Five farm managers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and one U.S. farmer—Don Bustos of AFSC’s New Mexico program—joined AFSC staff and partners in northeast China in August, where they visited  research facilities as well as conventional and organic farms to explore sustainable farming techniques that could be adapted on their own farms.

Linda Lewis, AFSC’s country representative for China and the DPRK and Zhang Jin, program assistant for training, coordinated and accompanied the tour.

They worked with the farm managers to decide where to visit.

“We discussed with them what it is they'd like to see,” says Linda. “They requested to learn a little about soil erosion and planting on sloping land, and they wanted to learn more about greenhouse construction and vegetable cultivation in greenhouses and outside greenhouses.”

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Pictured: Farm managers take notes on simple weed-control methods used in a low-tech, free-standing greenhouse in the Jinzhou district, a farming area near Dalian, China, famous for its acres of greenhouses that supply produce for the city. 

State-of-the-art techniques

Before visiting the countryside and urban cooperatives, the group stopped at Shenyang Agriculture University to talk with Chinese experts on greenhouses. It gave the farm managers a chance to see and understand ways that sustainable technologies are developing and consider how they can replicate them on different scales.

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Pictured: Korean farm managers look at cultivation experiments conducted in the new high-tech greenhouse research center of the university’s College of Horticulture. The waffle walls are specially designed for efficient storage of solar energy.

For growing produce, bigger isn’t always better

Zhang Jin says Don changed some perspectives on U.S. farming. “Don gave a general idea about what American agriculture is. Usually people in North Korea think the United States is a modern country, so it should have modern agriculture with big machinery. Don showed us pictures of his small farm. They were really surprised.”

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Pictured: Zhang Jin (center) translates as Don (right) talks with Professor Huang Yi from Shenyang Agriculture University College of Land and Environment during a tour of the university's soil erosion research center.

Don works with traditional farmers in New Mexico. This was his first trip to Chinese farms and first time meeting Korean farmers. “It’s amazing to see the similarities in the ways farmers act. It’s about the land, it’s about growing food. You see some of the same passion in some of the stuff that we did,” he says.

Pictured: Zhang Jin translates as the manager of Green Sunshine, an organic farm, discusses tomato cultivation with Don during a tour of the farm's solar greenhouses near Shenyang, China.

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Harnessing the sun’s heat

Using plastic sheeting to cover greenhouses and crops for cultivation in cold climates is something that the U.S., Chinese, and Korean farmers were surprised to learn they have in common. Last year’s tour helped the farmers learn how to construct greenhouses so as to get the maximum benefit from solar energy.

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Pictured: Korean farm managers examine a typical Chinese-style solar greenhouse constructed by the Jintian Greenhouse Company for a commercial vegetable farm near Dalian. Unlike a free-standing greenhouse, a solar greenhouse is constructed with a wall that retains heat. The farm managers were particularly interested in how to calculate the proper angle and location for this type of greenhouse.

A family-run farm

“The Korean farmers are always surprised that people do things by hand [on Chinese and American farms],” says Linda. “They assume everything in China will be mechanized. They are surprised when an older couple manages the farm and just hires a few laborers to help with transplanting.”

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Pictured: Zhang Jin talks with a farmer in front of his greenhouse in the Jinzhou district near Dalian. The farmer and his wife manage the simple, free-standing greenhouse constructed with cement posts and plastic sheeting by themselves, with no machines and little equipment. The produce is sold to middle-men for marketing in Dalian.

Finding value in being chemical-free

The visit to an organic farm was revealing to the Korean farmers, who generally wish that they had more chemical fertilizers. “They are inadvertent organic farmers and now they see that there is a value to that,” says Linda. “They are proud of the quality of their produce. It tastes good. Coming to China helped them value their food.”

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Pictured: A worker at Green Sunshine offers a Korean farm manager some tomatoes during a tour of the farm's greenhouses.

Zhang Jin, who is Chinese, says the organic farm was her favorite stop on the tour. The cellophane and digital scale used by the farm owners to prepare their goods for shipment to the city were new sights for the Koreans. “The DPRK farmers looked at every detail about the vegetables … they looked carefully at how they packaged their food,” she says.

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Pictured: Korean farm managers pose for photos holding produce packaged for market at the Shenyang Green Sunshine Company, which produces organic vegetables on contract for restaurants and affluent private customers.