Agrilandia Farm: Italy’s Slow Food Culture Comes to Beijing

Nestled in the dusty northern suburbs of Beijing, the village of Baige Zhuang seems like an unlikely birthplace for fine Italian wines and cheeses. But since 1999, Agrilandia Italian Farm has been producing handcrafted organic red wines, fruit wines, cheeses, and conserves in Beijing’s remote suburbs, in an attempt to bring the philosophy of Italian ecological agriculture to the Chinese capital.

Nestled in the dusty northern suburbs of Beijing, the village of Baige Zhuang seems like an unlikely birthplace for fine Italian wines and cheeses. But since 1999, Agrilandia Italian Farm has been producing handcrafted organic red wines, fruit wines, cheeses, and conserves in Beijing’s remote suburbs, in an attempt to bring the philosophy of Italian ecological agriculture to the Chinese capital.

“Agrilandia was one of the first places to practice organic cultivation in China,” says the farm’s marketing director, Frederico Moro, who notes that the organics market is expanding in China and that the government has begun promoting the Mediterranean diet for health and environmental reasons. “Our aim is to improve the quality of organic cultivation and processing here and to promote the Italian food and farm culture.” Originally located on a plot of land that has been appropriated for Beijing’s new airport, Agrilandia moved to its new Baige Zhuang location this summer and is already a hub of activity.

Encompassing just 210 mu (about 13 hectares), Agrilandia practices the European “multi-use” model of farming, including organic cultivation, on-site processing, food service, and agrotourism. The majority of the land is used for direct cultivation of organic fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs. Two large greenhouses ensure that the farm is supplied with fresh produce year-round. The farm’s output is either sold directly to visitors and local buyers, processed on-site into jams, sauces, wines, grappas, and cheeses, or served at one of Agrilandia’s two restaurants—one located on the farm and the other in downtown Beijing.

Almost all of the fruit trees, seeds, recipes, and food processing technologies, as well as the restaurant chefs, come from Italy, enabling the farm to maintain high-quality products and provide an authentic cuisine and dining experience. “By producing all of our own ingredients,” Moro explains, “we are able to better control the end product, as well as maintain a satisfying relationship between costs and quality.”


Bringing Agrotourism to China

In addition to organic food and beverage cultivation, processing, and sales, Agrilandia is promoting Italian agrotourism. An on-site bed and breakfast, which opened this September, hosts guests in authentic Italian-style two-tiered rooms decorated in wood and stone stucco. The doors and furniture were all handmade by workers on site. The intent is to give Chinese visitors a chance to experience—and appreciate—Italian country life. “With doors opening onto private gardens and luscious views of the grounds,” reads the farm’s brochure, “the hotel is a world away from the commotion of the city.”

Visitors and hotel guests have the opportunity to pick fruit and vegetables directly from the farm, fish in the local pond, and even play soccer or beach volleyball. There is also a mini zoo and playground for children. In addition, the farm holds regular activities such as weekend barbeques, cake-baking charity fundraisers, and wine tastings. Agrilandia aims to eventually offer on-site trainings in such areas as organic agriculture techniques, company management development, and team building.

“What we are doing here, from a holistic perspective, is something very new,” Moro says. “What is unique is the connection of all of these different aspects into one thriving farm economy. This is something that hasn’t existed in China before.” In this way, Moro explains, “There is not a bridge between Italy and China, but a connecting point between the international organic market and China. We have a Chinese soul and an international mind.”

This unique blending of Chinese and international approaches originated with Agrilandia founder Claudio Bonfatti. A jolly man who lives by the philosophy that “every day is a beautiful day,” Bonfatti was in his twenties when the slow food movement began in Italy. He took over a food shop in his hometown and became involved with ecological agriculture. “Some friend mentioned something about biodynamic cultivation, so I looked into it,” he recalls. “I saw these small, ugly carrots that didn’t look nice at all. But the taste was, of course—delicious!”

