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Life among the birds

Updated: 2014-02-14 07:20
By Fan Zhen ( China Daily)

A car accident lands a prominent dentist a new life as an organic poultry producer with greater agricultural ambitions to help those who hauled him from the wreckage. Fan Zhen reports.

People thought Wu Zhou was dead.

They were right-in a way.

The former dentist-a rising star in his field-says he was reborn a new man after his car spun down a cliff, prompting him to spend two years studying under a monk and living with eight isolated households in the mountains.

In this second life, he swapped caring for healthy teeth for caring for healthy chickens.

The funky posters, graffiti and bohemian tapestries and bedding in Wu Zhou's suburban Beijing dwelling make it seem more like a hipster's hangout than a henhouse.

But Wu explains farmwork can be cool. And fun.

"People tend to stereotype farming as boring and tiring," Wu says.

"But it really depends on how you do it."

As the driving force behind the community-supported agriculture group Shared Harvest Beijing, Wu not only cares for 4,500 free-range chickens but also captures on camera every interesting moment of their daily work. He posts the photos on social media for more than 21,000 followers curious about young people who return to villages.

"I don't have deep feelings for the land like the others," he says.

"I just want to do something for the elderly villagers. They remind me of those who saved my life."

Before the car accident on Changbai Mountain, Jilin province, Wu was a textbook case of career success. The 30-year-old graduate of a top medical school had become head of the stomatology department of the biggest general hospital in Shanxi province's capital Taiyuan.

Wu was the youngest department chief and introduced the province's first set of porcelain teeth, which tripled the hospital's profits within a year.

Patients flocked to him because of his reputation. But Wu only took patients with connections, who were willing to pay more than 10,000 yuan ($1,650) per operation.

His life transformed after the accident.

Most of his hometown acquaintances thought he'd died. Some debtors even lied to his family, claiming he owed them money.

"I realized I didn't have even a single friend," Wu recalls.

"Only my former classmates left a few lines of condolences on my weibo (micro blog)."

Wu's father believed few people have the chance to re-examine their lives and "live twice".

He asked his distraught son to stay in the mountains to clear his mind.

Wu became an old monk's apprentice. The master taught him meditation, and the village's eight families became his only companions.

He recalls those two years happily. Wu often thinks of those evenings when the whole village gathered to see his latest photo diary. The nights were silent aside from chirping insects and burbling water, occasionally punctuated by villagers' laughter.

"All the young men went to the cities and ignored the advantages the mountains can give," he explains.

"It's understandable because farming is not a highly valued occupation."

Wu is grateful to the villagers. He wanted to sustainably improve their livelihoods.

The pristine forest gave him the idea to raise chickens.

He spent months reading stacks of graduate-level books on organic poultry farming.

Wu found raising 3,500 free-range chickens to be easier than expected. But selling them was harder.

"The chicken dealers in town cared more about the profits than about quality," he says.

"Nobody wanted my free-range flocks at 30 yuan per kilogram."

Wu had to use his local government connections to retail his chickens to high-end hotels.

But the failure to find regular buyers lingered in his mind, even after he left the village.

It occurred to him that the lack of direct connections between farmers and consumers may be a reason for the flight of labor from the countryside.

He chanced upon the Shared Harvest Beijing members, who support family farmers' role in sustainable agriculture and provide a direct link between consumers and producers.

The group had struggled to find someone with both academic expertise and practical experience. Wu offered to fill the gap.

"Many agriculture majors volunteered here last year, but none stayed," Wu says.

"The living conditions and the salaries aren't what they'd expected. But they might have underestimated sustainable agriculture's future."

Life among the birds

This year, Wu plans to complete the integrated-farming model long discussed by academics but not yet created. He hopes to raise 4,500 more chickens and bring in 2.8 million yuan for the farmers.

He also wishes to visit different farms around the world.

"I want to write an informative, interesting and easy-to-understand book about organic farming," Wu says.

"I've already got my target readers in mind."

Contact the writer at fanzhen@chinadaily.com.cn.

 Life among the birds

A rooster crows in the morning at Shared Harvest Beijing's poultry farm in suburban Beijing. Wu Zhou raises 4,500 free-range chickens on the farm. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Life among the birds

Wu Zhou (center in the front row)and his team members from Shared Harvest Beijing.

 Life among the birds

Wu Zhou often posts pictures of interesting moments during his workday on his micro blog and has drawn a large following.

(China Daily 02/14/2014 page22)