Urban agriculture has been a trendy way for residents of cities worldwide to grow their own fruits and vegetables, secure in the knowledge that home-grown produce is free from pesticides and fertilizers used in industrial-scale farms. But the scarcity of arable urban land on rooftops and vacant lots, along with a lack of free time among busy city dwellers, has prevented the practice from becoming much more than a hobby.
Now Juhuasuan, China’s largest group-buying website, is exploring a way to help the residents of the PRC’s giant cities grow their own fresh, eco-friendly produce—by proxy. In a kind of modern-day form of reverse sharecropping, the website has created a program through which farmers in the countryside can rent spare farmland to urban consumers, contract with them to grow whatever viable crops they desire, and then ship them the goods to eat once they ripen.
Called Jutudi (literal translation: group land buying), the online program began in March when Juhuasuan, owned by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, rented out 77 acres of farmland in Jixi County, Anhui province, to more than 3,500 buyers over several days.
The buyers, located mainly in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and in Zhejiang Province, spent a collective total of RMB 2.28 million to subscribe to land rights allowing them to receive fresh vegetables and fruit twice a month from the land for a year, the amount depending upon how much land is rented by individuals, according to a press release from Juhuasuan.
The program is a joint effort between Juhuasuan; Zhejiang Xinghe E-Business Co., an enterprise formed by the Zhejiang Supply and Marketing Cooperative; the Jixi government; local farming cooperatives; and individual farmers.
Zhang Ping, Communist Party of China Secretary for Jixi County, said Jutudi takes good advantage of idle land and boosts local employment while bringing in fresh capital from China’s wealthy cities to poor rural areas. Including income for the land rental, farmers can make a total of 4,000 yuan a month if they also work the fields on behalf of buyers, planting, harvesting and shipping “customized” organic produce as specified by individual consumers.
In the March promotion, consumers chose from three land packages: they rented either 1/10 mu (0.016 acre) for RMB 580 per year, 1/2 mu (0.08 acre) for RMB 2,400 per year, or 1 mu (0.16 acre) for RMB 4,800 per year.
It’s unclear whether the output from the acreage represents good value for consumers when compared with the produce they can buy at local supermarkets. But what is certain is that, after China saw several scandals relating to the overuse of chemicals in farming and global controversy over genetically modified crops, consumers have been demanding more transparency and safety in the products they eat and drink.
“On one hand, the food security issues create a huge demand for green, pollution-free vegetables and fruit among city consumers, while purchasing channels are inaccessible,” said Juhuasuan Marketing Director Hua Zheng. “On the other hand, idle lands in the countryside lie waste without any production and income. Juhuasuan connects demands of both parties. City residents now eat healthily and farmers make money.”
Zhang Guangxin, business director of Zhejiang Xinghe E-Business, told Xinhua’s China Economic Information Service in May that, despite the fact that the March promotion exceeded targets, the project was running in the red because the company invested more than RMB 3 million in agricultural machinery, land reclamation and customer compensation.
Still, the project has been successful enough to warrant expansion. Juhuasuan in its press release said it was planning to hold a similar promotion in September that will include farmland in Chongqing, Anhui, Zhejiang, Hebei and Guangxi provinces, thus giving more urban residents a chance to directly source local produce from farming villages in their regions.
Online sales of agricultural products is a fast-growing category on Alibaba Group’s e-commerce websites. According to a white paper released by AliResearch, Alibaba’s research arm, sales of agricultural products on all Alibaba platforms jumped 112 percent last year. At the end of 2013, more than 720,000 rural businesses had registered to sell on Alibaba platforms, among them 338 agricultural cooperatives from 25 provinces that signed up to sell on Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace C2C website.
According to the AliResearch white paper, one of the main obstacles to online sales of produce is China’s lack of refrigerated delivery systems for “last mile” door-to-door delivery.
Cainiao, an e-commerce logistics company in which Alibaba has a large stake, has been improving cold-chain logistics by optimizing packing and distribution and allowing for the swift return of damages packages of commodities such as vegetables and eggs, say Juhuasuan officials. The rate of delivery of damaged goods has as a result fallen to less than 4 percent, the company said.
Cainiao’s shipment-tracking system also allows buyers to use QR codes to check online for pesticide use and to verify that produce is not genetically modified.