2017 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Warren Wilson College


Researching and Learning about Northern Chinese Farming Practices

Mentor: Dongping Han, Professor of Political Science
Students: Matthew Olson, Alexis LaValliere, Larissa Robinov, Julia Rose Bruce

Alexis LaValliere, Mr. Zhao, the owner of the farm, Dongping Han, Matthew Olson, Rose Bruce and Larissa Robinov, with Yellow River Behind them after visiting Mr. Zhao’s farm.

Project Abstract

Through an ASIANetwork grant, a team of four students and one faculty mentor from Warren Wilson College, spent several weeks in rural villages in four different regions of Shandong Province: Shen County, Liaocheng Prefecture in Western Shandong, Huimin County, Binzhou Prefecture in Northern Shandong, Pingyin County, Taian Prefecture in Southern Shandong and Jimo County, Qingdao City in Eastern Shandong.   The team lived in the farmers’ houses, worked and ate with Chinese farmers for an extended period of time.   We learned some Chinese farming techniques, and we cooked with Chinese farmers.   We interviewed farmers and local officials.   We acquired a much deeper understanding of the three-fold crisis of agriculture, rural area and rural population, and the environmental consequences it has for China and the world.

The Chinese Government has been pushing for urbanization for a couple decades in an effort to modernize China.   More than two hundred millions of Chinese farmers have been migrating to the urban center to find employment in the manufacturing sector, which turned China into a factory to the world.    Goods manufactured by cheap Chinese labor flooded the American market and elsewhere with a huge economic impact for the whole world. We saw more and more Chinese farmers left the rural areas to find employment in urban areas, and more and more Chinese farmers give up producing grain to seek higher income in vegetable production in Chinese rural areas.   China has become more and more dependent on world grain market now.   Last year China imported 120 million metric tons of grain stuff.   We have seen the impact of globalization and urbanization first hand in China.

This research project has enabled us to see rural China and globalization more intimately.  We appreciate the financial support the Freeman Foundation and ASIANetwork provided us.

Larissa Robinov

Larissa Robinov is being examined by a Chinese Medicine doctor in a rural clinic in Zaohuli Township.

The Summer 2017 Agricultural Research Project in Shandong Province consisted of touring and working on farms.  We lived and spoke with the farmers themselves, gaining knowledge of both their farming techniques and cultural lifestyles. The first aspect of our trip was working intimately in the fields with farmers and then staying at their homes with them and their families.  While this first part was an in-depth look at one farming practice in Shandong Province, the second aspect of our research entailed more surface level exposure to many different farming operations, giving us a more widespread view of agriculture in the Province.  During this chapter, we visited farms that were larger in scale than a single-family operation.  The utilization of greenhouses as an agricultural practice is popular and widespread in Shandong Province.  Farmers say they enable them to produce more food and are less susceptible to the seasons; thus, the farmers are able to grow their crops for extended periods of time. This allows them to make more money for their families. Everywhere we went, the Chinese were incredibly generous and welcoming. Hospitality and respect are highly valued and were unstintingly offered to us.   The Chinese that we spent time with may not have had a lot of material wealth, but their communities seemed strong and their lifestyles healthy.   While living in the village, I gained an extensive view on mushroom production.  However, more than anything, this trip taught me about patience, respecting others, respecting myself and relying on my instincts.  This ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations that I developed was an invaluable lesson.

A big takeaway from our trip was that the people we met in China seemed a lot more in touch with their food and the food production system.   In general, the food in China appeared to be healthier and most homes we saw had their own gardens.  This is quite a contrast with the USA where too many people are unaware of what a potato looks like and the fact that French fries are made out of potatoes.

The farmers we spoke with were either not using pesticides and chemical fertilizer or were making efforts to end the practice.  People told us they felt that the chemical additives were decreasing their yield and they didn’t trust them.  The farmer I stayed with treated the produce he fed to his family differently than what he sold to the market.  This awareness to the consequences of using chemical inputs on your land was an inspiring thing to see and I hope the USA will soon gain more consciousness on the matter.

This trip helped to open my eyes to a different way of life and with that comes an acceptance of unfamiliar things.  I feel it has made me more open to ideas and perspectives because I no longer feel as influenced by the culture where I reside.  Being able to share what we learned with our community not only helped me to reflect on what I had seen but also helped to improve my professional communications skills which has helped me in my search for jobs.

 Alexis LaVallier

Matthew Olson and Alexis LaValliere are harvesting grapes in Yifengdian, Jimo.

Our team spent three weeks travelling through rural Shandong province to engage with farmers and officials and learn about the current state of agriculture in Shandong. Around half of China’s population is involved in agriculture: a percentage that decreases as population increases. Our research involved engaging with the broad spectrum of food production in a modernizing region, from living in farming villages and working in the fields, to touring advanced hybridized seed production farms. We became familiar with Chinese cultural values around food that transcend the scale of agriculture practiced. The presence of certain values like freshness and nutrition among Chinese people keep the food system localized and rooted in traditional growing practices. Overall, China is developing a modern food system like no other, complete with modern sustainable technology and ancient knowledge of agroecology. This modernization is smoothly occurring by means of collaboration between entrepreneurs in science and agriculture, the government (which provides necessary financial means for large projects), and common farmers in China, who despite their usual desire to move away from a farming profession, have strong values in localized and nutritious food which uphold the demand for sustainable development. Our next task is to share the knowledge we acquired in China with farmers, scientists, and entrepreneurs here in an effort to integrate certain models of sustainable collaboration in food production into the United States food system.

