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Tuesday, August 13, 2019, 12:16
Picking the profits from a sweet little earner
By Hu Dongmei and Wang Xiaodong
Tuesday, August 13, 2019, 12:16 By Hu Dongmei and Wang Xiaodong

Editor's note: As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary on Oct 1, China Daily is featuring a series of stories on the role regions have played in the country's development and where they are today.

An aerial view of workers picking goji berries at a plantation in Wuzhong, NIngxia. (FENG KAIHUA / XINHUA)

In the past, Wang Qiang had to work around the clock when the goji berries ripened in summer-as he and two colleagues patrolled 150 hectares of plantations in search of possible pest infestations.

Goji plantations in Ningxia reached 66,700 hectares in 2017-about 360 times the size in 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded

"Goji berries are prone to pests, and we had to be careful to minimize the loss," Wang, a pest management technician at Ningxia Runde Group, said. "But it was impossible for us to find all the trees with pests in a garden so big."

Last summer, four cameras were installed in the goji, or wolfberry, plantations in Zhongning county, Ningxia Hui autonomous region, which eased the workload for Wang and his colleagues.

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The cameras, positioned 10 meters above the ground, can monitor every tree within 100 meters. Real-time footage is shared with scientists from the Ningxia Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences so they can identify signs of pests and diseases and suggest solutions.

Wang just needs to log onto an app on his mobile phone to see the results. He can also upload images of suspected plant diseases to the app and get feedback from the academy's scientists within three days.

Zhang Rong, director of the Plant Protection Institute of the academy, said the high-tech pest monitoring system has been deployed at 50 major goji farms and is used by 88 technicians.

The system has also resulted in a reduction in the use of pesticides and improved the quality of the goji berry through detection and control of pests, Zhang said.

"Goji is prone to more than 30 types of pests, including eight that can cause devastating damage," she said. "Conventionally, chemical pesticides are used to control outbreaks, resulting in a high risk of excessive pesticide residue."

In recent years, the academy has intensified efforts in the research, development and promotion of environmentally friendly biological means-including biological pesticides-to meet the demand for safer and higher quality goji products from consumers, she said.

Home of the berry 

Goji, used as a healthcare supplement and an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, has traditionally been grown in Ningxia, the major production area of the berry in China.

In recent years, with a booming health products market driven by the rising number of middle class and young people, Ningxia's goji industry has been upgrading operations with sophisticated management and planting methods, and the development of new products.

Goji plantations in Ningxia reached 66,700 hectares in 2017-about 360 times the size in 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded.

Ningxia now accounts for 40 percent of the total area of goji production in China, according to Ningxia Goji Industry Development Center.

Total production of dried goji reached 180,000 metric tons in 2017, with the total value exceeding 15 billion yuan ($2.1 billion). In some areas of Ningxia, revenue from goji production accounted for more than 60 percent of farmers' incomes, the center said.

Goji producers have developed more than 100 food, medical and cosmetic products based on the berry, including beverages, wines, sauces, vegetable oil and tea, according to the center.

By the end of last year, the number of enterprises certified for goji export in Ningxia reached 48, including 31 that have gained organic certification from other countries.

The products were exported to more than 40 countries and regions, with dried goji berry accounting for 85 percent of total exports, the center said.

Healthy growth 

"Goji has traditionally been regarded as a good health supplement by Chinese people. Almost everywhere we can see people carrying a glass of water boiled with dried goji berries," said Jia Dengqi, head of the Zhongning International Goji Trade Center, in Zhongning county.

"Demand for goji has been rising and we have seen increasing numbers of buyers from overseas including Japan, the United States and Europe."

Zhongning is where goji originated, and berries produced in the area reputedly have the best healthcare benefits, such as boosting energy and protecting eyesight.

This has resulted in goji from other areas, such as Qinghai and Gansu provinces, being branded misleadingly in the domestic market as produced in Zhongning.

"Compared with goji produced in other areas, goji produced in Zhongning contains less sugar, so it is lighter and tastes slightly bitter," Jia said.

Zhang Rong, who sells dried goji berries in the center, said he gets at least 80 yuan per kilogram, about 20 yuan higher than last year.

Workers pick goji berries at a plantation in Wuzhong, Ningxia Hui autonomous region. (FENG KAIHUA / XINHUA)

"Most of my buyers are tourists from outside Zhongning, who buy goji as a gift for their relatives or friends," he said.

Hao Xiangfeng, chairman of Bairuiyuan, a leading producer of goji in Yinchuan, said their market research showed there was a potentially huge youth market for goji.

"Traditionally, elderly people use goji as a supplement in porridge or wine," he said. "But this method of goji consumption may not appeal to younger people."

To attract younger customers, the company has developed new products in recent years, including freshly preserved goji, so people can eat it as a snack, and tea made of goji leaves, he said.

With rising demand from consumers for high quality and safe goji products, the company is also improving production methods. Pesticide residue has not been detected in their products for several years, he said.

Zeng Shaofeng, deputy general manager of Ningxia Runde Group, said the company has been producing organic goji berries for several years with no pesticide residue.

Zhou Jiaqi, president of the Zhongning Goji Industrial Association, said new technologies were being studied to improve the quality of goji.

"With big data technologies, farmers will be guided in goji production, including finding the best time to plant, removing pests and when to harvest," he said.

"Production and sale of goji will not be based on experience, but on data."

Challenges ahead 

Despite the rapid advances in goji production, there are still challenges ahead for the industry.

The Ningxia Goji Industry Development Center believes a compromise has not been reached between improving the quality of the product and ensuring the healthy growth of the industry.

The use of chemical pesticides remains the primary pest control method, and more efforts should be made to promote the use of biological pesticides.

The center wants authorities to subsidize farmers who use biological pesticides. They should also put in place policies to encourage the research, development and production of biological pesticides.

Zhang Rong, from the Ningxia Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences, said they had promoted the use of biological pesticides for this year's harvest.

But obstacles remained, such as the higher cost of biological pesticides and the fact that they take effect more slowly.

A major obstacle to the development of the industry in Ningxia, and the rest of the country, is the lack of a national standard for pesticide residue levels in dried goji, which also hampers export of the berries, Zhang said.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs is formulating a national standard that will set residue limits for commonly used pesticides for goji berries. But time is needed for the standard to be finalized, Zhang said.

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Jia, head of the goji trade center, said although China is a major producer of the berry, many domestic producers lack the ability to develop higher-end products, such as nutritional extracts, that would bring more profit.

"As far as I know, many domestic institutes are intensifying research and development of new products sourced from goji that cater to the market," he said.

"I believe domestic producers will make great progress in processing goji within the next three to five years."

Contact the writers at wangxiaodong@chinadaily.com.cn

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