Volunteering on a Chinese Farm
“It looks like we’re picking more pea leaves today.”
For my two fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I, it was day three of a week working on an organic farm outside of the mega city of Chengdu, China. So far we didn’t think we had done much: harvested some cabbages, cleared a small field by hand, and pulled weeds. When we looked at our small output we didn’t see much, though our bodies felt the strain. The thought of being crouched over the foot high plants to pluck leaves all morning long made my back hurt. The February cold didn’t help either.
Why was I volunteering my vacation time to do labor in the cold? Volunteering on an organic, vegetarian farm seemed like a bit of novelty for China. A large part of the appeal to me was finally having the chance to eat organic food. I was horrified by the amount of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables around me. Pesticides, coupled with night soil (or human waste which is still used as a fertilizer in many parts of rural China), are the reasons that most Chinese peel all of their fruits and vegetables before eating. It was a habit that I also quickly adopted.
It’s such an ingrained behavior that even grapes are peeled before being eaten in China. Imagine having to peel your grapes before eating them. It’s just not worth the effort.
The Gao Family
One of the best parts of working on the farm was staying with Farmer Gao and his family. Not only did he go far out of his way to find us on the side of a country road after we had trouble getting to his farm; he invited us into his home for the week. I became particularly close to his sister, who does the majority of physical labor in the fields while he manages relations with the buyers and delivers daily food orders. Farmer Gao’s parents also live in the home and are still surprisingly active with helping out in the fields and around the house. It’s clear that this is a family business where everyone, regardless of age or ability, pitches in.
The Gaos seem like the ultimate hippies in a place where hippies just don’t exist. Decades ago, the patriarch of the family decided to not only stop using pesticides, but to stop eating meat. In a culture where meat has traditionally been a sign of prosperity and was, until not too long ago, a luxury, it seems unlikely that a family would choose to forgo it. Not only that, but they made the choice with little research to go on. China wasn’t exactly open to foreign medical research, and most countries, including the US, weren’t exactly supporting the positive effects of a vegetarian lifestyle. I found the Gao family quite exceptional.
The Gao Family House
Accustomed to hosting student groups for educational programs, they have three guest rooms set up with two sets of bunk beds each. On each bed was a very simple, thin mattress and we were responsible for bringing our own sleeping bags. The rooms had a cement floor, a recent addition, and no heat.
To beat the winter chill I packed a uniquely Chinese heating device- a water filled heater that’s the size, shape and appearance of a stuffed animal, but can be plugged in for a few minutes to make the interior water boil. Students will bring these heaters- often called “warm babies” to class and will hold them in bed at night to keep warm. I was given mine as a gift from my students after they noticed that I was often cold in class despite my winter jacket. They made sure to warn me to never stand near it when it’s plugged into the wall since they often explode. I took this advice very seriously.
The bedrooms were simple, but clean. The bathrooms however, were another story. To be as eco-friendly as possible, they use waterless toilets. Essentially, it’s a squat toilet feeding directly into the ground with a bucket of lye nearby. In the same small stall is a waterspout for showering. Presumably, the water from the shower flows down into the squat toilet, or perhaps there was a hidden drain that I didn’t see. The ground was muddy, tracked in with our boots from the field and the windows was covered with cobwebs.
If the bathroom sounds nice, I’m obviously describing it incorrectly. Neither I, nor the other Peace Corps volunteers, showered the entire week. We were a bit rank by Friday, and tried our best to keep clean (for the family’s sake) with baby wipes. We blamed it on the cold, but we all knew that as hearty as we like to think we are, we weren’t up for a farm shower.
An Organic, Vegetarian Lifestyle
Organic food isn’t easy to find in rural China. Most farmers don’t want to take the risk of forgoing pesticides, and there isn’t the push from the public to protect the environment. When I was out biking in the countryside, it wasn’t uncommon to see farmers with huge “jet packs” of fertilizers and pesticides strapped to their backs with a hand pump and nozzle to spray it over every plant. And they certainly did drench the plants with the stuff. I was worried about the health of the farmers being so close to that many chemicals, but they were usually old and weather worn and it didn’t seem like anything could bother them.
The meals at the farm were like everything else: simple. Given that it was winter, our options were limited to a variety of stir-fried greens: cabbage, pea leaves, bok choy, and a few others that I didn’t recognize. They were served with bowls of organic rice grown and harvested on the farm. It was flavorful and fresh, but the lack of other vegetables was tiring after a day or so. As a sign of their hospitality, they purchased bananas and a few other non-local fruits to make sure that we were well fed.
To spice things up a bit, I, along with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers Damien and Leah, decided to cook. The first night, we bought tomatoes from a local, but non-organic, farm and made a basic spaghetti sauce. Damien, who’s Chinese name translates to “Big Noodle” prepared the noodles from scratch. I wasn’t sure how the family would react, but they were extremely gracious and seemed to genuinely appreciate the change of pace.
Sure enough, two days later they asked us to make dinner again.
Our next (and last) dinner cooking for the family we decided to go all out. The three of us, with Farmer Gao’s sister, rode our bikes about 45 minutes away to a larger market where we picked up beans, eggs, potatoes and other ingredients to make a Mexican themed dinner. Knowing that most Sichuan families love spicy food, we made the hottest rice and beans possible. We also fried pre-made dumpling wrappers and used them as chips with our homemade salsa. They family not only found this incredibly innovative, they also really seemed to enjoy eating them.
By the end of the week, though we still felt like we hadn’t contributed much to the farm (the family assured us that we had ) what we did feel confident about was our relationship with the family. It was amazing to us,that through simply having a connection to our colleagues at the Peace Corps office, we were invited into the family’s home and took part in their daily routines. We woke up when they did, ate meals with them, cooked with them, and worked side-by-side in the field. At night, after dinner, we shared our limited words and rested our aching bodies together.
I personally was also impressed, yet again, by the power of Chinese women. Seeing Farmer Gao’s sister working 7 days a week, usually alone, in the fields was remarkable. She does work that most men couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and never complains. Her strength was also perhaps her downfall. She seemed lonely, eager for the chance to to speak with us about life outside of China and was eternally patient as she had to often repeat her sentences. A simple bike ride to the market was a great relief for her- a chance to escape the isolation of her responsibilities. I sincerely hope to return to the farm one day see her.
Have you ever volunteered on a farm? What was your experience like? Tell me in the comments below.