By Ma Li, Zhao Wenqi
Fengdu County, 200 kilometers from Chongqing Municipality in southwestern China, is situated in a vital area for the Three Gorges Reservoir. The Yangtze River flows eastward through it.
Fengdu County is widely known for picturesque scenery, and is also a historic place that has left a mark for over 2,000 years. The county embraced Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism together, which nurtured rich folk traditions. Cultural celebrities of Chinese history such as Su Shi (1037- 1101), one of China’s greatest poets and essayists, Du Guangting (850- 933), a Taoist priest and fiction writer, Li Shangyin (813-858), a poet from the late Tang Dynasty, Lu You (1125-1210), a prominent poet of the Southern Song Dynasty, and Pu Songling (1640- 1715), a Qing Dynasty writer, all visited Fengdu to climb mountains to enjoy its panoramic views as they drew on them for inspiration for their works.
However, the complex natural conditions featuring steep mountains, deep valleys and long rivers have plagued the development of Fengdu County. In 2002, Fengdu was identified as a key county for national poverty alleviation and assigned a development plan. That year, a campaign for poverty alleviation commenced.
Potato Facilitates Poverty Alleviation
It takes about an hour and a half by car from Fengdu County to reach Wuping Town, 60 kilometers southwest of Fengdu. Mountains blanketed in lush greenery guide the road. After a summer rain, the mountains become shrouded in white and thick haze. This small town reminiscent of Shangri-la is home to a potato demonstration planting base covering an area of 1,400 mu (93.4 hectares). At harvest time, large potatoes are scattered across the fields, and farmers busily collect them in baskets. From time to time, people driving past the potato fields buy a bag to take to the city.
Potato planting is one program that Zaozhuang, a prefecture level city in Shandong Province, has conducted in Fengdu as part of the east-west poverty alleviation cooperation program. Tengzhou, a county-level city in Zaozhuang, introduced potato planting techniques to Fengdu and provided seeds and related technology for free.
In 2018, Fengdu carried out 100 mu (6.7 hectares) of trial potato planting. A combined 3,000 mu (200 hectares) of potatoes were planted across Fengdu this year. Today, per mu (0.0667 hectare) yield of potato has increased to 3,000 kilograms from previous 500 kilograms. Potato planting has lifted many poor Wuping households out of poverty.
Tang Daixiang, a villager from Wuping Town, tried planting a new potato variety in 2018. He reported, “The yield of two mu [0.1 hectare] of land was 5,000 kilograms, which sold for 14,000 yuan [US$2,033.3]. I was overjoyed when I realized this because when I was growing corn, I earned only 400 yuan [US$58.1] or 500 yuan [US$72.6] from two mu of thin land.”
Last year’s bumper harvest enabled Tang to expand his potato planting area to 10 mu (0.7 hectare) this year. At the rate of 2,500 kilograms per mu yield of potato and 2 yuan (US$0.29) per kilogram purchase price, Tang’s income from potato planting alone this year could reach 50,000 yuan (US$7,261.8), and the annual income for the whole family could reach more than 70,000 yuan (US$10,166.6) including income from growing tobacco and odd jobs during down season.
A combined 3,000 mu (200.1 hectares) of potato fields can be found in Fengdu. At present, the average yield per mu of potato has reached more than 3,000 kilograms, and the income per mu yield has increased by nearly 5,000 yuan (US$726.2). This has effectively led to increased production and income for more than 800 households, including 121 poverty-stricken households home to 208 people.
Wuping is nestled at a high altitude with a pleasant climate very suitable for growing potatoes. Among the six townships in Fengdu, Wuping has the highest yield per mu. According to data compiled by Lin Fangyan, director of Wuping Town Agriculture Service Center, on some days as many as 80,000 kilograms of potatoes are sold. Lin explained that after the potatoes are completely harvested this year, his group will lead cooperative farmers to plant out-of-season vegetables to further increase farmers’ income.
