A treasure that could lift incomes in remote areas

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List top smallholder crops in China, and you may not think of pumpkins. But a small new arrival is showing big promise. Our team is helping growers turn a good start into a successful future.

Gulang is a remote area in China’s Gansu province. The hot summers and dry winters make it ideal for growing richly flavored produce. In 2021, the Syngenta Foundation (SFSA) joined with the Gulang Agricultural Bureau to introduce a new crop to the region: mini pumpkins.

The Beilimei* variety has a pleasant flavor that reminds people of Chinese chestnuts. Originally bred in Japan, it has been gaining in popularity over recent years. Our initiative in Gulang taps into the growing Chinese demand for more unusual or “trendy” varieties of fruit and vegetables. Urban consumers with purchasing power are looking for new complements to their intake of healthy, high-quality foods.

“The warm, dry conditions in Gulang reduce the threat of pests and disease and enable Beilimei to grow well outside in summer”, explains our Program Manager Honglei Li. “Farmers can also extend the season by planting the pumpkins in greenhouses in colder weather.”

As well as being suitable for local growing conditions, this mini pumpkin also travels well. It is currently selling 2000 kilometers away in Shanghai. “City customers not only like the attractive dark-purple fruit but also view the pumpkin as health food. The market is likely to expand to other major centers such as Beijing and Shenzhen”, Honglei predicts.

Technology, trust and market links

SFSA supports Gulang Tianyuan Agricultural Industry Co. Ltd. through the planting process, providing technology and technical guidance. As Honglei comments, however, establishing a new crop is also about trust and good market links. “We promote knowledge and confidence in Beilimei through the distribution of samples to potential buyers. We also help to build commercial bridges between the consumer market and the Gulang community.”

Compared to other local greenhouse crops, such as tomato or cucumber, growers of the mini pumpkin are finding that it could raise income by about 15 percent. A farmer cooperative can achieve Beilimei yields of 1500 kg per mu (22,500 kg per hectare). Calculations suggest that would earn them about 8000 RMB per mu (120,000 RMB/ha, currently about $19,000).

Last year, only three greenhouses in Gulang were involved in mini pumpkin trials. However, a specialist outlet in Shanghai was delighted with the samples and ordered the entire harvest. “That greatly increased our growers’ confidence”, smiles Honglei. In 2022, production is planned to expand to 30 greenhouses. The SFSA will continue to provide demonstration planting, technology support, and advice. Our aim is to boost both mini pumpkin production and smallholder incomes.  

*The name Beilimei (贝栗美)is composed of bei “treasure”, li ("Chinese chestnut", because of the taste), and mei, "beautiful".

Here’s more about what Honglei Li and our team in China has done since the Foundation started work there in 2018.

Honglei Li's colleague Yuwei Duan is one of our Diversity & Inclusion champions.