Potatoes pull people out of poverty in Gansu

Potatoes pull people out of poverty in Gansu
May 31, 2015

Potato cultivation and Potato Processing is making a key difference for people in the Anding District of Dingxi, northwest China's Gansu Province.

The potato is a major source of income for local residents. More than 55 percent of Anding District's 119,000 hectares of arable land is used to grow potatoes, which contribute 40 to 60 percent of the district's total annual income, according to Zhang Hongji, an official from the general office of the Anding District government.

Unsuitable for human habitation

Owing to its dry weather and infertile land, Dingxi has often struggled with poverty. Historical records show that in 1876, Zuo Zongtang, a court official of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), wrote to the emperor saying that the area was the poorest in the country. In 1982, the Food and Agricultural Organization rated Dingxi as unsuitable for human habitation. Now, Anding District (formerly known as Dingxi County) is still listed among the national-level 592 key poverty-stricken counties to be aided.

Local farmers have discovered that one way to get out of poverty is to switch to potato cultivation. The hardy crop's ability to survive cold weather, droughts and barren environments makes it perfect for the region, and high yields can be obtained. Now, Anding is one of the biggest potato producing areas in China.

A better Life

Anding District has developed a complete chain of potato plantation and processing. The humble spud has successfully lifted many local residents out of poverty.

In 2011, 41.3 percent of the district's 371,000 rural residents lived under the government poverty line of annual per-capita net income of 2,300 yuan ($371). Whereas by 2014, the poverty rate had dropped to 22.9 percent, and rural residents' annual per-capita net income reached 4,620 yuan ($745), according to data provided by the district government.

"In 2014, potatoes contributed an average of 2,100 yuan ($339) to the per capita net annual income of local residents," said Jia Junfeng, an official with Anding District's commerce department.

Last year, potato export revenue for the district reached $33 million, Jia said. Dingxi's potato and potato products have been sold across China and to countries such as the United States, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan.

Virus-free mini-tubers

In the district, greenhouses producing virus-free potato mini-tubers can be seen everywhere.

"The district has approximately 1,000 greenhouses to grow virus-free potato mini-tubers," said Hu Hanmin, the deputy head of the district's seed management station who has more than 20 years of experience in potato seed cultivation.

When planted in soil, potatoes are vulnerable to infection from viruses. Infection weakens the potato plants' photosynthetic ability, reducing the yield and negatively affecting potatoes' taste, Hu said.

Currently, because of poor seed quality, China's per-hectare potato yield is around 14,400 kg, whereas using virus-free potato seeds, per hectare yield can increase fourfold, according to experts.

Hu said that they have constantly improved the quality of virus-free potato seeds. Currently, the per-hectare potato yield in the district has increased to 45,000 kg.

Potato Processing

After farmers harvest potatoes grown from virus-free potato seeds, they keep some for food and seeds and sell the rest into market.

One third of Dingxi's potatoes are kept by farmers, one third are sold to market for fresh consumption and the remaining one third are processed into potato products such as modified starch, Hu said.

Gansu Jupeng Food Co. Ltd., founded in 1999, is a company that produces potatoes and processes fresh tubers into products such as chips. It also researches and develops new varieties of potatoes and potato products. The company covers an area of 36,000 square meters and hires 160 employees, including 12 executives and 26 technicians.

Inside the company's gigantic processing workshops, potatoes are transported on conveyor belts. Whole potatoes are first tossed and rinsed in water by machinery, and then peeled and shredded to produce chips and other products for fast food chains such as McDonald's.

In 2014, the company registered total sales of more than 90 million yuan ($14.5 million). It exported 12,000 tons of potatoes and potato products to countries such as the United States, the EU countries, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Amman, bringing in total export revenue exceeding $10 million.

While Jupeng mainly processes fresh potatoes, Gansu GLDARK Potato Modified Starch Co. Ltd. processes potato starch into modified starch and environment friendly products such as food additives, biomass paint, decomposable plastics and organic fertilizers.

The company, established in 2007, now occupies an area of 43,000 square meters, and employs 264 persons including 99 technicians holding undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. It has a modified starch research and development center and owns two patents.

The company is a leader in China's modified starch industry. In 2014, it realized total sales revenue of 500 million yuan ($80.6 million), said Dr. Tian Yingliang, the company's chairman of the Board of Directors.

The company's products have been exported to Canada, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan, and it aspires to further expand production and product lines, he said.

These potato processing companies have not only created jobs for local residents, but also benefited them by purchasing raw materials from them, which has boosted their income.

The future looks bright

A brighter future is in sight, with the beginning of the second phase of the project to divert water from Taohe River to central Gansu, which will provide water for agricultural production. Additionally, the government is encouraging the consumption of potatoes as a staple food, which is expected to further spur potato production. After their cash crop is labeled a staple food, potato growers will enjoy even more policy incentives.

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