China vignettes 4. Around the Pearl River delta 2: Large-scale organic horticulture

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The next day we visit something on a totally different scale. This is a huge farm planting mainly organic veg mostly under plastic covering an area of about 80 ha. The farm manager, Mr Lee, tells as the firm – itself, a subsidiary of a Hong Kong firm  – was established about 13 years ago. Virtually all its produce goes to Hong Kong, where it supplies nearly 70% of the supermarket organic vegetable sold there. They seed and harvest every day and grow under plastic to prevent damage from the heavy rain the area is subjected to. We’re told there are many farms like this in the province but only a few produce organic vegetables. Currently, they have between 300-400 workers seeding and harvesting. The farm depends mainly on human labour but they have plans to mechanise some of the work. Here, too, the manager talks of the challenge of shortage of labour during harvest and the pressure for them to increase wages.

Mr Lee majored in philosophy at University. After graduation he had a job selling organic fertilizer, then moved into farming and farm management. The workers mostly come from all over China have some come from local farms. They get a basic salary and a performance related pay depending on how much they harvest each day. The salaries vary between 2000 and 5000 yuan a month with the workers working 8 to 10 hours a day. Freshly picked crop is weighed in, checked then cooled rapidly and put into cold storage until it shipped to Hong Kong. Produce picked here on one day is in Hong Kong – around 3-5 hours away by truck – the following morning.

University’s hydroponics

The afternoon sees us visiting a University research site linked with a co-operative that produces vegetables hydroponically. As Prof Liu, director of the Lab of Soilless culture, explains, they use a tube culture system with a small amount of nutrient solution flowing down the tubes and into a tank. It has lots of advantages, he says, with very, very high yields – some 20,000 kg per mu per year, and very clean produce. The downside is that the investment is very high for such a system. Because the price of vegetables is quite high, despite the high cost of investment it can pay back in two years he says. It is also a very efficient way of using nutrients. China, he notes, is one of the biggest users of fertilisers in the world but has generally a very low efficiency in using them. This produces much pollution in lakes, rivers and underground water.

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Seedlings are grown in the nursery beds and then planted out. Most of the crops have a total growing period of 15 to 20 days. The university research green houses seem to merge into those greenhouses managed by a local co-operative which runs the pack house. The produce is sold in supermarkets and large enterprises are also directly in markets. The university also has a company to manufacture some of the hydroponic equipment. It supplies overseas clients including some in India, and Trinidad and Tobago.

They use the growing medium after harvesting to raise earthworms.  The earthworms help to compost material, which can then be used as a fertiliser. It’s quite a labour-intensive operation with around 80 workers harvesting and packing. The total area is around 300 mu (20 ha).

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About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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