Four years ago, Dang Huong Giang was a loyal customer of Hanoi Organic, a safe-food project in the Vietnamese capital. So when the project failed, she didn’t know where to find chemical-free produce.
Upon further investigation, Giang learned that Hanoi Organic had suffered from distribution problems. "That's something that can be fixed!" she thought. So with support from Oxfam International and about $60,000 from the Australian development agency AusAid, the Hanoi-based nonprofit consultant began working with area farmers who wanted to green up their acts.
Soon consultants from Agricultural Development Denmark Asia (ADDA) were helping a group of 10 farmers on the outskirts of Hanoi transition into organic production methods, and the farmers' 1.7-acre vegetable patch was passing muster according to an ADDA-approved “participatory guarantee system” — a kind of organic-certification process.
Today the Thanh Xuan Organic Project has 300 regular customers and distributes 1,000 kilograms of produce every week in downtown Hanoi. Organized by Giang’s Hanoi nonprofit, Action for the City, the farm-to-table program is Hanoi's only CSA-style food distribution network.
Transitioning to safe production methods wasn’t easy. In a phone interview, Giang recalls that Thanh Xuan farmers used to worry that farming without chemicals would cut into profits. They were also wary, she says, of selling produce to “city people” — expatriates and urban Vietnamese.
Over time, the farmers' fears turned to enthusiasm. They began to make about three times as much money from sales — one Thanh Xuan farmer reports making $150 as opposed to $50 per month. Now the farmers cater to customers’ tastes by growing extra salad greens and planting new varieties of tomatoes.
“ln the past, the farmers would just plant whatever they could get a good return on,” Giang says. “But now they're learning about niche and becoming more savvy about their clients' needs.”
On a recent morning in Hanoi, the Thanh Xuan farmers — all of whom are women — were in good spirits. After picking fresh tomatoes and salad greens, they were smiling as they gathered on a concrete patio to prepare a communal lunch.
“Growing organic vegetables is harder than growing normal vegetables, because we need to work harder to kill insects,” said Tran Thi Tho, a farmer from Thanh Xuan commune, as she washed lettuce. “We don't want to go back to normal vegetables because we make more money this way, and at normal farms, we get headaches.”
According to Giang, the Thanh Xuan Organic Project doesn’t benefit just farmers. Urban customers learn about food while chatting with farmers at weekly pickups or quarterly farm tours, and Action for the City staffers run educational programs at the farm for school groups.
“For society at this point, there's a thirst for modernity and clean supermarkets with everything in plastic bags,” she says. “But we are doing something that's always been tradition — people are getting to know who produces their food.”
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