Liu Linsheng's happiest moment is strolling around his 4.5-mu (0.3 hectare) peach fields. The big, rosy,juicy peaches bring him an annual income of 60,000 yuan (US$7,500), and have also provided a generous wedding ceremony and a brand new house for his son.
"I thank my 'lucky star'," said 53-year-old Liu from Huangyakeng Village of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Five years ago, Liu Linsheng only grew vegetables and his annual income was just 10,000 yuan (US$1,250).
His "lucky star" is Wang Jixun, a researcher from the School of Horticulture at Xinjiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences. An expert on growing fruit, Wang Jixun was assigned in 2001 to the technical task force (TTF) staff in Fukang City, which has jurisdiction over Liu's village, to provide technical support for local farmers.
"When I first trimmed the peach trees, my hands were shaking," said Liu Linsheng. "Wang encouraged me and taught me step by step. I also learned from him to watch out for pests in autumn and cover the roots of peach trees with thick grass in winter."
"Peaches from my field now sell for 15 yuan (US$1.9) per kilogram. Even urban residents from Fukang came to buy my peaches," he said. Liu Linsheng is not the only one reaping the harvest. There are now a total of 4,000-mu (268 hectare) of peach trees in Fukang and autumn is proving abundant. Altogether, Wang Jixun introduced a total of 119 new species of fruits for local farmers to grow.
"I used to do my research on growing peaches in the lab, but the TTF gave me opportunities to transfer the technology to farmers in the field," said Wang Jixun, 40. "Using my research findings to help local farmers boost their income means a lot to me."
Wang spent almost 150 days a year in the village training local farmers,taking a shuttle bus for a two-hour return trip from Urumqi, capital city of Xinjiang, to Huangyakeng Village.
Across Xinjiang, more than 1,300 TTF personnel have trained 337,400 farmers from 29 counties, helping them boost their incomes by 14.3 percent on average since June 2002, according to Jin Nuo, assistant to the chairman of the Autonomous Regional Government of Xinjiang.
China has managed to reduce its poverty-stricken population by more than 100 million in the period 1985 to 2005, but the country still has 23.65 million people who earn less than 680 yuan (US$85) a year and live in absolute poverty, according to the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development.
If the internationally-accepted poverty line of US$1 per day is used, China still has 120 to 130 million poor people.
"Poor efficiency in the agricultural sector is one factor, another is the slow, inadequate transfer and application of modern science and technology in the rural areas. Also, the opportunities to increase farmers' incomes are often limited. For China to build a more affluent society by 2020 and a new socialist countryside is an enormous challenge," said Liu Yanhua, vice minister of science and technology.
Liu said the TTF personnel will change the way farmers are introduced to new technologies, by providing the technical services they demand and that "are more locally relevant, as opposed to generic solutions adopted nationwide."
"TTF also focuses on introducing market mechanisms to traditional agriculture," he said.
Liu pointed out that since 2002, a total of 593 counties in 24 provinces have launched pilot projects on the new market-oriented TTF mechanisms.
According to Liu, 23,000 TTF personnel were dispatched to implement the project and 5.84 million farmers received technical training in 2005 with an average income rise of 20 percent for the farmers concerned.
The TTF has also gained support from the international community. China and the United Nations recently increased their joint investment in a rural poverty alleviation project based on technology promotion in Urumqi, Xinjiang.
The four-year project that started in April 2006 is sponsored by the UN Development Program (UNDP), China's Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), and the China International Center for Economic and Technical Exchanges (CICETE) under the Ministry of Commerce. They will support China's TTF initiatives by introducing farmers to innovative, environmentally-friendly technologies in order to increase their income and promote sustainable rural development.
The budget will increase from US$4 million to 7.4 million --US$1.48 million from the UNDP, US$5.4 million from MOST,and US$520,000 from Stora Enso, a multinational paper products company based in Europe.
It will make TTF a key component of diverse market-oriented systems that seek to meet the needs of farmers, farm systems and rural communities.
Under the project, 30 counties have been selected from 15 provinces and autonomous regions. Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, and Guangxi Zhuang, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions, have been identified as key pilot provinces to develop experimental TTF models to be shared at the national level.
"The project is very timely. It dovetails with Chinese government's commitment to build a new socialist countryside by applying scientific development approaches," said Khalid Malik, UN resident coordinator and UNDP resident representative in China. "I believe the project will not only help farmers develop new business models to increase their income, but also assist China in establishing new models of production to sustain its high growth rate," he added.
An increase in income is definitely a strong driver, but farmers are also attuned to the environment-friendly message.
"Local farmers used to increase output by spraying pesticide, which consumed more time and money and failed to meet the market demand for green vegetables," said Yang Hua, from the School of Plant Protection of the Xinjiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
She taught farmers effective ways to keep pests off their vegetables without using pesticide during her five years with the TTF in Fukang.
"Villagers told me that they realized that pesticide-free vegetables were not only good for the environment and for consumers, but also for farmers themselves, because they sell well in the market," she said.
Hard work by TTF staff won the trust of local farmers. Wang Jixun said every time he left for home, villagers would surround him, hoping to take the opportunity to get more tips from him. They also constantly called him for consultation.
"My personal income also increased," said Wang. He was honored as one of the "Top Ten TTF Staff" of Fukang City, and received a prize from the local government.
"We farmers support those who bring real benefits to us," said Liu Linsheng.
Liu has become one of the best farmers at growing peaches in the village. He also organized a "village peach committee" to share his experience with fellow villagers.
"I don't think they are competition for me," he said. "The more farmers who can grow high quality peaches, the more business opportunities we can grasp." "You know what, Heaven Lake in Xinjiang is famous for the legend of a goddess who once held a peach banquet," said Liu. "My dream is that we farmers can hold a banquet just like that, but even more charming than Heaven Lake!"
(Xinhua News Agency September 19, 2006)