Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming

Wang Yong
Circular agriculture, which focuses on using minimal amounts of external inputs and regenerating soil, is catching on in Shanghai's suburbs.
Wang Yong

Editor's note:

Rural revitalization is a growing trend across China, as the country explores a symbiotic growth of cities and villages, promoting common prosperity for everyone. This series explores how "rurbanomics" – an approach that emphasizes the interrelatedness of rural and urban economies – may work in a metropolis like Shanghai.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Spent mushroom substrates form a layer of dark soil over many ridges at Tianrong Mushroom Eco-Garden in Xinfeng Village, Qingpu District.

Yang Kaiyao, an agricultural expert and entrepreneur, says his lifelong dream is to build an organic farm that can thrive for one hundred years or more.

I learned of his dream during a chance meeting with him a few weeks ago when I wandered into an idyllic mushroom farm on my way to doing field research on rural revitalization in Xinfeng Village in west Shanghai's suburban Qingpu District.

Ambling along a row of greenhouses in the farm, I wondered how mushrooms were grown and why there were so many vegetable fields in a world of mushrooms. In particular, I was curious about a layer of dark soil over many ridges: I have heard of black earth in northeast China, but this is Shanghai. Where does the dark soil come from and what's it for?

I was at my tether's end when a middle-aged man came around, clad in a casual suit. He gave me a friendly smile as I went up to him and struck a conversation.

"Hey, do you know about the dark soil over there?" I asked.

"Oh yes, it's a fine layer of spent mushroom substrates," he replied. "It's a kind of organic fertilizer that improves the soil quality of the fields."

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Yang Kaiyao, an agricultural expert and entrepreneur, explains how his organic farm uses vegetable stalks, rice hulls and wood powder to make mushroom substrates, and how these substrates can eventually return to the earth to improve soil fertility.

Organic cycle

A mushroom substrate is a medium that allows mushroom mycelium – the root structure or the vegetative state of mushrooms – to develop. The substrate, commonly made of straws, weeds or food waste, provides everything mushrooms require to grow and come to fruition, from nutrition to moisture to energy. I had seen many mushroom substrates stuffed in recyclable plastic bags, called "grow bags," in my earlier interviews in the past few years, but I didn't know that, after mushrooms were harvested, these spent substrates could be used as plant fertilizer.

"What's the recipe of your mushroom substrate? Or, what do you use to make such a substrate?" I asked.

"We grow vegetables and blend their stalks with other organic ingredients like wood powder and rice hulls to make mushroom substrates," the man replied. "And when these substrates are spent, they return to the fields to improve soil fertility. It's a full cycle of organic growth."

Thanks to his explanation, I came to understand that the substrates remain nutritious even after they have been used to grow mushrooms. In particular, fungal inoculation may further improve substrates by breaking them down and turning them into soil-like fertilizer.

"You run this mushroom farm?" I asked.

"Yes, I have been cultivating this organic farm for 20 years, and I hope it can thrive for one hundred years or longer," he said thoughtfully. "People need healthy food."

"How did you get involved in rural business?" I asked.

"I'm from Fujian Province, and I liked agriculture when I was a teenager. After class, when most classmates played around, I would learn from local farmers how to grow vegetables well," he recalled.

"Overtime, the vegetables I grew sold well at local markets, so I got a little money to buy books for myself, which I would share with my classmates. In the 1980s, I enrolled in Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, so that I was able to further pursue my agricultural dream. And my major was related to the study of fungi."

No wonder he has invented a unique way of growing mushrooms, which has won him a national patent. The mushroom substrates in his farm are somehow more nutritious than ordinary ones because he puts all the bagged substrates into short walls of earth, so that the mycelium can absorb energy not just from the substrates, but also from the well-tended earth walls. In many other places, I had seen most "grow bags" standing above the ground, not "submerged" in earth.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Inserting mushroom "grow bags" into earth helps mushroom roots obtain more energy.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Yang Kaiyao shows how organic mushroom substrates look like.

Brisk demand

Yang said that many urban dwellers have become members of his mushroom farm. They either come and cultivate a rented piece of vegetable field, or ask his team to help cultivate their lots for them.

"Urban demand is brisk for affordable healthy food," he observed. "And some elderly people like to come and grow vegetables after sending their grandchildren to school. It's not just about food, it's about exercise in fresh air as well."

It was a cool afternoon in early spring when I visited the farm. Not a peak season for tourism yet, but I saw several dozen paper bags neatly arranged on the ground, each with a variety of vegetables and mushrooms. He said some customers had placed their orders and would take the fresh food home after playing in the farm.

Before I left, I asked him a final question: "May I have your name, please?" He kept a low profile and said: "My family name is Yang."

In my subsequent research, I found his full name and realized that the modest man, always speaking slowly with a Fujian accent, was a leading figure in Xinfeng Village's rural revitalization campaign, and that his Tianrong Mushroom Eco-Garden is a city-level model unit for organic agriculture.

Yang's work is part of a global story of sustainable growth. In a recent article, the United Nations noted that the growth of agriculture had long been driven by more intensive use of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, which over time had eroded the quality of land for cultivation. As a result, about a quarter of the global soil is estimated to have been degraded.

In the same article, the UN gave a thumbs-up to circular agriculture, which focuses on using minimal amounts of external inputs, closing nutrients loops, and regenerating soil. As a key element of circular agriculture, organic farming strives to eliminate the dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the global body noted, adding that organic farming is also more labor intensive, thereby providing rural employment and development opportunities. Indeed, Yang's farm has hired many local villagers, including less-abled people.

