Small Potatoes Open a Wider World

By staff report ZHOU LIN


Daping villagers cultivate potatoes in a greenhouse.

AN arid climate and infertile land kept Dingxi City in Northwest China’s Gansu Province, on the upper reaches of the Yellow River, in a state of poverty for centuries. Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) governor Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885) said in a letter to the emperor in 1876 that the area was the poorest in the country. Throughout its long history, Dingxi’s inhabitants primarily made their living by farming, but due to low rainfall and frequent drought, the wheat yield was only 750 kg per hectare a year. Local residents hence always lived under a lurking threat of starvation.

Although arid, however, the area, with its potassium-rich soil,  is suitable for growing potatoes. This hardy crop’s ability to survive high altitudes, cold weather, and sharp fluctuations in day and night temperatures makes it perfect for the region, and high yields can be obtained. The annual precipitation in Dingxi, though scant, accords with the growth cycle of potatoes. And this tuberous crop is sown one month after spring wheat, shortly after the spring drought. The rainy season from July to September is when the tuber expands. Dingxi potatoes are consequently in high demand due to their good shape, high quality, storability for long periods, and ample starch. Their quality and quantity are regarded as first-class both in Gansu Province and nationwide. On-the-spot investigations by domestic and foreign experts have confirmed Dingxi as one of China’s biggest and best potato producing areas.


Pulled out of Poverty

It has long been the tradition in Dingxi to grow potatoes, a staple food in the local diet appreciated for its stable output regardless of weather conditions.  When grain yields are low potatoes can fend off starvation. Ma Qiuhua, a farmer of Daping Village, Anding District in Dingxi City, recalled the great drought that struck the region in 1995 which only potatoes survived.

In 1996, the Dingxi government launched its “Potato Project” in efforts towards poverty-alleviation. That year marked the first time potato plantation was listed on the government agenda. The traditional subsistence agriculture thus gradually transformed into commercial operations, as a complete chain of potato growing and processing was established. In 1996, the potato plantation area expanded by one third. Later, the Dingxi municipal government invited experts from Canada to cultivate and popularize fine varieties according to local conditions.

Two years later, the crop was categorized as a staple food and the first pillar industry in Dingxi, and potato growers enjoyed more policy incentives. The government encouraged farmers to expand their scales of plantation, and enterprises to increase their processing capacities. It also enlarged investment in breed improvement projects, the local government thus having accumulatively invested RMB 40 million since 2006.

In 2005, Ma Qiuhua and his wife spent RMB 70,000 on building their new house. It covers a 200-plus square meter area on the mountain slope, and is well-equipped with electronic appliances. The couple makes RMB 20,000 to RMB 30,000 per year from agricultural production, 70 percent of which is from growing potatoes.

During then President Hu Jintao’s visit to Daping Village at the Spring Festival of 2007, 72-year-old Ran Zhigong presented him with a basket of potatoes, saying, “We cherish these humble potatoes as if they were golden eggs. Every villager can earn RMB 1,200 annually from growing them. They have lifted local residents out of poverty.”


China’s Potato Capital

After years’ development, the Dingxi Potato plantation scale has steadily enlarged and the industrial structure also significantly improved. A complete industry chain has formed, including fine breed research and development, production, processing, storage, and marketing.

At the same time, Dingxi has set its eyes on the international market. After in-depth market research, the local government realized that the potato, the world’s fourth largest food crop, has a huge demand worldwide. In the past two decades, China has retained the title of the world’s largest potato producing nation. In 2012, the export and import volume of China’s potatoes reached US $187 million and US $191 million respectively, with a trade deficit of nearly US $4 million.

In 2014, Dingxi City started to upgrade the potato industry, vigorously pushing forward standardized production in order to establish the “Dingxi Potato” brand. The region’s potato plantation areas have been stabilized at more than three million mu (200,100 hectares), among which 1.3 million mu (86,710 hectares) are fine breeds. Total output stands at more than five million tons, and the production of fine starch and other processed products totals 450,000 tons. The year 2013 witnessed a new high in total output value of RMB 10.5 billion. Potatoes contributed as high as 21 percent to the annual income of local farmers.

Today, Dingxi is China’s largest virus-free potato breed production base, a national commercial potato production base, and a potato processing base. It is also one of the three concentrated potato production areas nationwide.

In Dingxi, there is now a popular saying, “small potato, big industry, great impact.”


Transformation towards the Global Market

 “Farmers keep one third of their potatoes, one third is sold on the market for consumption, and the remaining third is processed into potato products such as modified starch,” said Hu Hanmin, deputy head of Anding District’s seed management station, who has more than 20 years of experience in potato seed cultivation.

Every seven tons of Dingxi potatos can be processed into one ton of refined starch, at a doubled value of RMB 4,000. Refined starch can then be changed into modified starch, so doubling the value once more. Deep processing technology has thus dramatically changed the traditional concept of the humble crop.

Gansu Jupeng Food Co., Ltd., founded in 1999, is a company that produces potatoes and processes fresh tubers into such side products as chips. Potatoes are transported on conveyor belts inside the company’s processing workshops. Whole potatoes are first mechanically tossed and rinsed in water. They are then peeled and shredded to produce chips and other products for fast food chains such as MacDonald’s. In 2014, the company registered total sales of more than RMB 90 million. It exported potato products to countries such as the United States, the EU countries, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Amman, bringing in total export revenue exceeding US $10 million.


The Gansu Jupeng Food Co., Ltd. potato processing production line.


Unlike Jupeng, which mainly processes fresh potatoes, the Gansu GLDARK Potato Modified Starch Co., Ltd. processes potato starch into modified starch and environment-friendly products such as food additives, biomass coating, decomposable plastics, and organic fertilizers. A leader in China’s modified starch industry, the company achieved a total sale revenue of RMB 500 million in 2014.

The biomass coating developed by Chairman of the Board Dr. Tian Ying-liang was nominated by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2013 as a new product to be promoted nationwide. It was also awarded the Gold Prize at the 11th China Agricultural Trade Fair. “Our products have been exported to Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, and the company aspires to further expand product lines,” Tian said. These potato processing enterprises have not only increased job opportunities but also consumed a large quantity of crops, so directly boosting local growers’ income.  

Dingxi has established six large-scale potato wholesale markets, along with several medium-sized and small markets and farm produce markets. It has thus formed an extensive sale and distribution service system. In addition, economic and trade fairs are regularly held to attract businessmen’s purchase of local potatoes.

The Dingxi potato comprehensive trade center came into service in 2007. Covering an area of 10.5 hectares, it was recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture. In November 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture and Gansu provincial government signed the memorandum on the Dingxi potato wholesale market. It is the third national wholesale market for a farm produce following Luochuan apples and Zhoushan aquatic products.

Dingxi has established electronic business ties with the Xinfadi wholesale market in Beijing, which could potentially sell 400,000 tons of local potatoes per year with a sales volume of RMB 540 million, so benefiting 85,000 farmers. Statistics show that Dingxi potatoes not only dominate the Central Plains market, but also have a more than 90 percent share in the South China market, as well as a 50 percent share in the East China market, such as Shanghai and Nanjing, and the Southwest market, including Chongqing and Chengdu.

Relying on modern operation, Dingxi has built an industrial chain of refined breed cultivation, fine produce plantation, deep processing, and branding, so making the traditional industry a competitive one. The small, humble potato has thus been elevated to valuable goods. Originating in Latin America, the crop traveled the vast distance to Northwest China and leveraged the development of a small city. The Dingxi potato is now expected to advance towards a broader, bigger world via a new round of industrial upgrading.