Lessons Learned from Farming Organic-ish

Open farms allow the customer to knock on the door and help themselves to a squeeze of the cow’s teat. China and its ecotourism destinations have their own characteristics.

Sunflowers on the Machong Watertown Happy Farm (Credit: Carson Zhong)

Sunflowers on the Machong Watertown Happy Farm (Credit: Carson Zhong)

Ecotourism can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. For the cynical, maybe it’s a gimmick marketing to consumers increasingly concerned with the environment and their impact on it—or its impact on them. To the naïve, the organic-ish farms and outdoor adventure parks of Dongguan make a lasting impact on the state of the local environment.

China is the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, a subject often discussed, and some private businesses here have jumped on board to service a new market. Scenery tourists wear matching hats to trample through nature sites to take selfies, and local villages wire lights and propagate gift shops from one end of natural caves systems to another. There was even a plan that discussed opening the Chinese slopes of Mt. Everest via access road.

There is no doubt that there is natural beauty in parts near and far from Guangdong, but what about the coastal corridor along China’s industrialized east? It seems that the PRD is much closer to the dreamed-up megacity that would unite a concrete jungle from Hong Kong’s border to the western reaches of Guangzhou-Foshan than it is to being fed by organic farms and entertained by outdoor adventure.

Here, ecotourism is a return to the rural farm lands of just a few generations before. The villagers that horded wealth by opening its borders to factory payoffs are benefitting from its wealth, yet longing for fresh vegetables and clean farmlands of times before.

The most recent history may not have been a time of fruitful harvests, but it was a time before ditch oil confederacies and concerns of mercury-laced soil. On a search through a couple of eco-friendly farms in the city, it seems that Dongguan has its own particular brand of Dongguany ecotourism.

The view from the ferrie on way to Sandalwood Island. In site is the bamboo entrance gate, and behind, is the Family home. (Credit: He Liu)

The view from the ferrie on way to Sandalwood Island. In site is the bamboo entrance gate, and behind, is the Family home. (Credit: He Liu)

Sandalwood Island

Standing, as confirmed by the Dongguan Water Affairs Bureau, just four meters above river water-levels, an island with a questionable history is being wrangled by a Taiwanese family with the frontiersmen spirit. The Lai family, which includes patriarch and grandfather Lai Hang Ting, his daughter and farm manager Shirley Lai, and son and tea shop manager Phillip Lai, plus their families, never expected their lives and lifestyle to come to fruition as farmers working toward a self-sustainable life on an island in the middle of the Dongjiang, East River.

In fact, the farmland was originally intended for more debauched purposes. Over a decade ago, Mr. Lai, who had made his living in Taiwan’s construction industry, followed some associates in buying a small percentage of an old Dongguan-style spa located on the island. His aspirations were to take over the “private way” business and build a resort that could make a suitable vacation escape for his retirement years.

A farm worker performs the tiresome job of bagging wax apples, a tropical fruit popular in Taiwan, to protect them from insects on Sandalwood Island. (Credit: Liu Liangfei)

A farm worker performs the tiresome job of bagging wax apples, a tropical fruit popular in Taiwan, to protect them from insects on Sandalwood Island. (Credit: Liu Liangfei)

“When my dad came in we were not interested in that way, and we think it is not a good way to do,” said Shirley. “After a few of years, other owners had no interest in operating this island.” By around 2011, Mr. Lai was the sole owner of the island’s usage rights.

Before then, the idea was a no brainer for his associates, assured by local officials that the island would flood only “once in 100 years,” the locale would serve gentlemen wanting to relax in a KTV or casino after being ferried across the river. Unfortunately, those flood plain statistics turned out to be factually inaccurate. Sandalwood flooded in 2005, 2006, 2008 and in 2013.

In 2005, Mr. Lai and his associates began building flood berms to make parts of the island higher for protection against flood waters. Now, after taking the short boat ride and docking under a Chinese bamboo gate that looks like the entrance to an amusement park, guests shouldn’t expect new flood damage.

What they will find is farmland sprouting more than just vegetables and fruit. Sandalwood Island is home to activities that lend the public an opportunity to learn gardening techniques, fish and camp, or to let the kids cut loose on a jungle gym or a brand new ropes course. The business plan is similar to like farms all around the country. Appeal to schools for their field trips and educational needs, and bring in the growing throngs of corporate teams that want to build stronger profits with tighter office unity.

Unfortunately, those flood plain statistics turned out to be factually inaccurate. Sandalwood flooded in 2005, 2006, 2008 and in 2013.

Where the Shijie Town island stands out is in its operations as a research facility for the Sandalwood Institution and the Guangdong Tropical Forest Institute. Providing land, Shirley says the deal is a “Win-win situation.”

Sitting for tea at the Lai family residence, from left to right Katherine Lin, age 6, Sherry Chen, Elizabeth Lin, 4, Shirley Lai, Phillip Lai and Richard Lin, 7. (Credit: He Liu)

Sitting for tea at the Lai family residence, from left to right Katherine Lin, age 6, Sherry Chen, Elizabeth Lin, 4, Shirley Lai, Phillip Lai and Richard Lin, 7. (Credit: He Liu)

“My father had a friend from the Guangdong Tropical Forest Institute and invited them to set up this space,” she said. The Sandalwood Institution is grafting an orchid, the Orchid Dendrobium, to sandalwood trees in hopes to more easily grow the flower in Guangdong. When dried, it is used to brew a tea taken for sunstroke, fever or excessive perspiration. The Lai family will then be on the forefront of bringing a product, popularly grown in Yunnan to the east.

