HARBIN－Residents of Wujiazitun like to say their village used to be so destitute that “even the birds avoided flying here”.
Largely covered with saline-alkali soil, the village in Zhaoyuan county, Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province did not have many crops to harvest in the autumn. When it was windy, the whole village was so shrouded in alkali dust that people could barely open their eyes outside.
In 2003, Cai Yunlou, a businessman from a neighboring village, saw a chance, with some element of risk, to cash in on the barren land. He rented about 1,600 hectares of local land and connected it with a nearby swamp, planning to transform the area into a wetland.
“To be honest, at the very start, I just wanted to take advantage of the cheap land and make some money,” says Cai.
His first idea was to raise fish and reeds. After establishing the Nianyugou Industry Group to invest in building canals, cofferdams and other infrastructure, Cai diverted freshwater from the nearby Nenjiang River to ameliorate the soil.
He made it. In three years, the company’s annual revenue reached 5 million yuan ($773,870), and the local environment saw some improvement.
But Cai was not satisfied. Sensing that fish were no longer quite profitable, he made a bolder plan to plant paddy rice.
The intention was greeted with loads of cynical comments from the locals. They had failed to do it for generations and seen numerous entrepreneurs with the same attempt “come in Benz and leave on motorbikes”, chuckles Cai while citing those villagers.
“It’s not impossible to turn the saline-alkali land into rice paddies here. The problem is that you need to pour in a large sum but only to see poor harvests,” says He Hongyu, a staffer with Zhaoyuan county’s agricultural bureau.
Born stubborn, Cai decided to give it a try. He did a lot of homework and invited agricultural experts from in and outside Heilongjiang to carry out the project.
This time he was not that lucky. In the following five years, the yield of rice per 0.06 hectare never exceeded 300 kilograms, when 350 kg was the lowest mark to cover his cost. Some fields produced nothing. The company lost over 10 million yuan.
Experts left one by one, but Cai did not give up. Instead, he became obsessed with the fields. He often spent a whole day squatting among rice seedlings, trying to find out what was hindering their growth.
The businessman even ignored an opportunity to make a great fortune. In 2007, an oil reserve was found near the village, which created a batch of instant millionaires. But Cai kept investing in the fields.
His company also started raising hairy crabs at that time, as the temperature in the fields is suitable for crab-breeding, while crabs could, in turn, loosen the soil and provide nutrition to the seedlings.
After eight years of relentless efforts in researching and experimenting, in the early 2010s, Cai’s company finally succeeded in growing quality saline-alkali tolerant rice in the land, with the yield per 0.06 hectare exceeding 500 kg.
In 2019, the Nianyugou Industry Group was identified as a national-level key enterprise of agricultural industrialization. The rice and hairy crabs have become its signature products being sold all over the country through major e-commerce platforms.
To help local farmers, the group passed on its knowledge and experience to them, regularly conducting training and technical support on soil transformation and growing rice and crabs.
It also purchases standard seeds and fertilizers to sell to farmers at wholesale prices, so that the farmers could spend less and product quality would be guaranteed. After the harvest, the company purchases the farmers’ produce at higher-than-market-prices and then sells them through its own channels after processing.
“By selling rice to us, the total income of farmers in Zhaoyuan county increased by some 70 million yuan in 2019 than through their ordinary marketing channels,” says Cai.
According to He with the agriculture bureau, the county has around 13,333 hectares of transformable saline-alkali soil, 5,333 hectares of which have already been successfully turned into rice paddies.
The “rice plus crab” model introduced by Cai has blazed a new trail for local agricultural development, he adds.
A number of scientific research teams, including those with the renowned agronomist Yuan Longping and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are also working here on the improvement of saline-alkali land, local officials say.
With the tremendous change in the ecological environment, Wujiazitun is now a paradise for a variety of birds such as wild geese and white storks. Walking by the rice paddies in early winter, the chirps of birds and insects echo like a chorus.
In Cai’s opinion, entrepreneurs are often eager to prove their worth with the wealth they hold, but he has achieved a greater sense of fulfillment in the process of reclaiming the land, which has also brought him gold.
“My given name ‘Yunlou’ means ‘a castle in the clouds’, but I have been keeping both feet on the ground for the past two decades for my career,” he says.