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Submitted on June 12, 2008 by Erik Nilsson

Just five years ago, Dutchman Marc de Ruiter watched dairy farmers in rural Shanxi province dump their milk on the streets. Back in 2003, the commodity suffered from market saturation, underdeveloped transportation and weak demand nationwide. In Yangqu, one of Shanxi's poorest counties, milk had become so worthless dairy farmers were literally pouring their primary source of income down the drain.

"That's when I started making cheese," says de Ruiter, who has trained local farmers on methods of sustainable agricultural development since 2000.

Marc de RuiterThe fair trade advocate went on to found Yellow Valley Farmhouse Cheese, the country's only producer of Made-in-China Gouda and certified artisanal, all-natural cheese.

"I want to prove that one can, from the start run a company that aims to be natural and artisanal - and have a major social impact in the community where it is located," he says.

"It is my view that if we share some of what we gain with those less fortunate, we will have less poverty, fewer social problems and fewer conflicts."

He admits he had his own reasons, too.

"I also just really wanted some good cheese."

Currently, the venture, which was registered last November, retails most of its products in China's major metropolises. Throngs of expats in the cities are hungry for Gouda. And while most Chinese aren't exactly crackers for cheese, de Ruiter believes their appetite for the foreign foodstuff is growing.

Yellow Valley currently sells about 800 kg of cheese a month, but de Ruiter says its monthly capacity, which is expected to double in August, is five tons.

He says the company's competitive advantage is that its product is natural; de Ruiter is also currently working on getting his product internationally certified as organic.

Customers can also place online orders as small as 1 kg and as large as 1,000 kg - without having to bother with the importing process. He says it's an ideal situation for foreigners in far-flung regions who "have been in China six months and miss good cheese".

For the company's 13 staffers and 40-some milk suppliers, Yellow Valley cheese provides a golden opportunity to taste a better life.

In line with fair trade conventions, the farmhouse pays dairy farmers at least 4 jiao above the market price for a kg of milk and guarantees to buy milk above cost, ensuring farmers profit even if milk's market value plummets. For its farmhouse workers, Yellow Valley provides contracts offering medical, unemployment and disability insurances, as well as pension and housing allowances - all rarities in rural areas such as Yangqu. In addition, workers continue receiving regular salaries when they're sent home because the farmhouse is operating under capacity.

Yao Miaoru says the company hoisted her from dire poverty. The 42-year-old and her husband from Beizheng village, Huangzhai township, had to work outside the county as migrant laborers. But they still couldn't earn enough money to support themselves.

She says things were at their most harrowing when de Ruiter offered her and her husband jobs at the farmhouse.

"Now we have a stable income," Yao says. "We don't need to worry about the basic needs of life. I am free."

And before Li Guiying, from Xianiuzhan village, Huangzhai township, became a cook for Yellow Valley, he was unable to afford his eldest son's schooling or his youngest son's medical costs. "But now, my life is secure," he says.

Before Du Fangfang, of Xianiuzhan, broke her leg, she and her husband were factory workers. The injury left Du with medical bills and an inability to perform hard labor.

The 38-year-old needed money for her son's primary schooling and for caring for her indebted 80-year-old mother.

"Marc helped and supported us," the cheese maker says.

"This job provided me a stable income and security, so I don't need to be worried about our basic needs, and my son can study in a better school."

Despite Yellow Valley's practices, the company cannot apply for an official fair trade label for its cheese. Currently, the designation isn't available for dairy products, because they generally aren't thought of as developing world foodstuffs, like bananas and coffee.

Before coming to China, de Ruiter worked as a technical director of a UK-based produce importer. His job sent him to 25 countries to help local farmers boost crop yields.

quote Marc de RuiterThe agriculturalist and his family relocated to Tianjin municipality in 1997 to study Chinese. In 2000, he worked on a project to diversify crop yields in five villages around Yangqu for public-benefit organization Evergreen. He then worked on a pig-raising project, introducing leaner sow breeds from Holland, instructing farmers in the latest pig-raising techniques and bringing in AI.

"Both the vegetable program and the pig-raising program were very successful - to the extent that we were able to pull out and hand everything over to local farmers," he says.

Today, he's shifted his focus to Yangqu's dairy farmers. On top of ensuring they get a fair slice of the emergent cheese market, he also teaches them how to sustain agricultural development.

"Basically, the two main issues are getting better cattle breeds, which influences the milk's quality, and better feeding practices. I must say that (local farmers) are doing very well and that our milk is very good for the conditions under which it is produced."

Once the fledgling venture becomes profitable - expected to happen before the end of 2008 - de Ruiter will donate roughly half the company's profits to socially responsible educational, agricultural and small-business projects. He also has future plans to construct model farms, which will fuse Chinese and Western practices, to serve as educational tools for local farmers.

(China Daily 06/12/2008 page20 original at:



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