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Goldthread, chili peppers and honey breathe new life into Chongqing’s Shizhu county by Zhao Binyu,June 19, 2020 Adjust font size:

Shizhu Tujia autonomous county residents have been improving their lives and leaving poverty behind in recent years by pursuing the goldthread, chili pepper, and honey industries. They have been determined to become more prosperous by implementing modern, highly-efficient forms of agriculture that harness local advantages in its mountainous areas. The undertakings have made it possible for impoverished people to emerge from poverty.

Building momentum with the goldthread industry

Located in the depths of the Wuling mountain range, Shizhu of southwest China’s Chongqing municipality contains large peaks, deep ravines and fragmented open land. Local farmers grew potatoes, corn, and sweet potatoes in the past, but the proceeds that they generated were barely enough to sustain themselves.

But since the county began its poverty alleviation campaign, the Shizhu residents have gained a renewed appreciation of its mountains. The quality natural environment in the region features lush alpine vegetation and is home to some of the herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), such as goldthread. Cultivation of these kinds of plants has been vigorously promoted in recent years, and the endeavor became one of the county’s pillar industries in 2017.

Jianfeng villagers in Shizhu’s Zhongyi township were busily working in nearly seven ha of robust goldthread fields in a narrow ravine during the Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day holidays in April.


Fields of goldthread and other herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine in Zhongyi township, Shizhu Tujia autonomous county, Chongqing in April. (Xinhua/Liu Chan)

Liu Guangping was weeding the area and mentioned that it usually takes five years before goldthread plants are ready to harvest. He noted that they are much more labor intensive to cultivate than most plants that are grown for agricultural purposes. Liu explained that coverings need to be built for goldthreads because they cannot withstand direct sunlight, frequent weeding is required, and that the rhizomes need to be dried after they are dug out of the ground. “Goldthreads yield much higher profit than many other kinds of plants though,” he stated. “My family earns nearly 30,000 yuan (US$4,203) a year growing the crop on one third of a hectare of land.”

Goldthread plants are currently being cultivated on nearly 3,800 ha of land in Shizhu, and the county’s harvest yielded 365 million yuan (US$51.14 million) of output value in 2019. Shizhu is responsible for 60 percent of China’s entire goldthread crop and 40 percent of the world’s. A total of 1,050 households that used to be impoverished in the county have increased their annual incomes to an average of more than 30,000 yuan (US$4,203) by participating in the industry.

“Supply and demand for goldthread has reached equilibrium in recent years,” Shizhu Tujia Autonomous County Magistrate Zuo Jun explained. “In response to the situation, we’re making efforts to diversify our herb cultivation endeavors and extend the industry chain.”

The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has supported cooperative efforts between Shizhu and various research institutions to develop TCM treatments for Helicobacter pylori and to make various kinds of goldthread tea and other drinks. Additional herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine, such as Rhizoma polygonati, Gastrodia elata, and roots of various Peucedanum species, have also been planted in the area in recent years. A 20,000-ha cultivation base and processing cluster is also taking shape over the next five years that will have about 1 billion yuan (US$140.5 million) of annual output value.


Members of Shizhu’s Sanhong Chili Pepper Cooperative shovel the crop and perform other duties on April 7. (Xinhua/Liu Chan)

Shizhu’s peppers popular across China

One immediately notices the dried chili peppers that are piled up on the floor when entering the Sanhong Chili Pepper Cooperative factory in Baishu village, Xialu community. Staff stand along an automated conveyor belt that sorts the peppers and package them. A spicy, pungent fragrance lingers in the air up to five meters away.

“This is one of our local varieties of chili peppers,” Sanhong Chili Pepper Cooperative Director Tan Jianlan mentioned while gesturing at the piles of peppers. “It is an indispensable part of hot pot and spicy duck neck. We sell thousands of tonnes of it to customers all over China every year. These chilies are treasures that help farmers get out of poverty.”

