Turning highland barley into a green business

XINING -- Though summer has already begun, farmers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau are still busy with their spring plowing of highland barley, a crucial staple for local residents.

In a makeshift tent set up in the field, villagers from Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province sat around a fire, planning their costs and harvest for the year.

The Tibetan farmers have tried to grow their traditional grain crop in a novel and greener way.

They apply 800 kg of organic manure on one mu (about 0.067 hectares) of land to get the same fertility as using chemical alternatives, which increases the cost by more than 200 yuan (about $28.2), according to Nojin Cering, who used to be a village head.

"The government advocates the cultivation of organic crops by offering subsidies, and that has eased our burden," he said.

In 2016, Nojin Cering set up a specialized cooperative in his village to plant highland barley and rape. The cooperative has rented more than 10,000 mu of land this year, 6,000 mu of which will be growing highland barley.

The cooperative has absorbed 37 poor households this year. "Each household will increase their income by 4,000 to 5,000 yuan if the weather is favorable," he said.

Highland barley has a 3,500-year history of cultivation on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and is widely planted in eastern Qinghai and the Tibetan-inhabited regions in the southern part of the province at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters.

In 2018, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development identified highland barley planting as an industry unique to Qinghai and eligible for government support.

The planting area of highland barley in Qinghai topped 1 million mu a year later, accounting for a quarter of the nation's total.

Triso Daye, head of a cooperative in Chengduo County of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, said all the cooperative's 714 mu of arable land has been planted with black highland barley that will be sold at twice the price of the common variety.

What makes the locals more confident is that the pre-orders of their harvest have already sold out.

The county government has also signed an agreement with a local biotech company. The company provides black highland barley seeds and guides farmers with scientific planting, and will purchase their harvest at a quality-based price after deducting the cost of the seeds.

Wu Kunlun, director of the provincial key laboratory of highland barley genetics breeding, said highland barley breeding research institutions in Qinghai have made a dent in yield and variety improvement.

Qinghai will promote the use of organic fertilizer across the province over the next five years, according to an agreement signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Qinghai provincial government last year.

Through the use of modern technologies and the promotion of the enterprises + bases + cooperatives + farmers, the traditional crop will be cultivated into a green industry on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, said Wang Yuhu, head of the provincial department of agriculture and rural affairs.

"Our ancestors survived by growing highland barley, while we thrive by doing the same thing," Triso Daye said.