With this first experience, Bonfatti was converted. “I discovered something new. It was something to really trust in, not only as a means of feeding ourselves, but of living on the planet.” While ecology was not an everyday concept at the time, Bonfatti notes, there was still a sense that biodynamic and organic agriculture was more wholesome. “Now we are realizing that we are going to destroy the world,” he says. “I think maybe this [kind of agriculture] can help us survive.”

Quality Over Quantity

When Bonfatti moved to China in the 1990s, the organic agriculture movement had just begun in the country. He immediately opened a restaurant, called Peter Pan Italian Restaurant, but was disappointed with the quality of produce available. So he decided to grow his own. When he and his wife took over the original Agrilandia plot in 1999, it was completely wild. “When I walked up and saw the view, I knew this was where the farm needed to be,” he recalls.

Bonfatti had his agronomist cousin send him 10,000 seedlings of fruit trees from Italy. “The best agricultural product of Italy is the fruit. Cherries, plums, peaches, pears, apples, and grapes—I wanted to share that with people here and experiment with new fruits in the Chinese market.” Bonfatti grew up on a farm in Italy, but he had never owned his own plot before moving to Beijing. “I learned everything by doing. I was always experimenting. I made wine—it was beautiful!”

There were many challenges as well. “I had to fight a little bit here with the concept of organic,” Bonfatti explains. “Organic food is more expensive because it is more labor intensive and uses organic fertilizers. Most people here were already in the industrial mindset, where everything is for profit. But for me, the farm was not really a commercial venture, it was something for myself—to grow healthy food, and to learn how the Italian plants grow here. It can be challenging for the Chinese to accept the value of making a quality product, despite the smaller quantity.”

Sharing the Knowledge

Agrilandia is working to improve organic cultivation techniques in China through pilot projects and trainings of local agriculturists. Last year, the company sent a group of agriculture technicians from the Chinese government to Agrilandia’s partner farm in Italy for an intensive 16-day training. In Italy, Moro says, the technology for food production and processing is quite high, and the country “still has the notion of food quality, and appreciation of food.” Future trainings will include a six-month follow-up training where participants work full-time on farms in Italy and France. “They live and work on the farm so that they experience the culture of an Italian farm,” explains Moro. “The treatment of plants and the love of nature—the things you don’t get from reading a book.”

Agrilandia also aims to work directly with organic farms in China to provide technical training and market access. “There is a general lack of knowledge about best cultivation practices when it comes to organic agriculture,” says Moro. “What we want to do is improve the condition of the countryside by giving technical knowledge and improving organic production.” The company plans to support the growth of China’s nascent farmer cooperatives through these projects.

“There is a major transformation occurring in China’s production market,” Moro explains. “For the past 2,000 years or more, the family has been the basic unit for cultivation.” This has kept production largely at a subsistence level, and has provided little opportunity for farmers to engage in China’s booming market economy. “But there is a will in the Chinese government to encourage farmers to organize into cooperative models of production, to help them keep in step and to keep evolving with the market.”

Moro points to the new Cooperative Law passed last October, which legally recognized and gave certain rights to farmer cooperatives. “But the concept of organization is not in the minds of farmers yet, and it will take time to put down the roots,” he says. Agrilandia aims to encourage the growth of cooperatives by providing information resources and introducing the concept of on-site processing for value-added goods, such as jams, fruit juices, tomato sauces, wines, and spirits. The farm also plans to help cooperatives benefit from the market by guaranteeing minimum purchases of items that they produce. “Our point is not to bring the farmers to the market,” he explains, “but to bring the market to the farmers.”

Despite the many challenges in China’s organics market, both Claudio Bonfatti and Frederico Moro remain optimistic about the future of ecological agriculture in the country. “I believe they can do it, because in China, they always reach their targets,” Bonfatti asserts. But, he adds, it will take time. “It will have to be a goal for the future.” The rule for success, says Bonfatti: “When you put your heart into something, it will succeed.”

Lila Buckley is assistant executive director of the Global Environmental Institute, a Worldwatch affiliate based in Beijing. Outside contributions to China Watch reflect the views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Worldwatch Institute.