Shizhu’s farmers have grown chili peppers for a long time but were not known for doing so until they began industrializing the process in the year 2000. “Being successful in the chili industry requires stamina,” Tan Jianlan said. She recognized the crop’s potential 10 years ago when she noticed the huge demand that exists for it as an ingredient in hot pot and in other aspects of the food industry. Tan established a cooperative with some other farmers in the area, and they began growing the plant on 1,000 ha’s worth of land. The team achieved good output, but prices dropped dramatically in 2008. Tan decided to guarantee a minimum level of income for the cooperative’s members. The situation overwhelmed the organization, however, because it did not possess cold storage facilities or have sufficient processing capacity. Hundreds of tonnes of peppers went to waste, and more than 600,000 yuan (US$84,060) was lost.


Sanhong Chili Pepper Cooperative Director Tan Jianlan examines dried chilies at a storage and processing facility on April 7. (Xinhua/Liu Chan)

Tan had cold storage facilities constructed and installed after what her cooperative experienced. She also expanded its processing capacity and began cooperating with research institutes in order to develop new cultivars. In 2019, the cooperative’s chili growing area expanded to about 1333 ha, which yielded 120 million yuan (US$16.81 million) of annual output value.

Tan created poverty alleviation files for every impoverished household that joined the cooperative. They receive dividends and a guaranteed income package in addition to their wages. A single hectare’s worth of chili peppers yields 60,000 to 75,000 yuan (US$8,430 to US$10,538) of profit, which made it possible for all of the 840 formerly impoverished households that are involved with the cooperative to escape poverty in 2019.

“Chilies are currently being grown on 20,000 ha of land in Shizhu and yield 1.5 billion yuan (US$210.15 million) of annual output value,” Zuo explained. The magistrate also noted that large-scale cultivation of crisp plums, water shields, and other fruits and vegetables is under way, and that these kinds of undertakings have become an important pillar of the county’s agriculture industry.


Zhongyi township’s Huaxi village resident Tan Dengzhou examines his Chinese bee colonies on April 8. (Xinhua/Liu Chan)

Honey bees make life sweeter

Up to 71.3 percent of Shizhu is forested, which results in a sea of flowers emerging every spring and summer. Many of the county’s farmers keep bees for this reason.



Hives of Chinese bees placed on a hillside in Zhongyi township. (Xinhua/Liu Chan)

Shizhu’s residents have been maintaining the momentum that they have created. The county’s agronomists have engaged in large-scale cultivation of herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine over the past two years. The plants attract bees and leading processing enterprises are helping impoverished people increase their incomes.

“The honey factory in Shizhu sent me five barrels of bees for free at the beginning of the year,” Tan Dengzhou, a Huaxi villager in Zhongyi township, mentioned recently while bees buzzed around the pear, rapeseed, and Sophora flowers that grow on the trees and plants behind his home. Tan is currently 63 years old and returned to poverty just after he escaped from it as a result of a fall that he experienced in 2018. Huaxi helped Tan participate in apiculture, which is not a very labor intensive undertaking, in order to help him increase his income. “The guidance I receive from experienced professionals and the minimum purchase agreements that I have signed make it possible for me to increase my income by several thousand yuan (up to US$1,000) a year,” he explained.

Shizhu has also created a special town based on local Chinese bee culture that integrates agriculture and tourism in order to diversify and expand its economy. More households in the area can benefit by participating.


Laborers landscape a residential area in Jinxigou village, Zhongyi township, Shizhu on April 8. The agritainment industry is currently developing in the region. (Xinhua/Liu Chan)

Eight catering enterprises that are part of the Chongqing Food and Beverage Association have helped impoverished households establish and manage homestay businesses and other agritainment endeavors. The first guests arrived in mid-April of this year.

“We plan to keep a total of 300,000 bee colonies and develop a bee-themed brand that combines beekeeping and tourism,” Shizhu Party Secretary Jian Zexi stated. He also mentioned that local officials and members of the public are working hard to maintain the momentum that they have established in the industries that they have pursued in order to eradicate poverty and create a better future. 

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