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From Geology to Farming: The Journey of Dong Caicai

JUN . 18 2021
Peking University, June 18, 2021: Have you heard of Dong Caicai (cai means vegetable in Mandarin), a farmer in Canada's Alberta? Dong Caicai, or Dong Jianyi as his real name, went viral on YouTube, documenting his academic journey from PKU to farming life in Canada. His most popular video has racked up nearly 400,000 views.

Dong Jianyi was a graduate of the PKU School of Earth and Space Sciences. After completing his master's degree in 2007, he joined Schlumberger, the biggest oilfield services company measured by market capitalization, specifically involved in oilfield exploration. Typical life of a high-flyer? Yes. Is that where our story ends today? Definitely not! In 2018 he became a farm owner in Alberta and transformed himself into Dong Caicai, catapulting him into new found fame this year. His greatest wish is for "every Chinese living in Canada to be able to enjoy freshly-grown vegetables".

From geology to farming

Dong Jianyi was about to embark on his career in the oil industry when he arrived in Canada in 2014. It was at this unfortunate time that oil prices fell drastically, from $100 USD per barrel before he arrived in Canada, to $26 USD per barrel upon arriving, severely impacting the industry.  Like all PKU alumni before him, he would not resign to fate but decided to “find something I’m interested in and do something great”.

An unexpected volunteering experience in a farm set him on his current path, as there was a mismatch between the huge demand for freshly-grown vegetables, especially amongst the ethnic Chinese and a low supply due to Calgary’s unfavorable weather. Dutch greenhouses were used in other parts of Canada but the vegetables were not as tasty. On top of that, it was hard to source materials for Chinese passive solar greenhouses. Hence, Dong Jianyi decided to bring in Chinese agricultural technology (agri-tech).

After purchasing land in 2017, Dong Jianyi returned to China to do his field research. He decided to adapt Chinese agri-tech to suit the weather in Calgary; the end-product was a double-membrane greenhouse. The Dongs finally opened their farm in June 2018!

Setting up the farm

Dong Caicai admits that he doesn’t know a whole lot about vegetables as he grew up in an urban area where farming was a foreign concept to him. Of course, when he set his sights on becoming a farmer, he had to learn everything from scratch. Embarking on a totally different career was a lot tougher than he had expected; apart from the long, harsh winter, there were also funding and technical issues to take care of. Many raw materials and tools were not easily accessible in Canada so he had to improvise and create a few simple yet hardy construction tools, as can be seen in the video below.

With the help of his wife, Wang Guoguo (guo means fruits in Mandarin), they gradually completed the over 100 meter long exterior while specially importing materials like a 3-ton of quilt from China. The high latitude of Calgary meant that the sun would set at 4pm each day, leading the couple to eat instant noodles for an entire month in order to maximize their time. While greenhouses like these can take around one to two months to construct in China, the lack of necessary resources in Canada meant that the Dongs would spend an entire year before seeing theirs completed. Interestingly, Wang Guoguo remarked that “it’s only when you’re unsure of the long road ahead that you would even dare to try, if I had known it would be this tough at the beginning I may have just called it a day”. Coincidentally, the couple met on a farm while both of them were trainees in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Dong Jianyi expressed his gratitude towards his wife saying, “without her help, we would never be able to complete the greenhouse and my life and career would have ended in a mess”.

What it takes to be a farmer

Despite the arduous journey of transitioning from geology to farming, he credited his success to two aspects: perseverance and creativity both of which were honed during his days at PKU. As a student, he was active in geology research and would join research teams in Tibet and Xinjiang during the sweltering summer. “Once you do these things frequently, it’s inevitable that it becomes a part of you, to be able to bear hardships and to be unafraid of the unknown”. He exudes positivity in his YouTube videos: despite all these tribulations, he believes that “every step in life is worthwhile and there are no wasted episodes in life”. Lastly, he attributes his success to the pioneering spirit found in all PKU students. Who can resist a life like that?

Even though his farm only occupies a relatively modest area of 30 acres, the azure blue skies and wide space have given him a sense of liberation that cannot be replicated in any desk-bound job. He has absolute autonomy over the future plans for his farm and the fact that there are countless possibilities is alluring to him.

Looking ahead

Of course, his journey doesn’t end here. In the future, he hopes to be able to erect more greenhouses so that more residents can enjoy fresh produce grown with Chinese agri-tech. In addition, his vlog has built his personal branding. Many universities and organisations have asked him to introduce Chinese greenhouses to them. He is confident in his ability to help more small farm-owners grow their own vegetables with this technology, and to facilitate the needs of the local Chinese community, ensuring that they have a connection to the land when they are settling in.

PKU alumni in Calgary have also come forward to help them cap their third greenhouse. His unwavering dedication is truly inspirational to all of us who have been stuck in our concrete jungles for too long. Dong Jianyi’s story represents the age-old proverb of “you reap what you sow”; we look forward to visiting him in Calgary to get a taste of those vegetables!

Writer: Ng Joong Hwee
Editors: Christopher Mahoney, Zhang Jiang, Amanda Hu, Xu Haolun
Dong Caicai