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December 25, 2010

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'Gold collars' turn to farming

THREE high-flying "gold collars" have given up what most people consider the good life, broken their yokes and turned to high-tech organic farming on Chongming Island. Fei Lai digs in.

Three years ago, everyone thought they were insane when three successful "gold-collar" professionals decided to leave the high-status rat race and demean themselves by becoming mere "farmers."

But that's what they did. They started their own organic vegetable farm, cut out the middle men, sold directly to consumers and through a digitized system let buyers track their food from seed to home delivery.

Directly linking to consumers is the key, enabling them to sell typically more expensive organic produce for less than companies with middle men.

The three brave men are Zhang Huan, Qiu Jianxin and Gao Chunmao, classmates of an Executive Master of Business Administration program who founded Yimutian, billed China's first digitized organic farm, in Chongming County.

All had worked for Fortune 500 companies. Zhang, who was born in Chongming, was a senior administrator at a foreign-owned company, earning more than 1 million yuan (US$150,216) a year. Qiu was an entrepreneur owning a factory producing tanning chemicals, with an output value of more than 100 million yuan a year. Gao was a versatile corporate manager.

Yimutian Organic Farm Co Ltd draws its name from a famous poem by Taiwan author San Mao and means "one mu of farmland for everyone." The mu is an ancient Chinese unit of area. One mu is around 0.067 hectare.

Today, with their business, logistics and technology insight, Yimutian has developed into a farm of more than 20 hectares, providing vegetables to 20,000 families and 2,500 members in downtown Shanghai.

"What makes us special is that we directly connect with consumers, eliminating possibilities or price rises," says Zhang, who is president of the company. "Our members can subscribe and we deliver fresh organic vegetables all year round."

Yimutian offers a stable price, sometimes lower than market price, "so we have the market," says Zhang.

So-called "happy farms" allow people to reserve fresh vegetables all year round. Members typically sign a one-year contract and receive delivery.

"Our farmers no longer use a hoe and sickle. Instead they use mobile terminals, like mobile phones, to control planting, watering, fertilizing, pest control, harvest and other processes," says Zhang. "It helps standardize agriculture."

In the future, an electronic bar code will be attached to the vegetable packets and consumers can check online to find out the entire production process.

"Consumers have the right to know what happens to their vegetables before they are cooked. It is transparent," says Zhang. In the past consumers couldn't directly contact vegetable producers since there were so many middlemen taking a cut on the way to the dining table.

But their enterprise proved a tough row to hoe. Even Zhang's wife, who used to complain how hard it was to find 100 percent organic vegetables, was bewildered by his decision to return to his hometown "to become a farmer."

When Zhang first heard about construction of the Changjiang tunnel bridge (connecting downtown Shanghai and Chongming Island), he started thinking about the possibilities offered by that fast, direct transport and no more ferries. He called his friends Qiu and Gao and explained the idea.

"I still remember the night we met and talked about our plans from 3pm to midnight and decided to rock and roll the next day," he says.

But how to secure the farmland was the biggest challenge at first. Villagers didn't understand why the men would give up tens of thousands of yuan a month to become farmers. And they didn't understand how the project would be profitable.

Zhang summarizes the farmers' thinking. "You must be kidding. It sounds unreasonable to lease our land to you. Who knows how it will end up? We don't want the risk of not getting rent."

On a typical day the three entrepreneurs would drive around 600 kilometers, explaining their plan to various farmers.

"Some even rejected our offer of paying a year's rent in advance since they didn't believe we could help them make money," Zhang recalls.

Eventually they relented and Yimutian first leased more than 20 hectares and reserved another 26 hectares.

In the winter of 2008, they got started.

Then they faced the second challenge, where to find capable farmers and staff. Some professionals turned down job offers because they believed the project would flop. Experienced farmers accustomed to using chemical fertilizers and pesticides were confused by new technology and new approaches. Even local authorities were discouraged at first when they saw so many weeds because herbicide was banned.

Finally, these issues were overcome and the new business showed bright prospects.

The three founders believe that branding vegetables - YMT organic and safe - will become as important in agriculture as it is in other fields.

These days the farm hosts agricultural tours, concerts and even alumni gatherings, and has attracted more than 7,000 visitors. The local farmers are getting the hang of the agriculture and the business.

"Our goal," says Zhang, "is to allow organic agriculture to blossom nationwide."


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