By staff reporter LUO YUANJUN
One day in September, Liu Fugui got up early to witness the early tangerine harvest in Shimen, Hunan Province. He stood on the balcony brushing his teeth and took in the fruit-laden trees with a mixture of affection and relief.
The makeshift market at the entrance to Liu''s village was bustling when he arrived there at 6 in the morning. The haggling war was over, and villagers towed wicker baskets of tangerines onto platform scales to be measured and purchased. When Liu casually inquired as to the price, a vendor told him 0.3 yuan per 500 grams. "It was 0.4 yuan last year." Someone grunted. Because Liu''s fruit is not the early-ripening variety, he wasn''t too worried. At noon Liu Fugui went to the neighboring village, where the tangerine market was just as busy. But since local villagers had pooled funds to buy a grading machine that separates tangerines according to size, the price was higher -- 0.4 yuan.
Sorting oranges to fix prices for different grades.
This price is not the lowest of recent years. The real nightmare came in 1999, when 500 grams fetched only a few fen (100 fen = 1 yuan). Liu''s neighbor, Wang, toiled the whole year in his orchard of tangerine trees, only to watch the fruits rotting in the field. Angry and despairing, Wang sold a truckload of fruit for a meager 100 yuan. Until the early 1990s, the citrus business had always been profitable in Shimen. But at the end of the decade, almost all local farmers rushed to grow the early-maturing tangerine, leading to soaring output and plunging prices. A bumper harvest brings mixed blessings.
Shimen''s tangerine plantations date back more than 600 years to the Ming Dynasty. Tangerine export started in the 1960s and has grown in the years following: Annual orders for export have remained above 30,000 tons in recent years. According to statistics, only individual farmers see no rise in income to match rising productivity, because they cannot guarantee the quality of their fruit. What''s more, they are poorly informed on the market, and have no idea about sales according to grade.
The Way to Fortune
Orange farmers negotiate orange grades and prices.
In his county, Liu Fugui is considered a successful citrus farmer. His orchard has provided him the means to send his two sons to college, and also saved his and his wife''s lives.
In 1980, Liu decided to grow tangerine trees, and became one of the first in his area to do so. Thanks to his diligence and readiness to learn new skills, his trees grew well. This first harvest made him more than 5,000 yuan. "At that time a bowl of noodles was only 5 fen," says Liu with evident pride.
Encouraged by initial success, Liu grew more trees in his few paddy fields. Alarmed by the increasing number of tangerine growers in the area, he grafted his tangerine trees on to orange ones in 1990. The decision turned out to be provident. Since orange plantation was still unpopular, the price stood at 3 yuan per 500 grams. By 2003, the price had fallen to 1 yuan or so, still much higher than that for tangerines. Though disappointed by the price cut, Liu was in no way anxious, given the property he had accumulated. "My life has been good enough for any farmer," he says. "I don''t desire any more."
Liu''s success is not a fluke -- before running his orchard, he worked on a forest farm. Liu has never been complacent in his approach to work. He is convinced that making a fortune requires not only sweat and toil but also wit. His job with the forest farm gave him access to pomiculture know-how, so creating a citrus plantation became the next logical step.
When business was booming, Liu fell sick with a duodenal ulcer but was wrongly diagnosed as having gastroptosia. The situation exacerbated until his life was in danger. After being hospitalized for two years, Liu fully recovered. Later, his wife became quite ill, costing the family another big sum of money. Liu confessed that he would have gone bankrupt if not for growing citrus.
In past years, few local farmers could afford much schooling for their children. Aware of the importance of knowledge for operating his orchard, Liu sent both of his sons to college. Today education is affordable to local villagers, because profits from orange plantations have bailed most of them out of privation.
Branching out in the World
Orange buyers from other areas thronged to Liu''s home as early as one month before the harvesting time. Huang (first name) from Fujian Province was one of them. An orange supplier for big supermarkets, he is knowledgeable about the domestic and international fruit market. He used to make 200,000 yuan yearly, but due to growing competition, is now lucky to make 100,000.
Because oranges are in such great demand, Huang was confused as to why Liu Fugui didn''t expand production. County magistrate Gao, who is in charge of agriculture, explains Liu''s reluctance to branch out: "The inbred smallholder mentality of local farmers impedes development of scale production, and gives purchasers the chance to lower the price by separate haggling, thus reducing farmers'' profit." For instance, a local gardening farm was purchasing oranges from farmers to fill the gap between its output and orders from customers. Its price was 0.2 yuan higher per 500 grams than that offered by buyers from out of the county. Individual farmers, who mostly run small patches of field, could never expect to reap the sales advantages of having a plantation.
According to Zhang (first name), head of Xiuping Gardening Farm, the average yield of local farmers'' orchards is 2,000 to 3,000 kilograms per mu, while that of his farm is 4,000 to 5,000. Its annual output can barely meet the demand of buyers, and the price is always good. Tan, a worker with the farm, grows early-ripe tangerines on 7 mu of land, and earns an average of 50,000 yuan every year.
In order to promote the world reputation of Shimen oranges, the county has held three orange festivals to lure foreign buyers. As stipulated by WTO agreement, China will lift the import ban on U.S. oranges in 2004, exposing Chinese oranges to harsh competition. Given its competitive price, which is 47 percent lower than the international average, Chinese oranges should easily become an advantageous sector of Chinese agriculture as long as its production is managed on a large scale.