According to Lin Fangyan’s calculations, Wuping town has a total of 1,400 mu (93.4 hectares) of potato planting area this year, and if the per mu yield is 2,500 kilograms and the purchase price 1.6 yuan (US$0.23) per kilogram, the total income of potato farmers in town could reach 5.6 million yuan (US$800,000) just from potatoes.
Next year, potato planting area in Wuping will expand to more than 10,000 mu (667 hectares) and total income from planting potato will reach 40 million yuan (US$5.8 million). Average per household income in the town will reach 9,000 yuan (US$1,307.1).
Mechanized operations have also been introduced to large-scale planting plots. The process of potato planting has achieved full mechanization from digging, sowing, fertilizing and soil covering to harvest, greatly reducing labor costs.
The large-scale planting base in Wuping also features potato blight monitoring and an early warning system. The system can detect anomalies in a plot and monitor an area of five square kilometers. Farmers need only scan a QR code on the early warning system with a mobile phone to receive data on the specific location of problem to deal with it promptly.
“The introduction of modern technology has given us more confidence to grow and sell potatoes,” Lin Fangyan said.
Little Eggs, Big Business
A regular egg sells for 1.5 yuan (US$0.2), but six green-shelled eggs packed in a gift box can fetch 36 yuan (US$5.2). Egg farming can bring local farmers millions of yuan per year these days. This has been a benefit from the arrival of e-commerce in Daxi Village, Huwei Town in Fengdu County. Yang Mei, deputy director of Daxi village committee and an e-commerce broker, spearheaded the initiative to help villagers sell eggs for steep profits. Yang enjoyed a successful career in Guangzhou before returning to her hometown in 2014 to start her own business. Back then, the village was as poor as it had been for decades. Young villagers left the area to find work, leaving the elderly and children behind. The seniors both did farm work and childcare, and often the agricultural products they worked so much on could hardly be sold.
Thanks to connections she accumulated over years in Guangzhou, when Yang Mei made online listings for special agricultural products produced by villagers, buyers were enthusiastic immediately. However, to sell them in larger quantities, Yang had to soak up everything she could learn about e-commerce.
With the help of local companies, Yang Mei began learning to breed green-shelled-egg laying chickens. In 2015, taking advantage of the government’s poverty alleviation policies, Yang set up a professional chicken cooperative in the village and mobilized poor households to work together.
“I had to master the breeding technique first so I could guide others,” Yang Mei said. She attended many breeding training sessions organized by the county and repeatedly consulted breeding experts. Through hard work, soon Yang became a famous local green-shelled-egg chicken breeding expert. Large-scale chicken farmers in neighboring villages invited Yang to give on-site lectures every month.
Yang Fengwei, a villager from Daxi village, lives with a low-income family of four. Her child attends school and her mother-in-law suffers from chronic illness. “My husband leaving town to work elsewhere has been the family’s only source of income,” Yang admitted.
After Yang Mei learned about Yang Fengwei’s situation, Yang Mei encouraged her to join the chicken cooperative and obtained baby chicks for her through poverty alleviation policy.
“Now she has 40 green-shelled-egg chickens,” Yang Mei beamed. “One egg fetches 1.5 yuan [US$0.2], and one chicken produces about 140 eggs per year. Excluding feed and other expenses, Yang Fengwei can increase her income by 8,400 yuan [US$1,220] a year.” Eggs from poor households are preferentially sold on e-commerce platforms. The more they raise, the more they earn.
Chen Wanxi lives with his wife with cognitive disabilities and a daughter in poor health. With the help of the village’s chicken cooperative, he raises 200 green-shelled-egg chickens. “Through the chicken cooperative and e-commerce sales platforms, his eggs sell out every time. His net income from egg sales every year reaches 60,000 yuan (US$8,714.2). Chen’s family has already been lifted out of poverty.”
Alongside eggs, other distinctive agricultural products such as arrow-root, loquat and honey pomelo are also popular items on e-commerce marketplaces. “Sales of agricultural products other than eggs can reach more than 150,000 yuan [US$21,785.5] every month,” Yang Mei reported. Agricultural products frequently sell out on e-commerce platforms.