Presently, Shirley will tell you that Sandalwood Island isn’t going to survive on naturally grown vegetables alone, at least not without serious effort. Always having tried to reduce the chemical impact of their farm, Shirley says they’ve stopped using artificial fertilizers and started using only natural growing methods since last year.

“Maybe my vegetables are not really pretty, maybe they have worm holes. That’s why I call them worm hole vegetables. They’re not very smooth.” But while the naturally grown vegetables and fruits have a rougher texture, she says they’re “natural and pretty.”

“We’re not really organic. In China it is impossible, but we do our best not to use the chemicals.” Without using the chemicals, comes the added labor. Without herbicide, staff has to pull more weeds. For pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, workers need to bag each fruit or veggie to protect from bugs. The farm manager, hired from similar locations in Hainan, doesn’t have much of a problem, but that’s not the case with the rest of Sandalwood’s workers. While the workers are paid a higher wage, given extra holidays and only work eight-hour days, from time to time the breeze has a tendency to carry complaints of extra chores and slow, arduous work.

The country style restaurant at the Machong Watertown Happy Farm. (Credit: Carson Zhong)

The country style restaurant at the Machong Watertown Happy Farm. (Credit: Carson Zhong)

Machong Watertown Happy Farm

Take away the swimming pool, rope course and research center, and the Machong Watertown Happy Farm is very similar to Sandalwood. They are both on the river and both pull in groups of school children and white collared workers on company outings. And they are both run by people with a dream of a simpler, cleaner life.

Co-owner Carson Zhong worked in international trade and still does some part-time sourcing and intermediating for Chinese students hoping to study overseas. The farm, its petting zoo and restaurant serve up dinners fresh from the farm, minus only the rice, oil, salt and pork. Raising pigs is outlawed in Dongguan.

At the Watertown Happy Farm children, supervised by their father, feed a calf in the petting zoo. (Credit: He Liu)

At the Watertown Happy Farm children, supervised by their father, feed a calf in the petting zoo. (Credit: He Liu)

Using his language proficiency, Zhong peppers the tour around the 150-mu (25-acre) farm with mini-English lessons as the children unearth, firsthand, how their dinner tables are replenished. What the kids see and hear about are safer techniques like crop rotation, compost fertilizers and natural pest control. But mostly they like getting their hands in the dirt to plant their own vegetables and meeting the farm animals.

This credence is spoken of throughout the growing industry in Dongguan, like businesses can be found in Dongkeng, Wangniudun, Hongmei, Shipai and Songshan Lake, but should they be considered angels of the environment, or merchants of a fashionable business plan? Organic, in these cases organic-ish, vegetables can fetch a higher price at market. Twice, while Mr. Zhong spoke about the cleanliness of their environment, he was contradicted almost immediately.

In addition to the backcountry stoves and dining experience, Zhong and his colleagues will send by courier a selection of seasonal veggies …

First he pointed out that their location in Machong Town was nowhere near a factory or its pollution. Though, a factory and its smokestack could be seen over his shoulder only a couple of kilometers away. And then later on his tour, first showing off the pristine pens of their petting zoo, the chickens that very likely made it to the dinner plates were found flapping through the mud on the other side of the tree line. Mr. Zhong, it must be said, insisted the poultry on the other side didn’t belong to Happy Farm.

He wanted to talk about the improvements that had been made on the farm. And it is a beautiful place, sectioned off by dirt roads and river inlets. “Now we have more. We’ve talked a lot and we have made it bigger and we improved the level. What you see are many wood stoves; before we had no stoves like this,” he said.

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Co-owner/manager Carson Zhong waves to the camera on a tour of the Watertown Happy Farm.

In addition to the backcountry stoves and dining experience, Zhong and his colleagues will send by courier a selection of seasonal veggies to customers around the city. The delivery business, however, isn’t doing so well. Vegetables from the neighborhood wet market are too cheap to compete with, and “maybe for them the first time they will say, ‘the veggies look so bad,’” said Mr. Zhong. “But when they taste them, they get it.”

Today, finding healthy, pollution-free choices for food, even if not often feasible, can be more than difficult. Some may say impossible. But as simple techniques improve and local farmers find new ways to profit, maybe there’s hope for the granola-eaters of Dongguan.

WHERE TO GO

Name: Sandalwood Island (Shijie) 石碣檀香岛
Phone: 8663 9831
Services: Family fun, team building, war game, BBQ, picnic, conference, countryside food, fishing, kayaking, veggie delivery

Name: Watertown Happy Farm (Machong) 麻涌水乡开心农场
Phone: 2228 8882
Services: Pick vegetables and fruits, farming, BBQ, fishing, kite, veggie delivery

Name: Dongkeng Agriculture Park (Dongkeng) 东坑农业园
Phone: 180 2829 1268
Services: Pick fruits, cycling, fishing, farming

Name: Olympics Vegetables Supply (Wangniudun) 望牛墩望东村奥运蔬菜基地
Phone: 8885 7577
Services: Farming, restaurants

Name: Fengrun Fig Orchard (Hongmei) 洪梅丰润无花果农场
Phone: 133 6048 3189
Services: Pick figs and dragon fruits

Name: Pine Lake Ecological Park (Songshanlake) 松湖生态园
Phone: 2871 6744
Services: Boating, fishing, BBQ, pool table, ping pong, hiking, magic show, acrobatics, 5D cimena