Though only a few hundred kilometers from Shanghai, farmers living in the small rural township of Bihu have long struggled to find a market for their produce. Bad roads and the small scale of individual production made trade impossible. 1999 witnessed farmers weeping as they had to throw rotting asparagus beans, mushrooms, aubergine and Chinese broccoli into the Ou’jiang River. It was then that a community member, Mr. Xiong Jinping, decided to do something.
He founded the Bihu Coop. Made up of 328 farming families from 21 small villages, the cooperative offers its members a centralized market space, training and higher yield seed varieties. Beyond that, the Bihu Coop offers something very rare in the agricultural sector: economic security. Members can sell crops direct to brokers. However, the coop encourages members to sell through the organization. Farmers want to sell through the organization because Bihu grantees a base rate for crops and, if it bargains a higher price, it shares the profits with members.
The coop’s path has not always been smooth. It took a while for coop leaders to develop best practices for training farmers. Now, instead of trying to communicate directly with all the members on new crops and growing techniques, experts train a few of the more educated people from each community. When these individuals return home they act as liaisons, sharing information in local dialects, ensuring that knowledge is not lost in translation. The coop also discovered that they were working too hard. Accustomed to the desperate struggle to sell crops, members sent sales representatives out to entice brokers. Quickly, however, word about the market spread and, now, all farmers have to do is wait for brokers to arrive.
Through training, new types of seeds and consolidation of products, Coop members have seen a massive increase in annual income. Most Bihu members are making twice as much as the best urban salary provides. This change has lead to a phenomenon rare anywhere in our industrialized world: young people who fled to cities to escape the impoverished life of agriculture are returning to the land. Because of the cooperative, this community finds itself far from the days when terrain and business models lead to isolation, far from the days when the only way to move vegetables out of Bihu was to dump moldering crops in the river.