Workers make sweet potato vermicelli in Zhangcun Township, Henan Province, on December 16, 2016 (QIN BIN)
Steam rises into the air from water boiling in big cauldrons; wood-fueled fires blaze furiously in clay-made stoves below the cauldrons; several men knead dough made of sweet potato starch, draw it out into elongated strands and toss them into the boiling water to make vermicelli. Such was the scene as a sweet potato vermicelli festival warmed up Peizhai Community in Zhangcun Township, central China's Henan Province, on December 16, 2016. People came from near and far to gather in the midst of winter around the hot water vapor, admiring the production of a local specialty famous nationwide.
A resident in Peizhai Community harvests tomatoes (QIN BIN)
A solution for all
In just five years, Peizhai has emerged from poverty into a fast-developing mountain village renowned across China. Pei Chunliang, Secretary of the Peizhai Community General Branch of the Communist Party of China, is the man behind the transformation.
Pei, a former farming entrepreneur, returned to Peizhai after making a fortune and subsequently invested more than 169 million yuan ($24.39 million) in the construction of real estate and other infrastructure. With his help, villagers have been able to shake off poverty and achieve prosperity. The transformation in Peizhai has inspired neighboring villages who are also eager to climb above poverty.
Wang Dongmei , Party Chief of Zhangcun Township, understands the difficulties of poverty relief in small villages; young people usually leave to work in big cities, and the older generations left behind—even though some have bags of experience—feel powerless to bring about change due to a lack of funds.
The Zhangcun Township Party Committee hopes more hometown-loving people who become wealthy and capable, like Pei, will lend a hand in village development and lead the way to a better life.
Zhangcun Township's arable land is particularly suitable for growing good quality sweet potatoes. In a tradition dating back to antiquity, local people handmake sweet potato vermicelli. But the custom has always remained at the micro-enterprise scale—carried out by hand in small, independent family workshops—and has never grown into an organized industry. The absence of sales channels also hindered marketing the special local product on a larger scale.
For a while now, the question haunting the township's leaders has been, how can ordinary sweet potato be turned into tangible economic benefit? "People matter most," said Wang. The development of the local sweet potato economy requires a person who can lead the way.
Local customs and traditions still play an important role in village life (QIN BIN)
A way forward
Wang Xiaoyi , from Dawangzhuang Village, also in Zhangcun Township, is the kind of person the leaders have in mind. Wang struggled for many years to become a successful entrepreneur, and by the age of 40 had accumulated nine factories producing building materials.
As China is undergoing adjustment of its economic structure, Wang decided to expand his business scope by taking full advantage of his hometown's specialty, sweet potatoes.
The Zhangcun Township Party Committee strongly supported Wang, who is also a Party member, in the hope that the kindhearted businessman could motivate his fellow villagers and guide them toward prosperity.
Wang accepted the invitation from the township Party committee and was elected deputy Party chief of the Dawangzhuang Village.
To develop the local sweet potato industry, he established specialized cooperatives which guaranteed the purchase of farmers' produce at reasonable prices so that they need not worry about post-harvest sales.
When this "cooperatives plus farmers" model was first introduced, local villagers had doubts. But, Wang convinced them with production figures based on real experience: a single field of 1 mu—China's basic unit of agricultural land area, equal to one 15th of a hectare—can grow 2,500 kg of sweet potatoes annually, which can be made into 450 kg of vermicelli. Assuming 0.5 kg of vermicelli sold for 10 yuan ($1.44), local farmers could generate annual revenue of 9,000 yuan ($1,298) per mu.
Wang also energetically explored sales channels and found even the formerly wasted sweet potato stems had value—as exports to South Korea, where people eat them as a kind of pickle. Totaling up the numbers, Wang showed that barring exceptional events such as natural disasters, each mu devoted to sweet potato cultivation could net farmers as much as 11,000 yuan ($1,588).
In 2015, the cooperatives purchased 25,000 kg of vermicelli from local farmers that previously would have gone to waste due to lack of buyers, and sold it at high prices on online retail platforms like Taobao. This demonstrated the scheme's distinctive strength, thus farmers gradually accepted the new business model.
"Currently, 309 poor farming households have signed deals with the cooperatives," said Wang, adding that the area under cultivation reached 667 hectares in 2016. "The momentum demonstrates that farmers can get out of poverty by planting sweet potatoes this way. There's no doubt."
The sweet potato vermicelli festival is another way of promoting Zhangcun Township's specialty to a wider audience. Wang said on the day of the festival alone, deals involving some 25,000 kg of vermicelli were signed, so the promotion strategy clearly worked.
The merit of large-scale production is plain to see. But will the exclusive focus on sweet potato, perhaps an example of putting all of one's eggs in a single basket, pose considerable risks?
Zhao Aiming, head of Zhangcun Township, has faith in the model. Having assessed the risks involved, the township insists on market-oriented growth. Farmers join the cooperatives voluntarily and each year, the amount of planting is fine-tuned according to market principles. "We prevent excessive production, which leads to low prices and harms farmers," Zhao said.
A villager feeds Asian carp in a fish farm in Peizhai Community (QIN BIN)
Some six people like Wang Xiaoyi have returned to Zhangcun Township and made contributions to their underdeveloped hometown after gaining success elsewhere. They have tried different kinds of businesses—including agriculture, livestock breeding and tourism—to find a way to develop the township that suits its particular resources. Farmers stop worrying when they see the plans succeed and they gain benefit. They also acknowledge the people who have helped them.
"People such as Wang Xiaoyi realize both social and individual values by doing things for the village. They also gain a sense of accomplishment," Zhao noted.
Besides tapping the market for sweet potatoes, Zhangcun Township is also building roads and water conservation and photovoltaic power projects, as well as developing tourism based on its distinctive characteristics. All of these measures form a network for poverty relief.
"We believe in ourselves," Wang Dongmei said. "We want to live a moderately comfortable life by 2020, just as the Central Government has planned. We don't want to be the one that holds the nation back."
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org