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Lamb and the mighty spud: How food helped pull this small Gansu county out of poverty
From:Shanghai Daily  |  2021-01-09 04:29

NESTLED away in a landlocked expanse in China’s arid northwest is Gansu Province, spreading over a vast area of 454,000 square kilometers that includes part of the Gobi Desert. Famous for Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, China’s own version of Botox and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, it’s a place of stark beauty and home to 25.5 million. But in 2019, Gansu also had the lowest GDP in the entire country.

Located about a three-hour drive from the provincial capital, Lanzhou, is the Dongxiang Autonomous County, a special area set up in 1950 owing to the fact that the area is inhabited mostly by the Dongxiang people, one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. Being an autonomous county (China has many) means they have more leeway in their own governance, culture, language and religion.

The Dongxiang people are largely Muslim, meaning they derive most of their celebrations, taboos and customs from Islam.

In 2013, nearly a third of the population were living under the poverty line. Last month, the county was officially removed from the poverty list. So, how did they do it?

Dongxiang locals are typically quite agricultural people who grow wheat, maize and potato, and also have a love for lamb. It makes sense, then, that poverty alleviation projects in the county often centered around food.

Fan Chenyang, who works in the Dongxiang potato industry, took me to a potato farm to see some of the achievements made in growing great spuds. One of the main ways potato helped lift the area out of poverty was through education and training, he said, which includes topics like optimal planting, disease prevention, natural pesticides and collecting stock for market.

“These training sessions have helped a lot in improving both the quality and quantity of the potatoes being produced here,” he told me while showing me how to dig up potatoes on the rolling hills of the county.

The Dongxiang people have many ways of preparing the potato for the dinner table, including spicy potato slices, sour Julienne potato, baking traditionally under a bed of hot rocks, and even potato noodles. The spuds here are famous, and are now exported all over China.

Dongxiang lamb is too, famous for its fat, believe it or not, and its tender texture. Many lambs here are purposely grown to at least 30 kilograms, especially in order to achieve the right fat versus meat ratio.

Mada Wude is a Dongxiang local who left at the age of 17 in order to farm sheep in other areas of northwest China. He returned five years ago to help his county throw off the shackles of poverty, helping establish a sheep breeding cooperative which has around 1,800 sheep owned by 25 families in his village.

Now he’s the president of the county’s breeding industry association.

“We provide people here with a good platform,” he told me when I visited his 25-mu (1.7 hectares) farm. “Every year the profit is distributed to the people.”

The sheep there are given innovative green feed and monitored continuously using a high-tech traceability system, ensuring buyers all over China can eat Dongxiang lamb with peace of mind.