Thursday, June 4, 2009

Growing like mushrooms in China

The mushrooms attracted a huge amount of attention. There were so many cameras that this would surely be the best documented small gathering in recent history. The TV was there, too, and later I would be put on the spot to provide impromptu comments to the questions of the very cute reporter in a red Snoopy t-shirt. I hope my Chinese colleague Wu Peng (who goes by his English name Bert) was able to provide a smarter translation than my original commentary for the benefit of audiences in Tianjin.

The modern city of Tianjin built around the Hai He River—in a fact, the name of the city actually means “the place where the emperor crossed the river”—is the capital of the Bohai Sea coastal province by the same name. The city has in recent years become famous for its hi-tech industries, R&D and universities. But it is also a historical place whose roots go all the way to Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE). Indeed, the Tianjin Travel Guide celebrates the city’s “splendid historical background” but goes on to lament how “it was desecrated by foreign invaders long before the foundation of People's Republic of China. Tianjin was shared by nine countries: Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Great Britain, Austria, Japan and Belgium. This marked an extremely hard period for Tianjin and her people because those imperialist countries left permanent marks in her body, most notable of which were thousands of villas. Today those villas provide an exotic flavour to Tianjin, enhancing the beauty of the entire city.”

Luckily, thus, not all of those sacrilegious and invading permanent marks were entirely disgusting. Like tattoos on a naturally beautiful woman, they added an exotic and unique attraction to the whole. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

However, we were not in the city of Tianjin but in Ji County, a rural area between the beautiful city and Beijing where we had left earlier in the day, driving north on the airport road, then turning east towards the coast. The capital city soon gave way to a bucolic landscape with conical hills to the east and north. I was pleased to note that their steep slopes were mostly covered with thick green forests. Farmland spread out in the valleys between the red-brick villages. There were numerous greenhouses growing vegetables for the urban markets. What was striking were the extensive afforestation efforts evident everywhere. In every unoccupied area—on the roadsides, between the fields—recently planted trees were sprouting. As I pointed this out to Bert, he remarked that this had all been part of the concerted government effort to enhance the environmental quality prior to the Beijing Olympics last year. The city has suffered from the notorious sandstorms caused by the erosion in the surrounding countryside, which the tree plantations were designed to counter. The periodic sandstorms would choke the city, turn its sky yellow and in general make life miserable for the inhabitants. Apparently the tree plantations and other environmental measures helped as the great games went by without being marred by such catastrophic events.

We passed the Panshan Mountain, a renowned tourist area in Jingdong area east of Beijing. Panshan, one of the “Ten Landscapes of Tianjin,” is distinguished by the Buddhist tower located on its highest peak 864 metres above the sea level. Later we passed along the shores of a huge reservoir that looked like a natural lake between the hills. The area has become a major attraction for people from the large cities of Beijing and Tianjin who want to get away from it all to enjoy rural calm and regional cuisine for a weekend vacation. This being the most developed and densely populated region of China, calm is of course a relative concept. The most beautiful spots along the road circling the reservoir are packed with rest places and restaurants with scenic terraces overlooking the lake, each employing several women running to the road to beckon travellers to come and patronize their particular establishment. We sped by the picturesque spots without even slowing down for the villages.

By this time our small delegation had been joined by a group of officials to the effect that we were now driving in a procession of black cars: the Honda of the deputy director-general of the Tianjin Department of Science and Technology, the VW of the deputy governor of Ji County, our Toyota, another one behind us with a bunch of other officials, and lastly the small red VW carrying the Tianjin TV crew. To our great surprise, all of these high-fliers had been awaiting our arrival at the toll gates as we exited the expressway from Beijing. My travelling companion Shiv and I had expected a low-key visit to learn about the work at the rural village level, but this was not to be: we were apparently the first foreign group to come and visit the project and, therefore, worthy of all this attention.

After another hour’s drive, we arrived in the village where the project had started its promotion of mushroom farming. This was only one of the many pilots in 15 of China’s provinces where the project, supported by the UN Development Programme, tests and demonstrates novel approaches linking farmers with innovative, environmentally-friendly technologies in order to increase their incomes and promote sustainable development. The project introduces improved technologies and organizational methods to farmers to work on high value-added products, such as vegetables, fish and—like here—mushrooms. In this case, the project had hooked up the farming community with a group of scientists from the local university who had perfected the technique for producing a certain type of mushroom that fetches a good price on the markets in the urban centres. The mushrooms are cultivated on natural blocks of wood cut from fruit trees (production of fruit is a traditional activity in this area) placed on long beds in greenhouses and irrigated by a simple drip system. Mushroom cultivation was introduced in the area in 2001 and the project started the promotion just a couple of years ago. In the beginning there were only two greenhouses in Ji County, whereas today there are 1,500! Only in the village that we visited there now were 98 greenhouses each producing 7,500 kg of mushrooms per year. That’s a lot of mushrooms but, as anyone who has ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant can attest to, they are a popular ingredient in dishes. So they sell like hot cakes in Beijing, Tianjin and as far as Shanghai—and the production units spread like, well, mushrooms. In fact, the local producers now have ambitious plans to start exporting their products. Expect soon to find Ji County mushrooms in a Chinatown near to you!

We gathered into the office of the company that Prof. Guo Gengjin, the technical genius from Tianjin Teachers’ University, had established with a local man, Dai Jianliang. Having multiplied the production capacity of their mushroom enterprise, the entrepreneurs had recently established a large cold storage facility to store the perishable product. Although this still was literally cottage industry, the money going around was measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars. All in all, the mushroom industry had significantly increased the incomes of the thousands of farmers turning the fate of the rural area around. Just years ago the county had been losing people to outmigration due to lack of opportunities. Today it is drawing in migrant workers to the greenhouses. Mushroom cultivation is labour intensive work, especially cutting and preparing the cultivation blocks. Naturally, here as everywhere else, such tedious and monotonous work is mainly carried out by women. The entrepreneurs also have plans to develop artificial blocks that could be produced more cheaply and also exported to other areas and abroad!

Head spinning from all the information, growth figures, technological advances, marketing plans, export preparations, I exited the meeting room without even tasting the fresh lychees, grapes, strawberries or apricots that had been placed on the table. Only in China can a good idea take up and spread so quickly. The Tianjin mushrooms would inevitably corner the global market and push out other producers with the sheer quantity of production and their low prices. That’s when I was suddenly attacked by the sweet looking young reporter from Tianjin TV who without any preparation asked me to comment on what I thought about development in the Chinese countryside, while the huge camera zoomed in on my face squinting with the late afternoon sun in my eyes. As could be expected, I could only utter some rather inarticulate platitudes about the impressive speed of change (I think I actually said something about progress progressing, but I hope it got improved in translation).

Back in the cars, we sped through the dusty road from our natural village to the larger administrative village, through the township, to the city again, without stopping to admire the lake scenery now bathing in the setting sun. The roadside settlements were alive with people. Fruit and vegetable vendors were by now closing their stalls, while in several places makeshift barbecue restaurants selling grilled sausages, noodles and beer were opening for business. It was time to eat and therefore we, too, were in a hurry.