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Chinese millennials are quitting their ‘empty’ city jobs to find fulfilment as farmers

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Hu Siqin had a promising career in Shanghai with a Fortune 500 company and more than enough money, but something was missing under the bright lights of the big city, a sense of what she calls “roots”.

So the 33-year-old chucked it all in to lay down literal roots as part of a new back-to-the-farm movement in which young Chinese professionals are quitting the rat race for the simple joys of an organic lifestyle.

“People like me don’t feel that material comforts stimulate us, and deep down we remain unsatisfied,” says Hu.

“So we’ve started thinking, what is the purpose of our lives? What am I living for?”

In many ways, it’s a return to what once was. Before the 20th century China was a primarily agrarian country for thousands of years.

The ruling Communist Party, however, has encouraged urbanisation and migration to growing cities for decades – to build a more modern, consumer-oriented economy.

Nowadays, millions of young Chinese people are increasingly uninspired by modern society’s long work hours and meagre pay, urban congestion and high living costs, so they have fled to start a new life.

“Happy on the outside, but empty inside”

Hu, who has worked in marketing and supply chains for French companies like personal-care giant L’Oreal and sports retailer Decathlon, says that in her career she “appeared happy on the outside, but felt empty inside.”

She now sows organic, pesticide- and fertiliser-free sweet potatoes, long beans and other crops on rented plots of land with like-minded friends on Chongming, a large, primarily agricultural island on Shanghai’s outskirts.

Hu can barely contain her delight as she pops sweet potatoes out of the soil and samples sorghum plants that tower over her. “So sweet!” she exclaims, biting into a stalk of the grain.

According to the government, around 20 million people have joined what it terms a “new farmer” movement, some of whom have millions of social media followers as they post on their lifestyles.

China’s government has recognised the potential advantage of an influx of tech- and business-savvy millennials bringing new ideas and enthusiasm to an agri-sector still largely dominated by longtime peasant farmers, and has pledged financial and policy support.

A stress-free, sustainable lifestyle

For “new farmers” like Liang Funa, 34, it’s about enjoying a healthy, peaceful and more sustainable life.

The former ad executive felt burnt-out due to excessive work hours and a deeply unhealthy lifestyle.

“Our generation is under huge pressure, and people who stay in cities can’t see many other choices,” he said.

“The people around them talk constantly about buying a house or a car or getting married, like these are the only measures of success and there are no other roads available.”

Liang, who moved to Chongming three years ago, has had to rapidly learn horticulture, while dabbling in side work online for extra income. But his life is now relatively stress-free, and Liang has realised just how few consumer goods he really needs.

And by eating only his own organic vegetables, he feels healthier, mitigating the need for trips to the doctor.

Convincing parents to accept this life choice is another matter.

Hu’s parents are baffled, accusing her of “going backwards” in life. But she is unconcerned, and is now negotiating a long-term lease on a farmstead of her own in rural Zhejiang province near Shanghai.

She hopes to sow her first crop in the spring.

“I jumped out of my comfort zone and went to an unfamiliar and uncertain place, and it has been very profound,” she said.

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