Lejen Chen, the founder of Mrs. Shanen’s, shares tips on organic farming, finding healthy food in Beijing, and what it takes to serve up high quality, organic food at her restaurant in Shunyi.
After hearing my friends rave about Mrs. Shanen’s bagels the past few years, I finally ventured out to Green Cow organic farm to find out how Lejen Chen, a native New Yorker, established a great brand in Beijing while also upholding her commitment to organic food and sustainable farming.
This story is a summary of a conversation I had with Lejen in the Winter of 2012. I encourage readers to check out the restaurant too if they have additional questions about her wonderful food!
Lejen’s, a.k.a. Mrs. Shanen’s, story is already well known in the Beijing community. She moved to China in 1989, before most international food staples had found their way to Beijing. The lack of good quality bagels at the time inspired her to start her own factory in 1996, and her bagels have since become a local favorite. Mrs. Shanen’s restaurant opened in 2004, and she started Green Cow farm with her husband in 2005 to help secure a supply of hard to find organic salad greens.
Green Cow Farm
The farm itself is a green oasis of cereal crops, vegetables, traditional greenhouses, and animals. On just 12.5 American acres, Green Cow supports 10 milk cows, over 200 chickens, geese, and ducks, and 35 large pigs. Animals mainly eat extra vegetables, grass, and grains grown on the farm, left-over food from the restaurant, and have part of their diet supplemented with corn and grains from surrounding farms. Lejen’s goal is to create a closed loop ecosystem that reduces waste, with the restaurant and farm supporting each other. Many farm products are recycled back into the system to reduce the need for external inputs.
Produce and grains are all grown organically. Rosemary is planted around the greenhouses to naturally repel pests, and in the spring flowers to help attract beneficial insects. Since they do not apply pesticides to the plants, in the summer they take larger bugs off by hand (in the winter, the cold naturally discourages bugs). She also has a homebrew spray consisting of garlic and peppers that works as a natural pesticide.
Lejen is completely self-taught when it comes to farming. Her secret to success is a combination of seminars she attends on trips back to the U.S., consulting experts in organic farming, and of course, YouTube. She also learns from the workers she hires at Green Cow, all of who are migrant workers from other provinces. According to Lejen, many farmers in China still use traditional organic techniques to grow the food they keep for themselves, but for sale crops they have adopted conventional pesticide and fertilizer inputs to boost farm productivity.
Green Cow is not an officially certified organic farm. The regulatory bodies in China are complex and certification is expensive, especially for small family farms. However, Lejen feels that the best certification she can get is that which comes from customer trust and a transparent system. Twenty families currently participate in the CSA (community supported agriculture) produce delivery program, and most of them spend time working on the farm each year so they can understand the system. Lejen encourages Mrs. Shanen’s customers to visit Green Cow and check out the farm to see for themselves how food is produced. She also tests the soil and water every three years herself to make sure that chemicals from the air, rain, or surrounding farmland have not contaminated Green Cow.
While organic farming is labor intensive, Lejen says that the satisfaction of having good clean food to eat makes the project worthwhile. Reflecting on a recent trip back to the United States, she felt that even the produce in New York and Toronto, which in the winter must often be flown in cross-country, left something to be desired when compared with Green Cow products. She and her husband also like to pass on the value of having fresh and hygienic produce to their customers at the restaurant.
The cost of organic farming in Beijing
In 2005, the rise in average salaries and job opportunities in Beijing meant that fewer people from the surrounding villages were willing to farm. Unpredictable changes in market demand and weather also made farming an economically precarious occupation. So when Lejen went to find a plot of land near her restaurant in Shunyi, she found a relative abundance of vacant lots and reasonable rental prices. The farm she chose had been used to grow Chinese dates and sweet potatoes, but had become unprofitable for the previous farmer.
Nowadays, despite locals’ disinterest in farming, hopeful urban farmers will find it difficult to rent land in the suburbs. According to Lejen, “In this area, you could not afford to rent farmland now, because real estate developers have taken up everything that is close to the city. Only 25% of the families from the village where our café is situated are still left after recent demolition and takeover by developers.” She manages her relationship carefully with the local village that owns the rights to her land, but there is a risk that the farm could be sold to a developer who comes along with the right price.
Farming also requires an intensive capital investment, even for small organic farms. State of the art greenhouses needed to extend the growing season in Beijing’s cold fall and spring can cost up to $500k USD. Even the more traditional kind of greenhouse made from bricks and adobe used at Green Cow can cost up to $8,000 dollars each. Labor costs are rising for farm labor as well as the supply of farm laborers dwindles. Farming requires arduous physical labor, and many young people increasingly prefer to seek work in cities. On Green Cow, for example, the average age of farm workers continues to rise. New young recruits are difficult to find these days.
Green Cow is a member of the Model Farm Project (MFP), a non-profit based in the UK. The mission of the organization is to create sustainable and humane animal farming systems that can scale and ultimately improve the type of meat available to consumers. MFP members make two trips to Green Cow each year to certify the ethical treatment of the animals.
Lejen takes care to make sure that animal slaughter is hygienic and humane. Local Muslim butchers specializing in Hallal practices manage cow slaughter, although they need only two cows a year to supply beef for Mrs. Shanen’s hamburgers. Chickens are also slaughtered onsite so Green Cow can monitor the process.
Green Cow Products
If you haven’t tried any of Mrs. Shanen’s products, you are missing out! Below is just a sample of the ones I’ve tried:
Gluten Free bread! To my knowledge Mrs. Shanen’s is one of the only bakeries in the city that provides gluten-free bread, and it was one of the best I’ve ever tried. It costs ~35RMB for half a loaf, but it was sooooo worth it. Order ahead if you’d like some to take home.
