By Sara Duncan
Hongge Cai is a 49-year-old Chinese grower who used to feed his family by working on a two-hectare parcel of land growing corn. He, his wife, and two sons barely survived on $2,000 a year. Recently, Cai and his wife experienced one of the many joys of parenthood: their eldest son was accepted into college.
They were proud, but concerned about how to pay for tuition when they could barely get through day-to-day life.
Until, Cai happened to see a field demonstration about growing a certain type of pepper with potential. He borrowed money from his relatives, purchased the pepper seeds, cultivation materials and tools, and converted his land into peppers. With the help of the demonstration team providing knowledge and technique support, Cai made more than five times more on the pepper harvest than on corn in past years. His son is also now attending college.
For the past six years, the Monsanto China vegetable team has traveled more than 150 days per year to help farmers change the pepper growing tradition in northeast China. Cai is one of more than thousands of farmers whose lives have been impacted by it.
For the past 30 years, pepper growers in China have relied on open-pollinated varieties of peppers. The vegetable team in China partnered with a seed dealer to develop a market for the Golden Tower pepper seed (GTPS), a hybrid pepper that can more than double the pepper yield for farmers over local open-pollinated varieties. Because of the high quality and high productivity of Golden Tower pepper seed, the seed dealer has grown to become one of the biggest high-quality pepper producers in China and one of the biggest pepper exporters to Korea. The dealer even changed his company’s name to Golden Tower Group. Now more than 100,000 pepper growers across 20 counties make their living growing Golden Tower pepper seed.
“The most challenging aspect of this project was six years of persistence,” Qiming Peng, Monsanto China marketing lead, said. “Trust of our product and foresight of the market started this project. Success, however, was not guaranteed. We were guaranteed distrust in the beginning, hesitation during market penetration, and market downsize by the global financial crisis. Nevertheless, no one could stop the faith of our working team.”
At first, Chinese farmers were hesitant to make the switch. The seeds were nearly double the cost of traditional seeds, and required new methods for fertilizing, watering, crop dusting, disease prevention, and harvest. In order to convince Chinese farmers to switch to a hybrid pepper, the team decided to demonstrate the high-yielding Golden Tower pepper seed for potential growers.
Instead of conducting demonstration plots twice a year to relatively large-scale growers, as had been done in the past, the team went to rural areas and conducted 40 to 50 demonstrations at farmers’ houses in every village they could reach. The team not only showcased pest and disease prevention and harvesting and drying, but also coordinated purchase contracts between Golden Tower Group and growers.
“Dry pepper selling price is king,” Peng said. “No matter what they grow, growers want a better income. The working team convinced the Golden Tower Group to sign a contract with every contracted Golden Tower pepper seed grower to guarantee a purchase price of 50 percent more than the market price of open-pollinated peppers.”
The success of this project has financially impacted the local pepper-related industry– transportation to processing, storage and pepper farming. Despite the huge success, hybrid peppers only hold 20 percent of the pepper market in China, leaving plenty of room for future growth.
Golden Tower Group and members of the working team have won eight awards for their efforts to bring a better pepper product to Chinese farmers–including a national award naming the Golden Tower Group as one of the most important agricultural enterprises.
The team believes this cooperation model can be replicated for other products such as waxy corn, watermelon and cucumber in the near future. They are currently applying this model to a tomato variety.