In 2007 Tan Hong Khoon, a successful businessman, was recovering from heart bypass surgery and found himself thinking about the meaning of life and the purpose of business.
Tan, a second-generation Chinese-Singaporean majoring in animal husbandry, had already made a name for himself in the resorts industry and decided to do something meaningful and go back to where he started, on a farm.
The former farm boy decided to build a new commercial farm that would be environmentally friendly, organic, productive and scenic, a place where visitors could enjoy the pleasures of farming.
The result is Mahota Farm in the northeast part of Chongming Island (County) in Shanghai, covering fields, meadows, lagoons, wetlands and a wildlife sanctuary. Half the land is dedicated to vegetables, fruits and flowers. And 20,000 happy pigs are allowed to roam in special woodland areas where their waste is biodegraded and recycled.
Strictly avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers, the farm provides healthy and nutritious food to its customers.
Lin Tzong-Shyan, an expert from Taiwan University, is Mahota's director of agriculture.
Dr Lin describes founder Tan as a "trailblazer," who quickly found a handful of professionals to join him in his Mahota farm project pushing to use the latest principles of sustainable farming.
In 2009, Tan and Lin went to Bordeaux to learn about cultivating grapes for their own organic wine. That was when they heard about the concept of biodynamic agriculture.
Biodynamic farming focuses on holistic development and the interrelationships among soil, plants and animals to create a self-sustaining system. They introduced the concept on Chongming.
"But if you reflect deeply about this concept, you see that it is closely tied up with Chinese culture and the old ways of farming in ancient times," Lin tells Shanghai Daily.
"Farmers cherish every square of resources and try to use them all."
He says they referred to the "Book of Changes" or "I Ching," which emphasizes the connection of heaven and earth and the smooth flow of all living things. The connection between top and bottom brings about natural harmony, which led them to understand they needed a circular ecological system.
They came up with what they call TaiShen agricultural practices that harness the forces of nature and follow seasonal rhythms to enrich the "life force" of the soil. In addition to crop cultivation, the farm also raises pigs in a safe, sustainable way - not in concrete pens - and creates a wildlife sanctuary.
The farm produces a wide range of vegetables - greens, radishes, tomatoes, squash and many other plants that together stabilize the ecological system. Certain plants and herbs, such as rosemary, mint and vanilla, also repel insects so chemical pesticides are not used.
Crops are rotated so the soil is not depleted of nutrients; for example, after rice is harvested, cabbage is planted, followed by tomatoes.
Reservoirs are created for irrigation and water conservation.
Nearly 20,000 pigs are produced every year, using fermentation bedding, instead of raising pigs on concrete. This involves use of natural soil and bacteria that break down animal waste, which is used both to fertilize crops and to generate methane gas to produce electricity for the farm. This solves the problems of solid waste and water pollution, as well as odor. Pigs are allowed to roam free in their fermentation bed area.
Pigs are clean and the pig farm area is open to visitors who can learn about the microbiology and technology used in modern, sustainable pig raising.
Six large lagoons filter pig urine; the water is then used for irrigation before it flows into a wetland. Recycled water can also be used to wash pigs.
The scenic farm is also an attraction for visitors who want to spend the day in the country, wandering around, cycling, buying produce and eating the freshest food, including hot pot, in rustic eateries with wooden furniture.
Visitors can plant their own seeds, harvest produce, feed ducks and geese, go fishing in tranquil ponds and generally relax.
"I really hope more children can get in touch with nature and discover the simple life," says Dr Lin.
If you go there:
The farm offers a one-day tour at a price of 280 yuan (US$44).
Address: Beiqiyao Modern Agriculture Park, Chongming