The Doc Project

This couple left white-collar jobs in China and became farmers in Canada

When Sun Shan and Li Bo became farmers on moving to Canada, they had some explaining to do. Their families in China didn't understand why they would choose such a lowly profession. Now the couple are sharing their knowledge and culture through their Ottawa farm.

Sun Shan and Li Bo had no hands-on experience in agriculture before immigrating in 2014

Sun Shan, centre, Li Bo, right, and their son Jerry Li left digging sunchokes in November 2020, at their farm Chi Garden in Ottawa. (Jennifer Chen/CBC)

In China, farming is often seen as lowly work, left to the poor and uneducated. Yet that's exactly what two Chinese-Canadian immigrants with graduate degrees chose to do when they moved to Ontario, eventually making a place for themselves in Ottawa's farming community. 

Sun Shan (孙姗) and Li Bo (李波) were at the forefront of the environmental movement in China when they transplanted their lives to Canada. 

Now, on a one-acre piece of land in the nation's capital, they grow vegetables from eastern and western farming traditions while sharing their knowledge about culture, conservation and sustainable food production. They're especially passionate about exploring East Asian fermentation techniques on their farm, which they call Chi Garden.

But their career path wasn't met with instant approval from their parents. 

A commitment to the environment

Sun and Li met through a shared passion for conservation, while they were both working in China's fledgling environmental non-profit sector.

As part of the first local conservation groups in China, it meant a lot of hard work. "It's not like you have somebody that you can go and ask, you know, 'How did you do it?'" Sun said. 

By 2008, they were both feeling exhausted. 

It was the year of the Beijing Olympics, and their son, Jerry, was an infant. In their high-rise apartment, they could see the smog rising like a curtain in the mornings. 

The air pollution had become so serious that Li said he'd hear Jerry coughing in the night "like a classic senior lung cancer patient." And Li was feeling doubts about the progress they were making on environmental issues, and the personal toll it was taking on them.

Shan, Li and Jerry in Beijing in 2013, a year before they moved to Canada. (Submitted by Sun Shan)

From Beijing to Mildmay

Without having ever visited Canada, they decided to apply to immigrate as skilled workers. "Somehow I had this image in my head about Canada, about a boreal forest, about the snow," Sun said. "Somehow it just links to my childhood memory of just being peaceful and being just accepted and healed." 

Six years later, their application was approved, and they flew to Toronto in March 2014. After they landed, a friend offered a place to stay in the small farming village of Mildmay, Ont. 

Li said they were ready for a change, but they didn't know exactly what they would do in Canada. Farming hadn't crossed their minds. 

Li and his son Jerry carrying a lotus root in Dali, Yunnan province, in 2014, two months before their departure to Canada. (Submitted by Sun Shan)

"[In China], farming is something you want to get away from. It's not something you embrace. Farmers have no status," Sun said.

"If you actually want to describe someone as stupid, you would actually call them farmer," Li added. 

But when the snow melted, and they saw flowers blooming and fields coming to life, they began to see the possibilities. Li picked up a tourism map that listed local organic farms, and as they drove around southern Ontario, the idea of farming became more real. 

An older farming couple, Ann and Eugene Bourgeois, offered the family a piece of land in Tiverton, Ont., and the newcomers decided to give it a try.

That first year, Sun recalls they grew a lot of weeds. But when she looked at them more closely she realized they were edible plants, like Shepherd's purse. "I grew up eating that in dumplings," she said. 

She also noticed the many dandelions. As a botanist, she set to work researching why they're so prolific here, and their medicinal value. They added them to their signature salad greens, which they call "diversity salad".

"I did feel like the weeds taught us a lesson," said Sun. 

An inclusive approach

Sun said she and Li often went to farming conferences and were two of the few visible minorities present. So they thought about how they could contribute. 

Living in a small community, there was no way to buy kimchi without driving hours to a big city. They learned how to ferment foods using preservation techniques from Li's home province of Yunnan, and started to sell them at the farmers' market. 

Sun holds up jars of fermented vegetables from Chi Garden, which are very popular at the farmers' market. (Jennifer Chen/CBC)

After a couple of years, they wanted to join a larger community of like-minded farmers. They found the Just Food Community Farm in Ottawa, a non-profit site that supports ecological farming in many forms, and gives small-scale agricultural entrepreneurs the chance to lease land at a reduced cost. 

They grow vegetables that are common in China, such as mustard greens and garlic chives, but aren't eaten frequently in Canada. They're gently pushing forward a more inclusive approach to local food, by tossing new flavours in with the old. 

Sun's parents on a visit to Canada in 2018. They have visited three times, and they always pitch in at the farm. (Jennifer Chen/CBC)

Another way they highlight culture is by sharing their knowledge about certain foods and where they came from. For example, Sun says the sunchoke, also known as Jerusalem artichoke, is an indigenous staple in North America and is also eaten in China, France, and almost all over the world. 

Changing attitudes towards farming

While Sun and Li are now firmly established in Canada, their parents remain in China. 

Li's parents have yet to visit Canada, but when they do, he said he hopes to show them he's not suffering in his newfound career. He wants to help them find peace with the path he's chosen.

Sun's parents first visited in 2015, and since then, they've made the trip two more times.

Sun said that although her mother initially had doubts, spending some time on the farm was an eye-opening experience that changed her attitude towards farming in a positive way. 

Sun and Li never planned for their lives to take this course. "If we could close our eyes and imagine where we are now, you know, two novice farmers still working on this little piece of land six years later, I don't think that's how we pictured ourselves," said Sun.

Li said this new life has given them the chance to connect their environmental beliefs with working the land. Along the way, they've found healing and community.

"I would say I'm quite satisfied with this new course of life." 

About the Producer

Jennifer Chen has been a producer and journalist at CBC for more than 15 years in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. One of her first mini-documentaries captured her attempt to learn snowboarding as a newbie tackling the West Coast mountains. Over the years, she's made many more pocket docs and pursued other forms of narrative audio storytelling. She has a passion for finding underrepresented voices and for telling stories that connect Canadians.

This documentary was produced with Alison Cook and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.




  • An earlier version of this story identified edible plants discovered by Sun as lamb's quarter. She later clarified the plants were in fact Shepherd's purse.
    Apr 17, 2021 11:07 AM ET
  • We also reported that Sun and Li were the only two people of colour at the farming conferences they attended. This has been corrected to say they were two of the few visible minorities.
    Apr 17, 2021 11:07 AM ET