food / travel

China Wasteland Blossoms Into Organic Vineyard

Weilong's Grand Dragon wine
Weilong's Grand Dragon wine

WUWEI — Twilight is falling at the edge of the Tengger Desert, and the vines stretching out row after row are a snapshot of peace and serenity. A towering red castle-like building standing not far from the vineyard displays the name of the property — Weilong (Grand Dragon) Desert Oasis Organic Winery.

“We are about to start the September grape picking,” says Ding Weijie, the manager, after a busy day of work that included the final day of the China Organic Wine Festival.

Wuwei, in the northwest Province of Gansu, has been a key link on the North Silk Road since ancient times. With abundant natural grape-growing conditions, the city formerly known as Liangzhou has also had a very long wine history.

Ding began putting down roots here 10 years ago when he came from the eastern province of Shandong. “Now due to our large grape-planting base, Weilong has become the local government’s best calling card for showcasing a vineyard,” he boasts.

In fact, a decade ago when China’s organic wine market was barely at the cultivation stage, Weilong was already laying the groundwork. Good organic wine needs an optimal grape-planting area, and organic standards call for care and production to be with natural means.

For nearly two years starting in 2002, Weilong’s chairman Wang Zhenhai traveled across nearly half of China, accompanied by Bruno Zappia, an Australian viticulture expert, looking for an area to plant, ideally near the 37th parallel north, considered the best latitude for growing grapes.

Paradise conditions

Ding still remembers the first time he saw Wuwei — a boundless expanse of sandy land with typical gritty soil and an unspoiled ecological environment far from human habitation and pollution. The local officer accompanying them on the site exploration told them it had an average annual rainfall of 191 milimeters (7.5 inches) and an annual average of 2,725 hours of sunshine.

“For Bruno Zappia this matches almost exactly the grape-growing paradise he had long dreamed of,” Ding recalls.

Li Wuwei, a prominent Chinese wine expert and vice president of the Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, notes that Wuwei is situated in a typical temperate arid desert and semi-desert area. It has drought climatic conditions and sufficient light to limit and reduce common fungal infection in moist areas. This gives it an clear advantage for organic viticulture.

Weilong did not hesitate to sign an investment agreement with the Wuwei authority and set forward a plan for producing high-end organic wine, as soon as possible.

After 10 years of hard work, the organic grape paradise that Bruno was seeking has become a living reality. By September, the eye sees green stretching out into the distance, a wonderland. The scale of the vineyard, some dozens of square kilometers, is so vast that it’s more like an ocean of vines.

But an even more important feature of this grape-planting base is the management model. All production costs such as land, vine, water, ecological fertilizer, planting techniques and training are all a direct investment of Weilong, the wine grower. Not only does Weilong have complete control over the grape’s quality and quantity to meet its organic standards, the farmers are also paid salaries just like workers in an industry, Ding explains.

Steady income

“This model provides farmers with a stable revenue while at the same time achieving the closest integration of the enterprise and the farmers,” Ding says. “Industrialized and standardized operational requirements ensure a good quality of organic viticulture and thus guarantee the quality of the organic wine.”

From choosing the varieties of vine to planting to the use of fertilizer and the timing of the harvest, all procedures follow organic operation requirements “so that we can ensure the wine’s authentic organic quality right from the start,” Ding adds.

As China’s top organic winery in terms of output, sales volume and market share, Weilong has also helped to change the local region’s industrial structure. Located at the east end of the Hexi Corridor, though a combination of sun, climate, water and soil, Wuwei is considered to be one of the most ideal production areas for organic wine in China, and among the world’s best.

Situated at the foot of the magnificent Qilian Mountains, Weilong’s planting base has not only transformed the appearance of a vast sandy tract with a harsh environment and poor development, but also the livelihood of local people.

“Weilong’s industrial input has been a real economic boost to the area,” says one official. “Organic farming has turned many square kilometers of wasteland into an oasis.”

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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