Eating raw

I paid an uninvited visit to Yang's farm again this past Saturday on my way to a nearby village. The weather was warmer this time and I was amazed to find many more vegetables had been planted and were growing luxuriantly, including lettuce and cabbage.

Quite a few children were scampering around merrily under the sun, scouting the fields and ditches for earthworms, fish or any plant that would interest them. Parents were chatting in groups.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Yuan Shaohua / SHINE

A child plays in the organic mushroom garden under the guidance of his father.

"Come have a taste!" a hospitable young lady greeted me, as I stood to appreciate the abundance of vegetables. "You can pick a leaf of lettuce from the ground and eat it raw."

While I was chewing on the choice of leaf, she already ate several leaves raw. I finally ate two leaves – unwashed. They were so bitter sweet and succulent that I ate a third one. I had never tasted such toothsome lettuce before.

"There's no pesticide or chemical fertilizer on the farm, we only use organic mushroom substrates to improve soil fertility,she explained. I said I knew that, but hadn't had a chance to eat raw vegetables right in the field.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Yuan Shaohua, a young college graduate who has recently joined Yang's team to promote circular agriculture, tastes raw lettuce leaves in a field nourished by organic mushroom substrates.

In our conversation that ensued, I came to know that she is a college graduate who had engaged in landscape and habitat designing before joining Yang's team recently to promote circular agriculture. Her name is Yuan Shaohua.

Seeing I was interested in the story of mushroom substrates, she promptly led me to a "mysterious" place I had not visited last time. It was in the middle of a vast field, where many bags of mushroom substrates were left to compost in the bosom of nature. She opened one bag and scooped up a handful of dark compost for me to study.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Yuan Shaohua shows how a block of spent mushroom substrate looks like.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Yuan breaks the block of mushroom substrate and spreads it over a vegetable field.

Not all mushroom substrates are left to compost in nature, though. She also showed me how fresh substrates are spread over and mixed with earth to help soften dense clay and replenish nutrients in the soil.

Producing healthy food is one thing, and education about it is quite another. Pointing to a corner of the field, Yuan said that it will be renovated this year to become a pastoral place for outdoor learning and nature activities for kids.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Mushroom substrates can be mixed with soil without composting.

Mixed farming

Yang's organic farm is just one example of circular agriculture, which comes in many forms.

Forty kilometers to the south of Yang's farm lies a big family farm in Songjiang District, which combines crop cultivation with animal husbandry. When I visited it last week, I found it different from most farms I had seen: A long, colorful pig house sits right in the middle of a vast rice field.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

A colorful pig house sits in the middle of Li Chunfeng's family farm in suburban Songjiang District.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

An overview of Li Chunfeng's family farm, which uses pig manure to enhance soil fertility.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Another family farm near Li's. Mixed farming has achieved fruitful results in Songjiang District.

As I drew near, I could hear constant rumbling sounds of pigs, but the pig house was enclosed and I could not get in. I knocked on the door and finally a sturdy man came out, wearing a work uniform and a pair of tall rain boots. Apparently, he had been tending the pigs.

After learning about my interest in circular agriculture, he took 20 minutes to change clothes and invited me for a talk outside the pig house. He explained that there was a strict sanitation standard and an outsider like me was not supposed to enter the pig house. But he gave me all the information I needed about his mixed farming model.

"Look at that covered manure lagoon over there," he said, pointing at a corner of the pig house. "Pig droppings are stored there and become liquid manure compost in about one year. Then we spread it across the farm twice a year."

According to the previously mentioned UN article, using animal manure instead of chemical fertilizers can improve soil fertility and reduce CO2 emissions of agriculture. The objective is to create a circular food system by capitalizing on the synergy that exists between crops and livestock.

As we chatted, I realized that the sturdy and friendly man in his forties was none other than Li Chunfeng, who was elected as one of China's 10 outstanding farmers in 2014 for his contribution to sustainable agricultural development.

Heeding the call for circular path to organic, healthy farming
Wang Yong / SHINE

Li Chunfeng, who was elected as one of China's 10 outstanding farmers in 2014, says he is confident about the future of his family farm, which is known for mixed farming.

"Since we began to try mixed farming in 2011, we have reduced the use of chemical fertilizer by 30 percent, and we expect to further reduce it in the future," Li noted.

"How do you spread manure compost in the field? Do you shoulder a barrel of it and then pour it into the field?" I asked, recalling a familiar scene I saw in my childhood.

"No, we use a pump and a pipe to spray liquid manure compost each year before planting the crops and after the harvest," Li explained. "Agricultural scientists have tested our land and found that the health and fertility of the soil has improved since we adopted mixed farming."

In a recent report, the Ministry of Agriculture noted that Li's mixed crop-livestock farming has helped increase the depth of arable soil by three to five millimeters. In addition to using manure compost, Li buys other types of organic fertilizer to ensure that the use of chemical fertilizer is further reduced, he said.

At the end of our casual talk, he suddenly remembered his son, who will graduate from college in one year.

"My son used to shy away from agriculture, but my success has inspired him and he is seriously considering joining me upon graduation," Li stated with a smug smile.

I could glean vicarious pleasure from his words, as I do from Yang the mushroom man. Yang said it's encouraging to see young people like Yuan Shaohua throwing their weight behind circular agriculture.

With the younger generation jumping on the bandwagon, the dream about a 100-year farm does not seem so distant.

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