Harvesting Happiness
An academician helps a remote county rise out of poverty with technology
By Ji Jing  ·  2020-01-06  ·   Source: NO.2 JANUARY 9, 2020
Zhu Youyong displays a potato at a promotional event in Lancang, Yunnan Province in southwest China, in April 2018 (XINHUA)

On the sides of a road in Haozhiba, a village in the southwestern province of Yunnan, bougainvilleas are in full bloom. The inconspicuous flowers are flanked by bright red modified leaves called bracts, which look like rosy clouds from afar.

The plant species was introduced into the village by Zhu Youyong, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) and former President of Yunnan Agricultural University.

Since coming to the village on a poverty-alleviation mission five years ago, Zhu has introduced a variety of plants into the village, including pseudo-ginseng and potatoes.

The primary residents of Lancang, the county where the village is located, are the Lahus, an ethnic community who have lived in towering mountains for generations. They planted corn and millet to make a living, picking mushrooms and wild herbs to supplement their food. In 2013, the average annual per-capita income of the county was only 1,000 yuan ($143).

The plants Zhu introduced and other projects he initiated have helped the village to step out of poverty. Zhu said after his retirement, he would like to write a novel about the changes there and he would like to name his book When Haozhiba's Flowers Turn Red after the bougainvillea.

A watershed visit

In 2015, CAE members like Zhu and other experts were assigned to Lancang to help the locals improve their skills and income and help the government's poverty alleviation work.

At first, Zhu didn't want to go. "It's easier to guide doctoral students to write their theses than lifting a place out of poverty," he thought.

Also, he was already 60, an age which for many in China means retirement.

The first time he went to the village, he was shocked by the abject poverty he saw. For many families, their worldly possessions were no more than a shanty with cracked walls through which the wind whistled, a few bags of corn and some chickens. There was little education, no amenities and no money.

That first memorable visit made him decide to stay on.

Zhu's first task was to select the best crop to grow in Lancang. He decided to grow potatoes in winter since there is little rain and no frost in the county in that season, making it an ideal place to grow spuds. However, it was not easy to persuade local farmers. Previously, Yunnan was not a major potato producer. The older generations ate potato coming from north China and couldn't imagine the vegetable could be grown in their village.

Two years earlier, others from the CAE and village officials had talked with the villagers multiple times, trying to persuade them. But farmers like Liu Jinbao still stuck to growing rapeseed.

One reason for the obduracy was that the farmers were too poor to be able to withstand crop failures. If they experimented with a new crop and it failed or could not be sold, they would become penniless.

However, Liu finally agreed to try out potatoes but just on one fifth of his land. As luck would have it, that small plot yielded the largest potato in the village, weighing 2.5 kg. His potatoes fetched Liu over 10,000 yuan ($1,434), almost two years' income for the locals.

An overjoyed and convinced Liu grew potato on his entire land in 2018.

Zhu displayed a giant potato weighing 2 kg to the media in Beijing in 2018, and the village's potato-growing story hit the headlines.

Today, potatoes from Lancang are among the first to arrive in the market in spring. "Most of the potatoes in Beijing during this season come from Yunnan," Zhu told the media in 2018.

The gift of technology

Zhu's first attempt at poverty alleviation proved a success. However, he wanted to do more, apply his most recent research to serve the farmers better.

Born into a rural family in Yunnan, Zhu had studied plant pathology, the science of diagnosing and managing plant diseases. He had researched on disease control in rice and pseudo-ginseng, a popular ginger-like herb good for improving blood circulation.

In 2000, he published a paper in the British science journal Nature on his findings. He had found that if disease-susceptible rice varieties were planted together with resistant varieties, they had less than 5 percent chance of catching diseases. The inter-planting could reduce the use of pesticides by 60 percent.

The finding also applied to pseudo-ginseng. If pseudo-ginseng was grown under Khasi pines, the compound produced by the pine needles could prevent diseases in the Chinese herb.

Zhu found there were large tracts of Khasi pine forests in Lancang, which were ideal for growing pseudo-ginseng.

With an increased market demand for the traditional Chinese herb, it was being mass planted but the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides exhausted the soil and also affected the quality of the crop.

Zhu's team collaborated with a local biological pharmaceutical company to grow pseudo-ginseng under Khasi pine trees in a village in Lancang.

In October 2019, the first batch of pseudo-ginseng was ready for sale. An auction was held and Zhu had to step in and call a stop when the bid reached 525 yuan ($75) per kg, much higher than the market price. He explained that the price was already very high. If it rose further, ordinary people would not be able to afford the herb, which would defeat his purpose.

Zhu is also offering his patent for growing pseudo-ginseng to enterprises and individual farmers for free. The only condition is that the enterprises that use his patent should give 15 percent of their profits to local farmers.

Cultivation of pseudo-ginseng has opened up new opportunities for Lancang's development. There are over 300 square km of Khasi pine forests in the county, over 80 percent of which is suitable for growing pseudo-ginseng. It will be a huge industry if fully developed.

From 2017, Zhu began holding classes for farmers, teaching them how to grow potatoes, other vegetables and pseudo-ginseng for a better yield, and has trained over 1,500 local farmers. To help the farmers expand their sales channel, he struck up cooperation with e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, which trained them in doing e-commerce.

Chen Qiyong was among the first villagers to register for the e-commerce classes. "Previously, I sold my products just to wholesalers and my profit was slender," Chen said. "The e-commerce class, which opened near my home, has greatly improved my understanding and knowhow of the business model."

In addition to developing distinctive industries like potato and pseudo-ginseng, Zhu is also helping the farmers develop rural tourism. Six family inns and two breakfast places have come up in a village, which was unimaginable before.

The Chinese Government's plan is to lift all the remaining impoverished rural residents out of poverty by 2020. Lancang, Zhu said with quiet confidence, will probably realize the goal ahead of schedule.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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