8/17/2009

BFU Organic Garden Project

In Beijing, as in most big cities around the world, there is a not much awareness about how our food is grown. But a group of students at Beijing Forestry University are on the forefront of change. In 2006, the group formed as a volunteer organization to offer computer education to peasant laborers in Beijing. Now however, they want to create an example of how students can transform our food systems.

In 2008, they broke ground on a small plot of land underneath their dormitories. Over the winter, students started seedlings in their dorm sunrooms. In the spring of 2009, they planted seeds on 130 square metres of what is now called Aoxiang (Soaring) Garden. It is the first university student-run garden to be based on principles of organic gardening. They also have a blog, which if you can read Chinese, is available here.

One of the student leaders, Wu Yunlong, is now interning with Future Generations, and working with myself and Raya, to create a handbook and podcast series on campus organic gardens. Today, I went down to the university to see the garden for the first time and begin filming. The garden is very impressive. They are growing, potatoes, corn, eggplant (or aubergines), a half a dozen kinds of beans, peanuts, pumpkins, watermelons, carrots, cucumbers, and Chinese cabbage (or rape), and I hope I haven't forgotten too many! There is a huge composting pit, and they've developed an informal program to get their hands on the byproducts of soy milk, that makes a fantastic composting addition, they excitedly tell me. Though they are students and in the first year of gardening, a great deal of planning has gone into the garden. Many of the students are from rural areas. There are elements of crop rotation, intercropping with plants that repel pests and this is just the beginning. Yunlong and I chew at a small corn, it's already ripe and the kernels are sweet, but it is small. This year, the plants won't be so big, but as the quality of the soil is built up...

After filming for a short while, Yunlong took me down into the basement of the dormitories, where the students of occupied a few dusty storage rooms and turned them into an office, kitchen and auditorium even. We sat down in the small office and chatted while some of the students cook up some vegetables. Fearing that I was imposing, I insisted that I wasn't hungry (which I was, it smelt delicious) but Yunlong laughed at my misunderstanding and told me that the garden still doesn't produce enough food for a real meal, they're still only producing enough for a group taste-testing session right now.

On the wall hangs a giant painting of Mao Zedong. Yunlong explains, "We may not agree with everything, but for this kind of project, Mao has influenced each of us in our ideas about volunteerism and agriculture." He shows me their seed collection and we discuss GMO seeds. He brings out a Taiwan translation of Bill Mollison's "Introduction to Permaculture" that another NGO had given them recently and we flip through it together, discussing permaculture and how annoying traditional Chinese characters are. It obvious that these students are starting small, but dreaming big.

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