The drive to Shijiazhuang from Beijing is long and gray. It is the city at the heart of China’s tainted milk scandal, where Sanlu headquarters is based. Small dairy farms that once supplied milk to Sanlu, and thrived on its business, lie on the outskirts.
When we arrived at one farm, I saw the first signs of life, vibrant signs. Twenty or so cows bristled at our arrival. I didn’t realize how curious, even social, cows can be. A few ran to the edge of the fence staring at us intently. Maybe they were just hungry. A 2-month-old calf tied to a post at the entrance quietly observed us.
By Emily Chang
The farmer, Feng Xianying, acknowledged us with a quiet handshake, then went on to mix up the day’s lunch – basic feed with some extra nutrients from what I could tell – and serve it in twenty or so individual bins for the cows to munch. He was methodical, silent, but I would say, good-natured. There was a rhythm in his step. He did it all with care.
When he opened the pen, the cows filed out obediently, each taking its place to feed. Feng served a small portion to the calf. “He’s too small to stay in the pen with others,” he said.
There was a time when Feng Xianying thought he might have to kill his cows to survive.
News that Sanlu had been selling tainted milk had broken. Apparently, middlemen had bought milk from the farmers then mixed it with a toxic chemical called melamine to artificially boost protein levels.
Hundreds of thousands of children got sick and China’s dairy industry was on the verge of collapse. Sanlu stopped operations, and stopped buying milk from Feng and other farmers.
Many farmers gave up, but Feng pushed through the roughest times, kept his business afloat and his cows alive.
He survived thanks in part to government support.
“The government provided loans to support the dairy industry, so I was able to buy some new cows,” he told me. “In the past, the government was ignorant and competition between the dairies was fierce, so they didn’t care about the quality of the milk.”