Hot new buzzword spreading in rural China: citrus

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Li Chang Sheng, like his ancestors for generations, farms rice. But Mr. Li proudly climbs a dirt path up a small mountain to show off 20 acres of a different crop, one not seen here in thousands of years: oranges.

Li drops his umbrella at a row of bushy trees, carves into a yellow-green fruit with a pocketknife, and estimates the harvest is three weeks away. Farmers at that time will celebrate a mother lode of orange gold in these here hills.

The new citrus cash crop in south Jiangxi Province is creating a kind of "orange rush." Two specimens, akin to a tangerine and a navel, play here like a discovery of oil or gold. Some harvests are yielding $12 per tree - in a part of China where a full acre of rice paddy yields $18 on average.

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Now, mountains anciently covered with evergreens sport terraced orange groves and most grove land has been snatched. Mechanics, clerks, farmers, teachers, offspring working in factory towns eight hours south all have bought in.

Fruit now ships south to the Pearl River Delta. But, thinking ahead, what people here ask visiting foreigners is, "How much does an orange cost in New York?"

The new orange cash crop, in fact, is the kind of simple, practical idea that leaves people wondering why it wasn't thought of, or allowed, before. It represents another ripple in the story of China's gradual opening, and it is lauded here in Anyuan country as alleviating despair among local peasants - and as a curb on the growing disparity between rich and poor in China.

Oranges have been grown here and there in the warm mountains of south China since the mid-20th century, but the quality of the fruit was low, and the crop never "took off." In Anyuan over the years, some attempts at turning watermelon, potatoes, and edible fungus into cash crops were tried and abandoned.

Yet improved rural transport, a decade of excitement about new market ideas, and the support from Anyuan county officials like Zeng Xinfang, were a winning combination. The orange has changed the physical and economic landscape of a valley whose sandy red soil - known during Mao's time as "revolutionary soil" for its color - is well suited for citrus growing. (Mr. Zeng was rewarded with a promotion to a high Party post in a local prefecture.)

"With a thousand trees, I can make $12,000 a year," says Wei Zhang, a delivery truck owner who has bought about 800 trees. "But you first have to invest about $9,000, and then be patient and wait."

The new orange crop mirrors the intentions in China's industrial sector: to broaden its low-tech, cheap-labor production of plastic toys and widgets to a more advanced product line requiring greater capital, technical know-how, and risk.

Orange trees take four years to mature. They are somewhat high-maintenance, and require weeding, pruning, and scads of fertilizer that isn't cheap for farmers. In the countryside where everyone pretty much knows everyone else's business, and where a farming mistake can devastate a family for years, it takes some courage and vision to spend precious resources to obtain land and to then wait out two annual rice harvests for several years, with no pay-back crop. People here will talk.

But after a fine harvest in the local township Sanbaishan in 2000, the genie was out. Two years later, China's Ministry or Agriculture gave some 50,000 navel orange sprouts to farmers in Anyuan county - and the race was on.

Mr. Guo, a nearby rice farmer, systematically went about obtaining his grove. He first took cash sent from his daughter, who works in a Shenzhen factory, and bought pigs. The sale of pigs, lucrative in China, allowed the eventual purchase of orange trees, at about $15 a tree. Similarly, the Lis literally planted last year's first-time profits into more trees on the other side of the mountain that abuts their village.

The trees act as an economic safety valve, allowing locals - most of whom are from the Han ethnic Hakka minority - to walk a little lighter. Peasants can now buy little extras of food and tools, conveniences not possible before. They don't borrow to buy school books. They can pay taxes in cash up front. They have reinvestment options not experienced before.

Importantly, it has allowed low-wage laborers to dream about one day saving enough to get a new generation closer to a higher education.

To be sure, most of the groves are very new. Many have been bought with loans still unpaid. Some have been mismanaged, and stories exist of local officials elbowing to grab the best clients and deals.

It is a typical story heard around China. Moreover, the very "gold rush" aspect of the new crop, where everyone is spending savings on any possible patch of rentable land, may not be entirely salutary.

As one Beijing Western expert points out, "In China, whenever there is the slightest new open space for profit, everyone crowds in, mobs in, and almost overnight the profit margins narrow."

There are also mounting concerns that a rush to terrace the mountains will have a long-term negative effect on the flow of water, and the health of the area's rivers.

It is unlikely that the Jiangxi orange will challenge the high end of the US orange crop. The best fruit in places like Florida's Indian River region is of far higher quality. Yet the Jiangxi crops, which have made steady progress in sweetness and texture, are likely to contend for the low-end and juice-orange markets in the US.

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