I don’t indulge in animal products that often, but I made an exception for the homemade butter, ice cream, and latte, all using organic dairy produced on Green Cow farm. The butter has a delicious cheese-like tangy flavor, and the soft serve puts locally available brands Baxi and Nestle to shame.
Green Cow milk is low heat pasteurized but un-homogenized. The heating destroys most microorganisms and improves the safety of milk that is not drunk fresh, but the fat has not been mechanically distributed to create a smooth texture. Normally, larger dairy processors homogenize milk to make it more palatable to consumers, provide a more consistent product, and give it a longer shelf life, but it also loses the rich flavor and texture of un-homogenized milk.
Another product that’s special is Mrs. Shanen’s peanut butter. Aflatoxin, a carcinogenic fungal growth that occurs when peanuts and core are stored improperly, is still an issue in conventional Chinese peanut products. Green Cow grows its own organic peanuts and sells freshly ground peanut butter in the store. Lejen said she was originally inspired to offer the product when salmonella contaminated peanuts were recalled in the U.S., but not from foreign grocery stores in China. She had also visited peanut butter producers in China only to find that they often included steamed carrots in the mix to reduce the cost, an alteration that was hard to detect for unsuspecting consumers.
Mrs. Shanen’s also offers soap nuts! Lejen had some interesting trivia on this environmentally friendly cleaning product. Soapnuts are produced from soapnut trees in Fujian and have traditionally been used in Southern China to wash clothes Northern China has a variant of soap nuts that grows in bean pods, also on trees. You can still see this type of tree growing in Beijing if you know how to look for them.
On shopping for safe meat and dairy products in Beijing:
Green Cow produces much of the ingredients used at the restaurant, but sometimes Lejen must supplement her supply of certain off-season vegetables, mushrooms, grains, and dairy and eggs from other farms. When she finds farmers whose own practices live up to her own, she forms long-term relationships. For example, an organic farmer in Inner Mongolia now supplies many of the potatoes served at Mrs. Shanen’s. Her menu is very transparent about ingredient sources. Anything on the menu labeled “organic” are only products she has grown herself or from farms she has visited in person to inspect.
Despite the success of some of her partnerships, high quality organic meat, dairy, and produce are difficult to find. Lejen shared common food quality problems she’s encountered in China and how she identifies them when inspecting farms:
Asbestos – Asbestos are still a common building material for shingles used in the roofs of animal housing in Northern China. When shingles fall into the animal stalls, they pose a danger to animal health as well as the safety of the meat and manure that is produced. Manure is especially worrisome since farms may sell asbestos-containing manure to other farms as fertilizer. Lejen says that she has even seen certified organic, biodynamic farms in Beijing that use asbestos in their building materials.
Confined animal spaces – “Free range” is a term liberally applied to many animal products in China. Often this means a small door in the animal housing leading to an outdoor pen that is not used or inaccessible. While most people don’t consider this a deciding factor in their meat purchases, it does impact meat quality. Pork, for example, tends to be mushy if pigs do got get sufficient exercise.
Antibiotic use in animal feed – When animals are raised in confined spaces, antibiotics become essential to prevent the spread of disease. For this reason, most grain-based animal feed in China includes pre-mix of antibiotics and vitamins. When Lejen visits a farm, she always asks to see the animal feed and takes a look at the ingredients. More often than not, even organic farms will have unwittingly purchased grain feed that includes antibiotics. She also looks for discarded needles in the animal manure on a farm. Antibiotics administered via injection must be delivered frequently, and often the cartridges are disposed onsite. These antibotics are also passed to humans via meat consumption, and are contributing to the rise multi-drug resistant bacterial strains (like tuberculosis) in China.
Fertilizer use – For those wishing to avoid produce grown with synthetic fertilizers, look for the presence of animals on a farm and inspect the manure for the presence of asbestos or needles. Lejen has visited farms that claim to offer completely organically grown produce, only to discover no animals or source of natural manure on the farm.
Feed quality –Grain by itself is not sufficient to produce optimally healthy meat products. On Green Cow farm, chickens get a mixture of greens and bugs from foraging in addition to their grain diet. Cows also get a fair amount of greens in their diet from grazing. This affects the nutritional value of the meat and dairy products. Lejen said that truly organic eggs should have variations in the color of the shell and yolk. Look for cartons of eggs that include differently colored shells and have brightly colored yolks. Uniformly colored eggs and pale yolks are indicators that the chickens are eating a uniform, grain-based diet.
For those who don’t have time to get to a farm in person, Lejen recommended La Frommage de Pekin and Wondermilk as two trustworthy brands for cheese and milk products.
Green Cow farm offers a CSA program for 18,000RMB/year that delivers a huge basket full of seasonal, organic vegetables once per week, 50 weeks a year, to your door. CSA members are expected to provide hands on support at the farm for certain events like the Harvest Festival, and many volunteer their time to help out on the weekends. You can apply for membership through the Green Cow website. A word of warning from Lejen though, only sign up if you love vegetables! The baskets are quite generous and include a mix of Chinese and Western favorites, so CSA members should be willing to experiment with unfamiliar produce.
I am also hoping that Mrs. Shanen’s opens up in central Beijing someday, since the Shunyi store can be a hike if you live within the 2nd or 3rd ring road. According to Lejen, a new location closer to the city center is a long-term goal, although they have not set a definitive date.
Green Cow also hosts a variety of educational events each year that also feature other high quality food vendors. Check out the Green Cow website for updates!
A big thanks to Lejen for taking the time to interview for Suluku, and share some of Mrs. Shanen’s delicious food with the author!