I feel driven to find out if agricultural systems and models I saw in China could exist and prosper in rural communities in America. Inspired by the camaraderie of Chinese farmers, I have imagined creating and encouraging cooperatives at home. There are certain experiences that stick with me when I imagine the potential of a cooperative culture.  I visited a town with multiple community-owned endeavors that self-funded its paving of roads, modernization of homes, an open and free medicinal garden, and city beautification with ornamental plants. I visited an urban cooperative wherein entrepreneurs with different complementary projects, (mushroom production, melon production, and value-added products) worked together in one space, sharing the income from separate ventures so that everyone could profit year-round instead of having only a seasonal income. While these models seem almost unimaginable in rural America, I am still passionately curious to find out where there is potential for this scale of community-led lifestyle improvement projects in the United States.

I hope that in my future career endeavors I can find a way to encourage the exchange of tools and ideas in rural and agricultural communities in the United States. Historically, the United States does have a tradition of cooperative business and mutual aid, particularly in Agriculture, that I feel could be revisited. Despite this history, economic cooperation between individuals and small businesses falls outside of our modern political dialogue. Rural people throughout the world have more commonalities than differences; however, rural American farmers seem so isolated from one another that it is difficult to override the influences of large, industrial agricultural corporations and have few options but to participate in perpetuating an agricultural system on the road to self-destruction.

Rose Bruce

Larissa Robinov, Alexis LaValliere, Matthew Olson, Rose Bruce and Dongping Han with the Chinese doctors in front of the rural hospital.

Interacting with the farmers in China gave me tangible skills that I would like to try implementing on farms and gardens in Western North Carolina. Some of these skills include greenhouse cultivation and the maintenance of soil fertility using mushroom refuse. My time in China also gave me a newfound perspective on community and collective living that can potentially be applied to the agrarian lifestyle even here in the U.S., such as the values of cooperative work and the minimization of waste. Our journey in China was incredibly beneficial to me, both in my personal and professional development, and I am excited to share what I have learned with my community and Warren Wilson College and beyond.

The average diet in both China and the United States seem to be direct causations of the kind of agriculture that the respective governments support. In the United States, our government subsidizes crops like corn and soy, which are fed to livestock, shipped around domestically for extensive processing, and exported to other countries. We continuously use large swathes of land for this type of agriculture, minimizing the land on which we can cultivate diversified cropping systems, and exponentially maximizing the amount of external inputs that our soil requires each year. In Shandong Province, greenhouses are subsidized. I have a vivid memory of being totally awe-struck when I looked out the window of the train to see greenhouses covering the land, extending far out onto the horizon. Subsidizing greenhouses localizes the food systems in Shandong, as it offers the ability to grow a range of crops throughout all seasons of the year, minimizing the need for importation. Greenhouse agriculture also encourages crop rotations, which are incredibly important for maintaining soil fertility and pest resilience. Enabling whole villages to engage in greenhouse agriculture empowers them with the autonomy to provide themselves with food year round, and increases the income they can acquire with the skills they already possess.

Not only did I leave China and the experience of the SFF program with knowledge of practical agricultural techniques, but also with other skills that will benefit me in whatever career I choose. I now feel more confident in grant writing, extended collaboration with colleagues, travel, networking, and my ability to contribute to the growing field of agricultural research. These are skills that I will undoubtedly use as my professional ventures unfold.

Matthew Olson

Matthew Olson and Larissa Robinov working inside the greenhouse with cucumber plants Xu Village.

Although I went to China thinking I would learn a lot of technical agricultural skills from the farmers, I was surprised to find how similar some of their methods were.  Although there were definitely interesting methods that small-scale American farmers would find useful, the most interesting aspect of the research for me was how the culture was influenced by modern methods of development through agriculture.

Seeing firsthand the way in which development has come to China and how the cultural ecosystem has adapted to it was something that served as an eye-opening look at not only China but the entire developing world.  I find myself almost every day drawing insight from what I saw and thinking of different ways in which China’s progress is indicative of a pattern of human development.  The development of China is not just an agricultural, economic, social, or political issue that only applies to China because many other nations have and will go through a similar process; the blending of western culture and the cost of its perceived benefits and drawbacks.

Instead of seeing development with opinions as to what is good or bad we can start thinking about what we want to do moving forward. What I value most from this experience is this insight because it serves the dual purpose of not applauding China or the USA nor reproaching them.  The traditional knowledge of China and the development centered methods of the USA are both valid and should be treated as different tools rather than conflicting sides.

Chinese culture has adopted a lot of western agricultural methods such as synthetic fertilizers and machines but Industrial agriculture does not lend itself to the incredibly diverse Chinese diet.  So, although modern equipment helps them with production it is much harder to grow a wide variety with just machines.  In order to increase production but rely less on machine implements the farmers of Shen county used excavators to build dirt-walled greenhouses for year-round production that the farmers would work in largely by hand.

Nonetheless, farming is trending towards larger scale production in a lot of Shandong.  I noticed that a lot of animal husbandry knowledge seemed to have disappeared due to large-scale production.  Talking with farmers in Shen, Huimin, and Jimo it seems they want to get off of the farms and into the urban areas.  Some of the farmers expressed that they want the government to collectivize the land so that it could be sold to a large developer to bring in factories which would provide high paying jobs.

As someone who grew up in an urban area who studies agriculture to get back to a more rural existence, this did not initially make sense to me. As I spent more time with the villagers I grew to respect the values that will lead them down the road to a more modernized country and the inevitable decrease of small-scale agriculture.

Although I gained practical knowledge of different types of plants and foods through discourse with the farmers and other Chinese people I am most interested in furthering my understanding of the issue by enrolling in a Rural Studies post-graduate degree program in China in the near future.


Matthew Olson, Alexis LaValiere, Larissa Robinov and Rose Bruce with Yellow River behind them. They just finished visiting a vegetable farm on the Yellow River Bank.