Zhang Lu is on a mission to bring organic vegetables to more people.What started out as a personal project to improve his own health has mushroomed into something much bigger.
His 500 Families program allows each participating household to receive fresh vegetables of their choosing twice a week. All produce is grown on an organic farm on Chongming Island.
Each family is given a plot on the farm although they are not required to do any of the labor.But they can visit on weekends and holidays.
“We promise to provide the best quality vegetables we can grow,”Zhang says.“We don't use any pesticide,herbicide or growth hormones.”
He and his team have been preparing the farm over the past four years, and Zhang now feels confident about the whole operation, including cost performance and the vegetables they grow.
“We have agricultural and environmental experts, as well as professional logistics and sales teams,” he says. “I believe this is the key to our success.”
Zhang says the project is extremely personal.
After graduating from Shanghai University with a degree in environmental engineering in 2005, Zhang and his wife worked as volunteers in South Africa for three years.
He says they looked after South China tigers that were going to be returned to the wild.
“It was a very controversial program back then, but I think it was worth a shot,” Zhang says. “In China, South China tigers are extinct in nature and the program is about seeing whether tigers raised in captivity can survive when returned to the wild.”
Returning to China proved to be more difficult than he expected, Zhang says, especially from a health standpoint.
“I didn’t get ill at all in South Africa, not even one cold,” he says. “But the first year I came back to China I had a fever three times because of different reasons. I had to assume it was because of the environment, food and water.”
Zhang also says the taste of vegetables in Shanghai was a big disappointment. He says in South Africa some of his favorite foods were baked potatoes and sweet corn.
“When I returned to Shanghai, we tried to cook the potatoes and corn, but I was so disappointed after just one bite,” he says. “The taste was so different, and not in a good way.”
Zhang says this prompted him to change his lifestyle in order to become healthier and enjoy eating better food. He quickly decided on planting his own organic vegetables.
He recalls looking for farmland in suburban areas, but eventually fixed his eyes on Chongming Island.
“There was good farmland in other districts, but the problem was that they were all close to factories or waste yards,” he says. “Chongming is a place where there is no industry, tourism didn’t get ill at all in South Africa, not even one cold,” he says. “But the first year I came back to China I had a fever three times because of different reasons. I had to assume it was because of the environment, food and water.”
Although Zhang is knowledgeable about the environment and ecological systems due to his studies and previous work experience, he says becoming a farmer has been a real challenge.
“The biggest problem is underestimating the cost and overestimating the output,” Zhang says.
Take weeding for example. A farmer can cover about 6,600 square meters in half a day with a herbicide. Weeding manually reduces efficiency nearly 90 percent.
“There is also the issue of balance,” he says. “For my idea to work, we need a harvest every season. Otherwise it is likely that everything is harvested around late summer and then there is nothing left for the rest of the year.”
His experiment soon spread to his social circle and then to his friends’ friends. An increasing number of people expressed interest and they soon formed a smaller version of the 500 Family program.
“The number 500 is based on our calculations,” he says. “It ensures the best cost performance. With that number all participating families are able to enjoy organic vegetables at half of the market price.”
Zhang says families participating in the program sign a one-year contract but can quit whenever they want. New families can join when spots open up.
“Pollution and food safety problems have generated wide concern, and people have realized that they can enjoy better quality food,” he says. “All we do is provide an opportunity for them.”
Those interested in joining the “500 families” program can sign up at www.500jia.com.cn.
Prices differ based on the size of the family. It costs 8,000 yuan (US$1,289.37) for two adults, 10,000 yuan for a nuclear family and 12,800 yuan for an extended family.
Households can choose from up to 30 different vegetables.