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    How a Village Cooperative Is Tackling the Rural Wealth Divide

    An innovative campaign in northwestern China is goji berry farmers share the fruits of their labor more fairly.

    The vast wealth gap between China’s cities and its rural hinterland is a well-worn theme in the country’s media coverage. However, we rarely talk about the wealth gap in the countryside itself. Back in August 2012, this phenomenon was dramatically brought to my attention, when a report published by the Center for Chinese Rural Studies, a think-tank affiliated to Central China Normal University, showed that the richest 20 percent of rural families earned up to 10 times as much money as the poorest 20 percent.

    Though I hail from central China’s Hunan province, I now work as a village official in Donghua, a village in northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Here, the income gap between families is among the highest in China.

    Not long after starting my new position last February, I noticed a problem. In the past couple of decades, many rural Chinese have swelled their incomes by selling commodities to people in towns and cities. By and large, this has made everyone richer; but it’s made some much richer than others. Over time, residents have split into two classes: the nongmin jingying, or “rural elites,” and putong xiaonong, or “ordinary peasants.” In Donghua, a small number of elites have become successful businesspeople, and now control the vast majority of the money. In addition, they are able to send their children to some of the country’s better schools and colleges, guaranteeing their privileged social positions for years to come.

    Most farming families in Donghua make money from harvesting and selling goji berries, which are famous throughout the region. Many Chinese use goji as a nutritional supplement, adding the so-called superfood to tea or hot water. Historically, the berry was seen as an expensive luxury, but as living standards have risen, the domestic market for goji has steadily expanded. In 2010, some of Donghua’s families started operating large-scale goji farms, a move that allowed them to earn hundreds of thousands of yuan in a village whose annual average income was 12,000 yuan ($1,900) in 2016. Soon, more and more villagers jumped on the bandwagon. But the market quickly became oversaturated, and farmers — who were directly competing with one another for business — drove their prices lower and lower in a bid to boost sales.

    Today, of the 827 households in Donghua, only 20 have their own businesses. Of the remainder, 700 are laborers or farmers and 87 are classified as “impoverished,” meaning that their incomes fail to cover their basic living needs. The plight of these villagers convinced me that there must be a way to raise local incomes by bringing farmers together, instead of pitting them against one another.

    All agricultural work is at the mercy of two forces: nature and the market. To regain control over their own fates, small farming households like those in Donghua have to band together. That’s why we established the Donghua Goji Cooperative last July. Our goal was to help all the village’s farmers achieve prosperity by giving everyone a stake in the village’s goji cultivation process — be they investors, producers, or laborers — and allowing them to share the dividends of the total sales revenue.

    While some villagers were still weighing their options on whether to invest in the cooperative, village cadres took the lead by investing 3,000 yuan ($475) each and agreeing to waive their dividend and interest payments for three years. A domino effect occurred: Wang Xueyi, at more than 70 years old, became the first senior citizen farmer to join the co-op; retired soldier Wang Jinzhu put 10,000 yuan of his own money into the project; and eight university graduates returned to the village from the nearby cities of Xi’an and Yinchuan to work on the goji farms.

    The supposed medical benefits of goji berries have not yet been fully proven, but that hasn’t stopped people from buying them. According to the Compendium of Materia Medica, an ancient Chinese encyclopedia of herbology, goji has anti-aging properties and improves the functions of the eyes, kidneys, and lungs. The book also claims the best berries come from Zhongning County, where Donghua is located.

    Compared to larger goji from Qinghai province, Gansu province, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Zhongning berries appear smaller and taste less sweet, but they are thought to contain a large variety of microelements that benefit the body. Berries from Zhongning don’t clump together as much as those from other regions, but unscrupulous sellers often soak their lower-grade products in sodium sulfite — a kind of bleach — and add a few Zhongning goji to the mix before selling them online for a tidy sum.

    While the Zhongning county government has introduced policies aimed at controlling the goji trade and banning the sale of non-local berries under the county’s name, cheap and mislabeled goji masquerading as Zhongning berries remain widely available. This has both damaged the reputation of real Zhongning goji and plunged the local industry into crisis. I have personally witnessed fields of good goji dying on the vine because people are buying fake Zhongning berries at cheap prices, not realizing their mistake.

    Fortunately, our efforts to promote honest business practices have been recognized by a number of charities and e-commerce firms. Through the Hunan-based charity Aicao, we were able to set up a crowdsourcing model with the Hangzhou-based agricultural e-commerce firm E-Nong, allowing netizens to donate who support the village’s campaign to donate to the cooperative. In June last year, as harvest time neared, my colleagues and I spent our days working in the fields and our nights communicating with volunteers from Taobao’s charity branch, preparing for the launch of the crowdfunding campaign.

    The local government has also drawn up regulations to protect the superior quality of Zhongning goji. Only Zhongning’s berries have white spots on the stem, for example. Faintly sweet but with a slightly bitter aftertaste, when immersed in water, about 80 percent of them float to the top. The crop currently being prepared is of the highest grade, worth up to 300 yuan ($47) per kilogram at the current market price. No more than 40 grams out of every 500 may be classified as “superior” goji, while ordinary berries sell for around 40 yuan per kilogram.

    By bringing local farmers together, the cooperative has helped them reap the rewards of collective action. It has also allowed middle-aged and elderly residents to get paid for their labor, offered young people an opportunity to invest, and given the impoverished a chance to work their way out of want. Hundreds of years ago, the first goji harvest would be sent as a tribute to the imperial court; now, it is enriching the lives of people at home.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: Residents walk past drying goji berries in Zhongning County, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, July 17, 2004. Wu Hong/VCG)