rioting that followed the Great Chinese Famine of the early 1960s, which the Chinese Communist Party officially blamed on natural disasters, she said food shortages drove her family to eat tree bark and grasses torn right out of the ground.
Wu continues to farm, “even at her old age,” growing cabbage, cucumber, eggplant and other wild indigenous vegetables. She said her pork consumption has increased since childhood, though she tries to abstain from meat as she grows older, for health reasons. She buys eggs from the local markets in town but avoids packaged, processed sweets, she said.
“Sometimes the price of pork is sky-high, so we won’t buy it, but overall, our eating habits haven’t changed much,” Wu said.
As prosperity and rapid development alter some villagers’ dietary choices, they raise new concerns about the possibility of environmental fallout. With fewer than 100 acres of arable land reported to the government, new homes and businesses in Xiejiaqiao are built upward to three or four stories high, instead of outward, in an effort to conserve valuable agricultural acreage.
“We don’t focus solely on economic outcomes, but also on ecology,” said Luo Zhong Ming, leader of Heng Lu township, which contains Xiejiaqiao and six other villages.
Repeatedly planting pecan trees in a monoculture can harm the soil and surrounding environment, Luo said.
“As the pecan and bamboo industries develop fast, we suggest villages plant a variety of trees and plants, which will lead to greater yields and prevent harm to the ecosystem,” he said.
As the villagers accumulate more spending money, Zhang’s business flourishes. He opened his store 15 years ago, selling just fresh foods, but has since expanded to include aisles of consumer products, such as toothpaste, juice drinks, cigarettes and potato chips. The packaged products sit on the shelf awhile, but the fresh foods sell out every day, he said.
Zhang’s success has allowed him to send his son to university, and his son now works for a company in the neighboring city of Hangzhou.
“Each person can have only ten acres of land, which is not much,” township leader Luo said. “We encourage our young people to go out and do business in the city and the village instead of farming land.”