It is not exactly an online craze, but it could be one day. City folk, yearning to own a piece of land to grow their own crops, are signing up to an Internet site that guarantees deliveries of farm-produced products.
Last year, farming cooperatives in Jixi county, Anhui province in eastern China, joined forces with the Internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd to launch an e-commerce enterprise that allows subscribers to lease agricultural land.
Rolled out on Alibaba's group buying site, Juhuasuan, the Jutudi project attracted 3,500 subscribers within the first three days when it came online on March 13, 2014. The number of users reached nearly 9,000 by the end of last year.
The idea behind the plan was simple. About 666,660 square meters of land was leased by farmers to Alibaba on a yearly-basis and then sold on as plots to subscribers. The land was then managed by the farm cooperatives, while subscribers to the Jutudi project could recommend what crops should be grown.
"Jutudi has made a tremendous contribution in terms of using idle land, transferring the local labour, and bringing in more economic profit," Zhang Ping, county Party secretary of Jixi, said.
Professional farmers from the cooperatives cultivate and harvest the crops. The produce is then delivered every two weeks to online subscribers, who can rent a 66.6-square-meter plot of land for 580 yuan (S$127) a year. For 2,400 yuan, they can lease 333 sq m of land, while 4,800 yuan will get you 666 sq m. Obviously, the larger the plot, the more produce you receive. Crops include vegetables, fruit and grain.
Farmers involved in the cooperatives receive 700 yuan to 800 yuan annually for leasing the land to Alibaba. They are also paid for growing the crops, explained Zhang Xinguang, business director of Zhejiang Xinghe E-commerce Co Ltd, an enterprise under the Zhejiang Supply and Marketing Cooperative, which was one of the initial backers of the Jutudi project.
"It is not very profitable for me to grow crops on my own piece of land nowadays," Hu Sheming, 80, a farmer in Jixi, said. "I had to pay people to help me, so it was better to lease the land out to Zhejiang Xinghe."
Wang Licheng, a director at the group buying site Juhuasuan, is delighted with the way that phase one of the Jutudi project has gone, while admitting valuable lessons have been learned.
"There is huge demand to develop agricultural e-commerce," Wang said. "We always wanted to provide more support to farmers and this project has helped us do that."
In October last year, Juhuasuan branched out to include more farming cooperatives across China.