A unique Chinese poultry species, a total of 11,000 green-shelled-egg hens live in Daxi Village. They lay an average of 5,000 eggs per day. In addition to online sales, Yang Mei also reached out to large enterprises and school cafeterias and signed long-term purchase contracts with local enterprises to form a development model of “online sales+enterprise+professional cooperative,” benefiting 385 households.
Feixiandong Village in Baoluan Town, Fengdu County, was once a national-level severely poverty-stricken village. Inconvenient transportation, barren land and scarce arable land troubled the villagers. The villagers had raised cattle for plowing. However, because of poverty, it often took several families to raise one ox.
A transformation happened in 2002. The Sichuan College of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science (now incorporated into Southwest University) carried out a research project on beef cattle improvement in Baoluan Town, and Feixiandong Village was chosen as a pilot area. The project introduced eight good breeds of cattle to hybridize with local cattle.
Sensing opportunity, Zhang Shengyu, who was working in another province, returned home and took out loans to purchase three oxen. In the early stage of the project, the local government provided loans to develop beef cattle breeding, and granted farmers money to raise cattle. The policy benefited numerous farmers and they began to raise cattle in earnest.
In 2011, Zhang Shengyu established Fengdu County Yantangwan Beef Cattle Breeding Cooperative, which attracted participation from 22 households. The cooperative uniformly supplies feed and sells finished products, and now it reaps net income of more than 2 million yuan (US$300,000). After over 10 years of development, the annual earnings of the beef cattle farm operated by Zhang Shengyu have exceeded 400,000 yuan (US$58,000).
Villager Zeng Baochang’s family was poor only a few years ago. After starting cattle raising, his family climbed out of poverty by the end of 2016. Now he earns more than 100,000 yuan (US$14,523) a year.
Microfinance loans to raise cattle helped lift another three impoverished families out of poverty over the past two years. Of the 446 households living in Feixiandong Village, 60-plus households raise at least three heads of cattle, and the largest cattle rancher raises more than 200 heads of cattle. Only one cattle rancher failed to escape poverty, due to illness.
A road to prosperity was paved, but problems arose. If an ox defecates 25 to 30 kilograms per day, Fengdu County produces tens of thousands of tons of cow dung every day, which will cause serious pollution without timely treatment. The years spanning 2007-2010 saw rapid development of beef cattle ranching. Because only a small part of cow dung is useful as fertilizer, the remaining dung backed up sewage and attracted mosquitoes. Eventually, the village was covered with flies.
To address the environmental problems, Fengzeyuan Organic Fertilizer Factory was established in 2016. This factory can handle agricultural waste such as cow dung, mushroom residue and Chinese medicine residue, and can complete the fermentation treatment of cow dung and urine in 24 hours. Organic fertilizer processing can be completed in five or six days. The factory can produce up to 50,000 tons of organic fertilizer annually, but is still far from reaching capacity.
Large-scale cattle ranchers transport the dung to the organic fertilizer factory, which has also become a new source of income for them. In the past, the cow dung was worthless, but it now fetches 90 yuan (US$13.1) per ton. A new occupation of broker also emerged to facilitate the purchase and transportation of cow dung, making the overall industrial chain more complete.
In Feixiandong Village, biogas digesters are also used to treat feces. Biogas digesters in use there can treat 27.5 tons of feces per day, and the biogas produced is used by villagers for cooking and heating. The fermented material after treatment can also be used as organic fertilizer. After the agricultural waste is made harmless and converted into resources, feces and waste water produced by cattle can be completely transformed into fertilizer, which fundamentally solved the pollution problem. The cattle ranching industry has become a sustainable road to prosperity.
In addition to raising chickens and cattle and planting hot-selling agricultural products, Fengdu has also converted large areas of farmland back to forest and developed tourism with the pleasant environment. In November 2017, Fengdu was successfully removed from the list of the national-level poverty-stricken counties. With guidance and help from local governments, Fengdu is well on its way to prosperity through diligence, hard work and innovation.