Farmer Interview Series #1 Evolution at Mahota Farms: connecting ends to form the sustainability cycle
Posted on | December 12, 2013 | Comments Off on Farmer Interview Series #1 Evolution at Mahota Farms: connecting ends to form the sustainability cycle
Interview with Shao At Mahota Kitchen who is the son of founder and current owner of Mahota Kitchen and Mahota Farms.
Interviewed by Sandra Kohn who is a student at NYU Shanghai, and currently intern at GoodtoChina.
Interview Date: November 18, 2013
Sandra: What was the inspiration for Mahota Farms? What is the history behind it?
Shao: The reason why we started the farm comes from wanting to be sustainable. We have been a farming family for over 100 years back in Singapore. In 1984, the Singapore government forced us to stop pig farming because the country was urbanizing. New policies and economic zones were being created which reduced agricultural input. They gave us six years, and eventually phased out agriculture in Singapore – almost everything now is imported. At that time we were producing 80,000 pigs a year, which was about 10% of Singapore’s pork supply, so we were even in the position to affect the market (price of pork) despite it being a small country and everything…that’s how big we were at the time.
Sandra: What makes your farm special? How has the farm in China changed from what the farm was in Singapore?
Shao: The pig-breeding farm in Shanghai has been around for 17 years, and we actually sell our pigs to farms for reproduction; we are not just a commercial third-tier pig farm. Mahota is a conversion of existing farms that we had. We had spare land that we leased out to local farmers, and three years ago we decided to slowly take them back as the lease came to term, and began organic farming with them. The main reason why we started doing this was because my father had a heart attack about six years ago, and he decided to lead a healthy lifestyle as he recuperated on the farm. So we planted some vegetables, which are now the main ingredients in our hot pot at Mahota Kitchen. It’s the same dish my father ate every night during the first year during his recovery from his operation.
Sandra: What does it mean to be sustainable? How do you practice it?
Shao: In order to be sustainable at our farm, we need to close in on the loop. To close in on the loop we need to be able to turn waste into resource. If we instead use a linear process, we can never be sustainable. So if we have a lot of pigs, we produce a lot of pork, and you extract the value of pork but you end up with a lot of manure, or pollution. There are several ways to deal with manure, but for a single farm it is too much to cope with if you don’t do any other things with it. So when we started to grow vegetables from the compost comprised of manure, we changed the linear development so that waste turns into resource to close the loop; that’s sustainability.
Now, we understand that in order to be sustainable, we need to be resilient. We realize that resilience, on hindsight, is much stronger than strength of the economic scale itself. If you ask us what is the most underlying reason for what we are doing, it’d be that we are looking into industrial diversification. In terms of addressing social concerns and the need for safe food, these go hand in hand. We now have pigs, chickens and goats, and grow 300 different types of crops a year. This biodiversity of crop agriculture with animal husbandry allows us to really close in on the loop.
A lot of organic farms out there in the market either use the stockings from harvested plants, or have too much manure. For us, although it is harder to manage, we have both, which are the perfect ingredients for composting. We stack all the compost up and 40 days later we till them and it becomes a perfect compost mixture like the Pot of Gold GoodtoChina has. Sometimes Susan (from GoodtoChina) gets her compost from our farm.
Sandra: Is your farm organic? What makes it so?
Shao: Yes, I guess our farm is organic because we produce our own compost. We are two years into the organics in transition and by next year, October, we will be fully certified as organic. For us, our main concern is not whether or not we have this particular label. It is good because we are able to farm organically, but our main concern is to continue what we are doing because we’ve been an agricultural family for a hundred years, and it is our lifestyle.
Sandra: What types of farming methods do you use at Mahota?
Shao: Mahota Farms uses agricultural methods from all over the world. We looked into permaculture, and also into biodynamic agriculture, organics, and of course the standard good agricultural practice (GAP). Mahota Farms implements all these methods in China, and then localizes and names it Taisheng agriculture. It is formed of two Chinese words, and the English word itself is Mahota. We learned Taisheng from nature and use it with traditional Chinese agricultural methods still in good practice and biological control.
Sandra: How does Mahota Farms interact with the surrounding community? Are there any future projects we should be looking forward to?
Shao: We’ve been farming with these practices for the past 20 years in Shanghai, and we’ve participated in other industries like education, leisure, and hospitality. We provide vegetables for the canteen at both campuses at Shanghai Singapore International School– but this is only part of what we do. In terms of expansion, it depends on the demand that we get.
Right now we are expanding the types of products we have, which is why I go to the vineyard in Shandong so frequently. We will also begin raising cattle for dairy because the land and climate there allows us to. We try to farm crops in the most suitable conditions. And this is the development that extends the web of value chain we have, rather than going for a quick establishment of retail outlets etc.
Sandra: What has been the biggest challenge with Mahota Farms in China?
Shao: One of the biggest struggles that we have overcome is changing the attitude of our colleagues, especially since we re-employed the local farmers on our team. They had to look at the whole idea differently, because there is a lot of pressure in terms of not using chemical pesticides. Sometimes you have to know that in agriculture there are things that Mother Nature attributes to, like crop failures that we cannot blame ourselves for; we must simply let it go. Because we use biological controls and non-chemical pesticides, crops are more prone to diseases. Initially during the first year there was a lot of resistance in terms of wanting to do it their way, but it is very important that we manage the farm ourselves. It’s difficult to understand 100% harvest is not our goal; you have to give and take, and if that doesn’t work out, you just have more to add in the compost.
Sandra: If you could pinpoint one of the most successful aspects of Mahota Farms, what would it be?
Shao: If you ask what our biggest landmark of success is, it has to be the fact that we’ve reversed our initial problem. It’s funny that the reason we were shut down in Singapore in the 80’s was because of the abundance of pig manure and the new government policy. But right now, we are actually running out of pig manure because we use a lot of it in our compost. Anything that we say is quite transient; when you say you managed to sell x amount of pigs and x tons of vegetables, it doesn’t really sink in. But what really stuck was that the system has actually begun to work, it’s rolling on quite well. This intersystem, this holistic integration (expanding vertically and horizontally) is beginning to make sense, just like the attitude of our farmers, or the problem of the unpredictable volume of produce at the start of production – everything is coming into a smooth cadence right now. We are presently very comfortable where we are, and we are putting more emphasis on events like Sustainable Shanghai. The Market., because it is about time we start sharing what we do with more people. Being involved in agriculture is a long process; we’ve given ourselves about 5 years to naturalize our process, and compared to our 100 years of history, 5 years is really nothing.