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Tired Of City-Life Stresses, Many Chinese Return To Farming


Next, we have a counterpoint to one of the more significant stories of our time. It's the mass human migration transforming China. Thousands of people each day pour into Chinese cities looking for work and opportunities, and that's been happening for decades. It's considered the largest internal migration in history.


At the same time, some move in the opposite direction. They're moving back to the farm, looking for a more traditional and healthier way of life. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Ding Heqing used to paint excavators at a Shanghai Volvo factory. It emphasized equality and teamwork. But when Ding went to the hospital for an operation...

DING HEQING: (Through interpreter) Only people from the union came to see me once. The apprentices I taught in the past and director of the factory floor - none of them showed up. I felt a foreman like me can be easily replaced.

LANGFITT: Ding, who grew up in Shanghai, became disgusted with the lack of safe food in Chinese cities.

HEQING: (Through interpreter) For instance, reports about a cancer-causing food coloring, using old leather products to boost protein in milk and a poisonous rice. If you consider people's conscience today, it's unthinkable. Even rice can be faked. Everything is fake.

LANGFITT: So Ding moved to a giant island in the middle of the Yangtze River to join a small organic farm where workers rake mud and sometimes plant rice by hand, cook food over a crackling fire made of tree branches. Ding says farming has made him stronger. To prove it, he drops to the ground and does push-ups using his thumbs. Ding also says growing food is much more fulfilling than his old factory job.

HEQING: (Through interpreter) Here, when my vegetables were growing very well, a fellow farmer came over and really approved of my work. He said I could teach new farmers. When I heard him say this, I felt happier than when I got a bonus at Volvo.

LANGFITT: Jean Sun edits Yogeev, an organic farming website. She says China has hundreds, if not thousands, of mom-and-pop organic farms these days and that more people like Ding are trading high-pressure lives in the cities for slower, simpler ones in the countryside.

JEAN SUN: I think the best thing that they represent is people are starting to really pursue their own dreams instead of living other people's dreams.

LANGFITT: Among Ding's co-workers is John Higham. He lives south of Shanghai where his wife teaches at University. Higham, who was involved in the organic movement in Britain, is volunteering here for a couple of weeks.

JOHN HIGHAM: It's just lovely to be amongst a group of people who are trying something - something that I think is really important for China and its food culture, trying to think about how food is produced, trying to talk with people and rebuild some trust in the food culture and the food network of China.

LANGFITT: Ding and John work with Liz Shang who operates the farm, which is about an hour's drive from downtown Shanghai. Right now, she's driving me and my assistant, Yang, out to her fields this afternoon.


LANGFITT: Oh yeah, I just went over a big - it wasn't that big a bump, but I don't think that this three-wheel flatbed has any shock absorbers.

Shang follows a traditional style of farming which uses no fertilizer, which means healthier food but less of it. She sells her rice on Taobao, China's giant e-commerce platform.

LIZ SHANG: (Through interpreter) Last year, we harvested more than 60,000 pounds of rice, but it wasn't enough. Many people hope to buy this rice but our yield was too low. So we weren't able to fill their orders.

LANGFITT: Shang used to be a travel agent, but she found it isolating. For instance, she could work with a client for years by telephone but never actually meet them in person.

SHANG: (Through interpreter) I really like my current job. I think it brings benefits to my life and body and brings benefits to others.

LANGFITT: For another of Shang's workers, Henry Ji, life has come full circle. Ji grew up in the countryside, the child of farmers, and rose to become a civil engineer. Now, 40, he's tired of his white-collar job, which he found boring. So he's returned to the land.

HENRY JI: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: "People only really live in Shanghai to make money," he says, "to survive or make money to buy material things. Over here, I prefer the lifestyle. It's quiet and slower paced." I ask if he's told his parents he's now growing crops. He laughs nervously. "It isn't the right time," he says. It would be hard for his parents to accept his decision, trading the salary and status that comes with living in a mega-city like Shanghai for a life back on the farm. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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