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Story of Higher Prices and Struggling Producers
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His village is 5 km or, to be precise, more than 40 small bends, 10 switchbacks, and a 40-year-old stone bridge away from town. The left rearview mirror of his shabby motorcycle has broken on the bumpy road to his village. But he doesn't care, for he has experienced much worse as a pig breeder.


What shocks, you may think, can a pig breeder get in times of skyrocketing pork prices. Let's see what happened to Zhang Xingrong the day before I met him on August 8 for an answer.


It's 6 am. One of Zhang's two surviving sows is about to give birth. It goes into labor but faints in the August sun. Zhang pulls out 17 dead piglets. Fortunately, two are still alive. But the dead piglets are not what he is worried about. His concern is the sow dying alongside its two weak piglets.


It's evening by now, and Zhang is determined not to let disease or fate snatch his "asset". So he sets to work. By the time the sun rises again, he has injected two bottles each of glucose and saline into the sow. He thanks his stars that it is saved.


The two surviving piglets were not as lucky, though. With their mother unable to feed them, they died within a week. And hence, what could have been a record number of piglets for the 30-year-old Zhang is now a loss of 5,000 yuan ($660). Despite that the young breeder in Changning, a prefecture of 846,000 people in Hengyang city of Central China's Hunan Province, has reasons to feel lucky because others have seen the blue-ear disease wreak greater havoc.


Take Li Xiaoman of Shangdong village, for instance. His only sow and its nine piglets died on August 6, five days after they contracted the dreaded disease. Li gave up pig breeding, and he is not the only one to do so.


All nine sows and 90 piglets the village's Dadong group had died of blue-ear disease this month. The villagers spent more than 3,000 yuan ($396) trying to save the sows but to no avail.


Li is father of two children, one in high school and the other in junior high. The only two choices he now has are farming and construction work. But neither will earn him enough to pay for his children's education. "One of them has to drop out of school," he says. Cruel as it may sound, it's a reality that neither Li nor we can avoid.


Famous for growing rice till the 1970s, Changning became a major pig breeding center after the reforms and opening up. In the 1990s, every Changning family had at least one sow, sending 10 trucks, each carrying about 130 pigs, to South China's Guangdong Province every day.


But then the market and blue-ear disease struck. The market drove the prices down, and the disease started killings the pigs. Today, Deng Qifang is the only person in Li's village who raises pigs, perhaps because he is big breeder. Some of his 130 pigs have also shown symptoms of the disease, though. The disease was unheard of in the village before 2005 and might have been carried by livestock from other provinces, but it's no use playing the blame game now that the industry has collapsed.


Zhongyi is a village of 800 people and another former pig breeding center. Today, only 500 pigs survive in the village, raised by three families. Wulian village, which is poorer, breeds less than 100.


That makes Zhang Xingrong and his younger brother the biggest breeders in Changning with 240 pigs. But the Zhangs are also the youngest breeders in the prefecture because most of the others in their age group are working in Guangdong or Fujian. So the pressure of the market and the disease is all the more intense on them.


Higher pork prices don't necessarily mean higher net profit for a breeder because they have barely made up for their losses last year. It's true Zhang earns about 3,000 yuan a month, but he says: "I've been lucky to step on the shoulders of the smaller breeders who were wiped out of the market when the prices crashed and to not have my pigs infected with the disease."


But what if luck deserts people like Zhang one of these days? Zhongyi village's leading pig breeder Guo Xianglun says: "A hundred pigs (contracting the blue-ear disease) will cost us tens of thousands (of yuan)."


Zhang says that till August 8, almost one-third of Changning's pigs, mostly sows, had been infected, and 70 percent of those died. At this rate, "no pigs will be left in two months," says Guo.


So what's the solution? "We can't solve this problem alone," says Deng. The central government and State agencies have announced a number of preferential policies, granted substantial subsidies and allocated medicines to help check the disease.


But why do even breeders like Deng feel that "the major cause (of the current situation) is lack of government attention"? Villagers say that's because it takes a long time to actually implement a policy, given the loopholes in the execution process at the prefecture-level.


For example, after a dispute between breeders and the Changning slaughterhouse last year, the prefecture stopped buying pork from the countryside. Instead, it turned to Southwest China's Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. But a third of the pigs from there die before they reach the local market, says Zhang.


Breeders say their dispute is over the abattoir's "mean deal" under which they have to "pay" a tax of 0.6 yuan for every 500 gram of pork and a pig's viscera. Without this the local Animal Bureau won't put a quarantine-clearance mark on a pig for a 1.5-yuan fee. And without these the bureau wouldn't even consider selling part of the vaccines, made available free by the Ministry of Agriculture, to the breeders.


Zhang says only 10 percent of the Changning breeders have received their fair share. Guo didn't know the vaccines were free of cost till August 6, two months after they had been dispatched. Deng managed to get two 20-ml vials of vaccine, but they weren't enough for even one healthy pig. And Guo had to travel for hours to Hengyang to buy a few 100-ml vials at 180 yuan ($24) each that can take care of about 20 pigs.


"But I don't know if it really works or when it expires because there are no instructions. I guess I paid just for mental comfort," Guo says.


Zhang has learned online an innovative way to keep the pigs healthy. "I buy more than 10 types of traditional Chinese medicine, grind them, and then mix them with the pigs' food," he says. He feeds them the medicines every nine days for one-and-half months.


A pig has to be kept clean all the time, especially in summer when it also needs a cool environment. To ensure that, the breeders have not only installed fans in the sties, but also wash them four times a day. Come autumn, and the threat of sunstroke and blue-ear disease will subside. But what is not likely to pass, though, is their yearlong stalemate with the local institutions.


Without a proper abattoir, the breeders have to settle for individual butchers, who obviously can't meet their needs. That's the reason why dealers such as Guo Xiangbao have began selling pigs from one village to another. He says Changning now essentially sells pigs in the countryside, not the cities.


Zhang and Deng accept that rising pork prices mean more profit, but such a trend is not good for the people or the country. "I hope the rise won't last too long," says Deng, surrounded by fellow breeders and town folks.


Asked about what needs to be done, the middle-aged man rubs his hands before saying: "We're all poorly educated farmers with little breeding knowledge. We hope educated talents from the cities would come and help us."


Zhang and the other breeders nod in agreement. About a hundred meters away is the road leading to their homes - still dusty and bumpy, made all the more treacherous by the blinding sun. The asphalt roads, to be built by the government, linking each village, will be a great relief. But before that, they want summer to give way to the more immediate relief of autumn.


(China Daily August 15, 2007)

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