Potatoes help villagers harvest a better life

China Daily, April 09, 2021
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On a trip to the Inner Mongolia autonomous region in 2015, Liu Chang'an had an idea. The region is famed for its potatoes and ever since Liu has helped to modernize the sector.

In May of that year, Liu went with a group of Beijing officials who had temporary positions in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

They were undertaking field investigations for potential investment in the region. No small undertaking as it is 400 kilometers northwest from the capital.

They arrived in Ulaanqab, a city located in the center of the landlocked region.

Looking at the hills beyond the prairie they could see low-density peaks covered with yellow soil. These were, in actual fact, wheat fields that have ripened and waiting to be harvested.

Rainfall is a rare occurrence in this arid landscape. The city's annual precipitation is between 150 to 450 millimeters.

Meng Duo, Party chief of Wang'ai village in northeast Ulaanqab, has been living in the region his whole life. "Here, villagers used to cultivate land and raise cattle and sheep," Meng said.

The large number of potatoes that local farmers planted, and harvested didn't bring much financial benefit.

However, conditions for agriculture in Ulaanqab are not entirely unfavorable. Vegetable and fruit may only be planted one season per year in the area but long hours of sunshine and daily temperature swings can result in high-quality products. In such conditions, potatoes thrive.

Hu Guozhu, a 48-year-old farmer in Wang'ai village, once found it difficult to discuss potatoes without complaining.

"The price of potatoes was like a roller coaster. Even if it was a bumper year and we got a plentiful harvest, we weren't able to make us make any money," he said.

"The huge profit margins from selling those potatoes were obtained by vegetable vendors, not the local farmers," said Meng, the Party secretary. "Farmers did not benefit financially. Even if they planted potatoes of high quality, they didn't gain much in return."

Rising output

After understanding the status quo, Liu mulled over the matter and decided to invest 500 million yuan ($76.8 million) in the city for the future development of the potato-processing industry.

A year later in April, the construction of a potato-processing factory began in the Qahar Right Wing Front Banner, a county to the south of Ulaanqab.

"For six months, we ate, slept and worked day and night at the construction site," said Liu. "Most of our team members' families are in Beijing, but they rarely returned home," he said, adding that the construction had to be done before the snow season started in October.

A modernized agricultural factory had been built by the end of 2016 in the Qahar Right Wing Front Banner. Once the factory was up and running, it reached an annual output of 70,000 metric tons and the value of the processed potatoes reached at least 640 million yuan.

In 2018, Hu, the farmer, signed orders with the company that Liu owned, and received technical guidance. He sold potatoes at 1.5 yuan per kilogram to the enterprise.

"With the order from the company in hand, I've been assured that there will be a bumper year ahead," he said.

In less than a year, the company had established cooperation with more than 80 local farming cooperatives, and the potato-planting area had covered more than 32,000 hectares.

Liu, 53, who founded the Kaida Hengye Agricultural Technology Co, a high-tech enterprise headquartered in Beijing in 2000, has seen his bounty springing from the unlikeliest of settings. In Ulaanqab, he, with his team, helped 137 households escape poverty and employed more than 100 local villagers.

"We purchased the potatoes that local farmers planted in a relatively high protected price, to ensure that local farmers and impoverished households gain continuously increasing revenues every year," said Liu. "We did our best to make local farmers realize that agriculture can be enjoyable and profitable."