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Turning Barren Lands into Fertile Farms

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For 66-year-old farmer Qi Junqing, selling crops was a new experience.

"I've never dreamed of selling extra crops in my life. Here, poor harvests and starvation were the norm," said Qi, who lives in Dingxi, an agricultural city in west China's Gansu province.

But last year, Qi started marketing his agricultural produce and sold five tons of crops. Even after this year's severe drought, Qi still managed to sell two tons of corn.

The idea of selling crops would have been dismissed as a fantasy some years ago in Dingxi, which used to rank as one of China's poorest regions, and was labeled as "unsuitable for human existence" by visiting UN experts in 1986.

Dingxi, like many other areas in China's barren west, has difficult climate conditions for agricultural production. To grow well in Dingxi, a crop must be tough enough to endure perennial cold, survive meager rainfall and withstand the occasional hailstorm.

Crops like wheat, traditionally cultivated by farmers in Dingxi, apparently failed the tests. Indeed, the city constantly captured media attention over its grinding poverty and persistent famines.

"In some years, the wheat fields didn't produce a thing and we had to raid the mountains for food and firewood," a local villager, Wang Yaonan, said, recalling the hard times.

Yet years of starvation and poverty galvanized the local residents to search for new crops that could acclimatize to local conditions.

In 1995, a deadly drought killed almost all the crops in the fields. But potatoes, or "foreign yams" as residents called them, survived the calamity.

After local officials discovered a drought- and cold-resistant quality in these tiny tubers, a campaign was launched in 1996 to popularize the cultivation of potatoes.

"In Dingxi, the scanty rainfalls concentrate in early autumn, which is enough to guarantee a good harvest of potatoes," said Wang Yihang, a leading potato expert in the province.

With an annual output of 5 million tons, Dingxi now grows more potatoes than any other city in China. One-third of the city's arable lands are devoted to potatoes.

Also, local officials credit potatoes with helping to solve the food problem just as the new millennium began. And as the city grew richer, incomes widened thanks to the potatoes

"Potato-processing has become our pillar industry. Over 20 local plants process the extra potatoes into starch and popular snacks," said Yang Zixing, party secretary of Dingxi. According to Yang, the factories are now the source for one-quarter of farmer incomes.

But local officials say the edible tubers are not the only driving force behind the rise of Dingxi, as the city has also succeeded in cultivating other economic crops.

Longxi, a mountainous county of Dingxi, has become a national base for Chinese angelica, astragalus, and other medicinal herbs whose roots are used as popular tonics in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Like potatoes, the edible parts of the herbs are buried underground and can therefore survive droughts and catastrophic hailstorms, local officials explained.

In recent years, a new technology has also allowed local farmers to grow corn, which would normally have withered away on Dingxi's barren lands.

After the autumn rain replenishes the soil with water, corn farmers cover the entire field with plastic membranes to prevent evaporation, storing enough water to grow corn.

With the help of the membranes, one hectare of corn field can yield 7.5-15 tons of corn and at leaast 45 tons of straw for animal feed every year, said Yang Qifeng, vice head of the provincial department of agriculture and animal husbandry.

The evolution of Dingxi from a land of famine to agricultural exporter shows the untapped agricultural potential of China's vast but impoverished west.

According to official statistics, western China is home to the majority of the 36 million people who live below the national poverty line. Poor agricultural conditions and the resultant food deficiency are the main causes for the economic destitution and backwardness across the region.

As was the case in Dingxi, experts say potatoes and corn cultivation could play a major role in relieving poverty in the rest of west China.

Various provinces and autonomous regions including Shaanxi, Qinghai, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia, are now promoting potato cultivation. Some cities are even competing with Dingxi for becoming China's potato production base.

New corn technology has also seen a quick expansion in China's arid west. In Gansu province alone, it produced bumper harvests across 700,000 hectares of corn fields even during years of drought, said Yang.

Even now, officials and experts in west China are experimenting with new species and technologies that can turn barren lands into productive farms.To them, the key to success lies in overcoming the old mentality of growing merely what the locals eat and in shifting attention to what suits local conditions.

Qi Junqing says he still prefers wheat as a staple, though nearly three-quarters of his 1.3-hectare farms is used to cultivate corn.

"In the past, we grew wheat, but the flour supply was never enough; now we grow corn but we can buy plenty of flour," said Qi.

(Xinhua News Agency October 13, 2010)

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