Fruit farmer Zhou Rensheng (left) and his son-in-law Zeng Bingyan pick tangelos at an orchard in a mountainous area of Junmenling township, Huichang county, in East China's Jiangxi province. Photos By Yuan Qingpan / China Daily
The cultivation of hybrid citrus fruits, such as tangelos, has helped to boost local incomes and raised living standards. Sun Xiaochen reports from Huichang, Jiangxi province.
Editor's note: This is the last in a series of special reports in which China Daily has focused on the government's efforts to eradicate poverty and raise living standards in the country's rural areas, especially among members of the nation's ethnic groups.
Located in the rugged, mountainous terrain of southern Jiangxi province in East China, Huichang county was once famous for its rich, verdant landscape, which was immortalized in a poem written by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1934 when the Red Army was based in the area.
More than eight decades later, the last remaining traces of the revolution are decaying, but the county has rejuvenated itself through a burgeoning business cultivating "golden" crops.
Boasting a mild, subtropical climate and relatively acidic soil, Huichang, which has a population of 520,000, mostly members of the Hakka ethnic group, has developed more than 16,000 hectares of hillside citrus orchards, mainly navel oranges and tangelos. These fruits, the county's major cash crops, have allowed many residents to escape the poverty trap.
Zhonggui village in Zhoutian, one of 19 rural townships in Huichang, lies at the heart of a 10,000 mu (approximately 666 hectares) farm where the locals grow tangelos, a hybrid of tangerine and pomelo or grapefruit that the Hakka people first crossbred in the early 1990s.
Overlooking the once-barren mountains that surround the village, the sight of numerous trees laden with clusters of ripe fruits earlier this month heralded a good harvest. The bustling scenes of farmers stacking empty boxes between rows of trees, and pickup trucks roaring along the muddy road midway up the hill also signified a busy fruit-picking season.
In the 1990s, the mountain village, which is home to 2,780 people, was impoverished as a result of a poor transport infrastructure that left roads impassable, outflows of labor and a lack of commercial crops. Almost half of the families lived below the poverty line, sustained only by the rice they grew on the limited amount of land available for grains.
"The citrus fruit business is significant because it has saved the village from poverty. Without these golden fruits, I can't imagine how miserable life could have become for the local people, who had no sources of income back then," said Wen Fanghua, deputy director of the Huichang Fruit Industry Administration.
The shift to fruit cultivation happened after an experiment in a small orchard at the house of Rao Mingrong, a local farmer, in the late 1990s. Along with a few other villagers, Rao tried grafting grapefruit branches onto a couple of tangerine trees in his yard. To his delight, the crossbreeds bore a surprising fruit far sooner than he had expected.
"One day, I discovered that some hybrid fruits on a couple of grafted trees seemed special. They were not like tangerines or oranges in shape, but their bright yellow skins looked nice and they tasted delicious," he said.
Based on the first few high-quality hybrids and with help from village cadres and agronomists from Huazhong Agriculture University, Rao mastered grafting techniques and learned how to fertilize the trees and adjust the level of acidity in the soil.
He is now the biggest grower of tangelos in Huichang, and since 2011, he has inspired 386 impoverished households in the county to plant the fruit.
Ma Yuncai is one of the people Rao helped. The 58-year-old began cultivating the fruit in 2013 as a way of repaying heavy debts incurred by expensive medical treatments for his son, who is partially paralyzed by severe spondylitis.
"All the money the family had made and saved by planting rice was consumed by the medical bills. My life really was without hope," said Ma, whose skinny frame makes him look much older than his age.
In 2013, Ma's plight was noticed by the local government's poverty-alleviation campaigners, who offered him a one-time subsidy of 300 yuan ($43) per mu to buy pesticides and fertilizers.
An employee of Huichang Xinfeng Fruit Industry Co pours oranges onto a conveyor belt.
Now nursing more than 260 grafted tangelo trees, Ma expects to earn 110,000 yuan this season, and he is relieved that his luck has finally turned. "Even if it remains extremely hard to labor in the orchard at my age, I don't feel the effects of the toil because I can see hope once again," he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Thanks to the government's push and with technical guidance from Rao, the fruit-planters in Zhonggui have expanded the area covered by tangelo orchards to 300 hectares. With a further 200 hectares devoted to navel oranges, fruit cultivation has contributed more than 64 million yuan to the village since 2014, generating an average net gain of 10,000 yuan for each resident.
About 400 villagers who lived below the national poverty line have shed their impoverished status after boosting their earnings considerably through the cultivation and sale of citrus fruits.
Last year, the poverty line for rural residents was 2,800 yuan per person, according to the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, which adjusts the standard every year.
Since farmers from surrounding townships such as Junmenling and Gaopai joined the Huichang collective, the total area devoted to the cultivation of tangelos has surpassed 2,600 hectares, and the farmers plan to expand the area to more than 6,600 hectares by 2020.
By the same year, poverty should have been eradicated for the 12,000 households that plant tangelos in Huichang, even though about one in 10 is below the poverty line at the moment, said Wen, from the county fruit industry administration.
The ongoing development of the industry has also created jobs in related sectors, such as fruit processing, maintenance of agriculture equipment and transportation.
At the premises of Huichang Xinfeng Fruit Industry Co, which employs about 200 people on a seasonal basis, workers were busy cleaning fruits and sorting them by size and weight before packing them into boxes.
The workers earn about 160 yuan a day, and the two-month work period between the harvest and distribution will bring them at least 10,000 yuan each, just in time for Spring Festival, China's most important holiday, according to Wu Xiaofeng, the factory's general manager.
"The employees are mainly local people who used to work away from home in the coastal provinces, leaving their parents and children uncared for back at home," he said. "Now they can work at home for at least a couple of months and earn some decent money."
There are at least 10 similar fruit processing and packing factories in operation in the county, providing more than 40,000 jobs.
The growers' quest for a better life echoes the county's name - Huichang translates literally as "to prosper" - and the provincial administration's ambitions to eradicate poverty.
Liu Qi, the governor of Jiangxi, has pledged that poverty alleviation will be at the top of his agenda during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20).
He said Jiangxi's poverty-relief measures should be dictated by the market, and residents should be encouraged to establish cooperatives and family businesses.
Liu urged financial institutions to provide greater support for the poverty-alleviation measures by offering insurance services and low-interest loans to help farmers start their own businesses.
The provincial government will provide extra funds to improve the rural infrastructure, including the construction of highways, a power grid, irrigation plants and even access to the internet, to provide better living conditions.
Last year, almost 2 million people in Jiangxi lived below the official poverty line, most of them in rural areas, according to the provincial office for poverty alleviation.
Liu predicted that as Huichang sees the emergence of more businesses tailor-made for regional conditions, such as fruit planting, about 2 million people will be lifted out of poverty by 2018.