Author: Yinghui Zhang-Carraro
Ten years ago, the promising food import/export official Ms Terese Rosie Zhang, known as Zhimin Zhang in Chinese, found and rented farmland of 150 mu (about 10 ha) in Fangshan county in the western part of Beijing, where she wanted to start chemical-free farming. After the early years of investment in walls, trees, soil preparation, orchards, animals, buildings, a well etc., the farm has turned into a biodynamic plantation, though not Demeter certified due to the complicated nature of this certification in China. Over the years of working for a big corporation, Terese had seen the rejection of the Chinese agricultural products produced for overseas markets because they contained residues higher than the permitted levels. Gradually she started to think about taking up farming herself. (Picture: Terese at her farm)
The structure of the farm she created was based on the Book of Genesis in the Bible, with large orchards, vegetable patches, cereal fields, poultry areas, and cows and goats’ corners, plus three small fish ponds that help regulate the moisture on the farm. This is why Terese called her farm God’s Grace Garden (GGG). The whole farm has been walled with brick and most of the walls have been lined with tall barrier trees planted just inside the wall. A deep well was put in place for domestic use and the irrigation that is necessary on the farm. (Picture: Vegetable patches)
Terese believes healthy food and life come with healthy soil and healthy feed, so her farm has become a self-sustaining system: everything is produced on the farm, including compost and feed. She thinks farming does not have to follow models blindly - instead careful observation and understanding of local phenological events are the prerequisite for sustainable farming. She makes biodynamic preparations, but also follows traditional farming method whenever it’s appropriate. Rather than seeing them as pests, Terese regards insects as messengers sent by nature to indicate that something might have gone wrong in the vicinity.
There is an old saying in Chinese agriculture that ‘the unique features of a local environment always give special characteristics to its inhabitants’ but, with modern chemical fertilizers and sprays being used extensively, she thinks people have failed to nurture the local land, and in turn that land has also failed to nurture the local inhabitants. Therefore she has been on a mission to make GGG a model farm demonstrating sustainable farming that benefits both the people and the environment. (Picture: Wheat grown in the orchard)
Her cows can graze in different parts of the farm according to season, with raw or pasteurized milk, but not homogenized milk, having been supplied to her customers since 2010. Her farm is one of only a couple that supply non-homogenized milk in China. She talks to her animals and gets to understand their behaviours - for example, her hens wouldn’t lay eggs in their shed where they sleep, so she built nesting boxes for them. The taste of the hens’ eggs from her farm is one of the best found in Beijing. Her chickens are free-range, and all the other animals have plenty of time to roam around on the farm. (Picture: One of Terese's cows grazing and gazing on the farm in winter)
As for the orchards, there are more than ten varieties of fruit including apples, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, persimmons, jujubes, figs, grapes, pomegranates, and cherry apples. Terese has grown medicinal herbs and bushes that also act as air cleansers, for example hibiscus and calendula. Her farm also grows wheat, millet, cereals, adzuki beans, mung beans, soya beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. Terese does not use polytunnels to grow vegetables as she believes we should only get what nature can give us in each season. Thus she stores cabbage, Chinese leaf, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and different radishes for winter and preserves certain vegetables and fruit during the peak season, just like our ancestors used to do. She mills her wheat as required by her customers, making noodles, dumplings, soy milk and tofu, with all the ingredients grown on the farm. (Picture: Sunflowers on the farm)
She sells her produce through membership and in farmers’ markets. All her produce is sold with little packaging and, if any, it is reusable and recyclable. And she collects her packaging and any waste produce from her customers to minimize what is thrown away. Inside the farm, conventional cleaning products have been replaced by natural and local products, for instance white vinegar, soapnuts, tea seed powder, and grain bran that can be used to wash dishes.
With the organic movement still at its infancy in China, GGG has been in fact a model organic farm that has adopted organic farming as a way of living rather than being a premium-driven business. As a member of IFOAM, God’s Grace Garden was the first farm certified organic both for its cultivation and animal raising in China. Terese has taken interns whenever possible financially, so that farming skills can be passed on and more people can be influenced by natural living. When she has a little of time, she writes thought-provoking and inspiring essays on her blog, based on her farming experience and constant learning. Like many other small and leased farms in China, GGG faces difficulties, particularly the problem of land ownership and a lack of finance that certainly hinder further development, even though it has great potential to be a ‘sustainable farming school’ for peasants and farmers who want to take up organic farming. (Picture: Corn stacked after being harvested and dried)