Dr. Tso-Cheng Chang, a Pioneer in Organic Farming

Tso-Cheng Chang is a small-scale farmer in Amherst, Massachusetts. His popular restaurant, Amherst Chinese Food, attracts people from all over the Pioneer Valley to its fresh, organic, delicious Chinese food. Dr. Chang is a strong believer in soil re-mineralization; he has been using rock dust on his organic farm since 1995 in his determined quest to eliminate the need for pesticides and to grow nutrient-dense food. At this point, his soil has become so rich that he has not felt the need to add rock dust in the last few years.
Dr. Chang at Amherst Chinese Food.

Born in a small town in Shandong Province, China, in the late 1920s, Dr. Chang traveled to Taiwan and earned an undergraduate degree in agronomy from Taiwan University in 1953. After working at Dow Chemical for several years, he realized that the dangers of herbicides needed to be confronted and counteracted. He resigned and came to the US to continue his academic pursuits. He earned an M.S. in Crop Science from Michigan State University in 1966 and a Ph.D. in Plant and Soil Science from the UMass Amherst, in 1973.

It was in 1973, while still a student at UMass, that Dr. Chang opened his locally famous restaurant, Amherst Chinese Food, to support his family. Dr. Chang was an early champion of “No Herbicide Usage,” and three years after opening his restaurant, he was able to purchase a 40-acre farm in the nearby town of Whately; his goal was to provide his restaurant’s customers with fresh vegetables, often picked by Dr. Chang’s own hands—“from farm to table.”

During a recent visit to his farm in Whately, which lies but a few hundred yards from the Connecticut River, I was told that his farm sits in an area known as some of the richest farmland in the United States, only “next to Nepal.” Dr. Chang enjoys working on his farm, where he grows a wide variety of vegetables including asparagus, green peppers, bok choy, string beans, bean sprouts, bitter melons, and Chinese mahogany.

In 1995, Dr. Chang was first introduced to soil remineralization by Dr. Chiu-Nan Lai and farmer Bob Cannard after attending Cannard’s workshop on organic farming in California. Before studying remineralization with Bob Cannard and Dr. Lai, Dr. Chang had struggled to adequately control pests and weeds while adhering to the principles and practices of organic horticulture. During the workshop, he learned that rock dust can be used as an effective alternative to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Like Cannard, who grows organic vegetables for Chez Panisse restaurant in northern California, Dr. Chang supplies fresh, organic vegetables to his own restaurant.

This visionary agriculturalist has truly mastered the art of bringing pleasure to the table with his combination of organic farming and fine cuisine. Dr. Chang spurns the harmful ingredients and culinary practices that characterize modern Chinese food—for instance, he never uses monosodium glutamate (MSG), a potent neurotoxin that can artificially enhance the flavor of over-processed, lifeless foods. Dr. Chang’s farm-fresh, remineralized produce needs no such additives; as he says, “Fresh and healthy food always taste the best.”

The rock dust that has revitalized Dr. Chang’s soil was purchased in South Amherst, or the “Notch,” as this mountain overpass in western Massachusetts is known. He either sprinkles the rock dust over his plants, conferring long-term protection, or he mixes it with water until the solution resembles milk. He has found that a simple application of rock dust makes his plants resistant to aphids and Japanese beetles. He tells me that one year he didn’t use rock dust, and the eggplants lost all their leaves. Needless to say, he started spraying the rock dust again, and the problem never returned. Although he has not conducted controlled trials on his farm, Dr. Chang is fully satisfied by the healthier plants and higher yields that he has observed since implementing the principles of soil remineralization.

Dr. Chang uses other important soil amendments, such as compost, in conjunction with rock dust. Years of experience have shown that remineralization is crucial to the quality of his plants, and his mineral-rich soil supports his efforts to go “beyond organic” by producing food that is not only chemical-free but also laden with the nutrients that are essential for the health and vitality of the human race.

Dr. Chang tells me that he loves to bring “the freshest vegetables” to the table for his customers to enjoy—sometimes he is able to serve vegetables that were harvested a mere thirty minutes earlier. Almost eighty-five percent of his customers are regulars, and people come from miles around just to savor his delicious organic produce. Accustomed to working sixteen hours a day at his farm and restaurant, Dr. Chang is truly committed to what he enjoys. As his son Sydney recently took over the management of the restaurant, Dr. Chang can now spend more time on his farm, as he has planned for many years. Every Saturday morning, he drives his minivan—filled with ripe vegetables freshly picked from his farm earlier that day—to the Amherst Farmers’ Market in downtown Amherst. His is always one of the most popular booths in the market; he remarked, “A lot of people know about my vegetables and they come to buy them, and I am sold out very quickly!”

Dr. Chang grows many kinds of vegetables, but his main crop is a fruit that few Americans have ever seen. In the early 1980s, as people were becoming more aware of the importance of consuming natural foods and of maintaining their own health and well-being, Dr. Chang started searching for a special crop that would fulfill the ancient Chinese proverb, which he loves to say: “food is medicine and medicine is food.” In 1985, with the help of his friend Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu, a renowned botanist and the world’s leading expert on Chinese herbs, Dr. Chang began growing an ancient Manchurian berry-yielding vine called Schizandra Berry. Seven years later, he harvested his first berries.

Dr. Chang tells me proudly that “up to that time, no one had ever made a fresh drink from the whole, non-dried berry before. We renamed our healthy product ‘ChiBerry’ recently, hoping to explore more markets out there and let more people know and benefit from this organic Schizandra Berry.” The fact that Schizandra Berry has been used continuously for at least 5,000 years, helping people to live longer, healthier, more vivacious lives, conveys the magic of this remarkable beverage. I was fortunate enough to taste this fine-flavored drink as Dr. Chang educated me about the philosophy of Eastern medicine. At eighty years old and still exhibiting vibrant health, Dr. Chang himself looks like “a glowing testimony to these berries.”

When asked if he has given workshops or provided educational support for other farmers in the area, Dr. Chang responds that his time-consuming responsibilities at the restaurant did not allow it, but now he is certainly considering it as those commitments diminish. As he always says, “You can never stop a retired farmer.” Judging by his prior accomplishments, I don’t expect that Dr. Chang will be slowing down any time soon.