Rooted in sustainability

作者:ALEXIS HOOI and ZHANG YU来源:China Daily

A chestnut farmer works in the fields of Kuancheng county, Hebei province, during the September harvest.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Farmer Liu Jingyi would play at the family chestnut tree just outside their yard when he was a child, climbing up its branches and into the hollow of its trunk.

"It was a big tree, the trunk about a meter wide, probably more than 600 years old and very much a part of our lives," says Liu, now 79.

Liu is a fifth-generation cultivator of chestnut trees in Aiyukou village of the Kuancheng Manchu autonomous county in Chengde, North China's Hebei province.

The village is a center of chestnut cultivation. More than 400 Aiyukou households covering nearly 700 hectares of farmland together yield about 1,000 metric tons of the nuts a year, with many of the trees hundreds of years old. About 50,000 hectares in Kuancheng are used to farm chestnuts, with an annual output value of 860 million yuan ($119 million), according to latest industry figures.

Chestnut. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Local residents are justifiably proud of their sweet and plump chestnuts, grown with tried and tested farming practices stretching back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Two iconic Kuancheng chestnut trees, which forestry specialists said were planted in the year 1303, still bear fruit.

The county is now poised to tap the latest green development trends following a global nod to its model of sustainability.

In November, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization included the Kuancheng Traditional Chestnut Eco-Planting System on its list of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, citing its rich cultural content that embodies "the ecological view of respecting nature and the social organization form that promotes agricultural production".

Plump chestnuts are gathered in a basket during the September harvest in Kuancheng county.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Long history

Since 2005, the organization has designated at least 86 systems in 26 countries as agricultural heritage sites under its program. China ranked first in the world in the number of the heritage systems by 2023, with its total of 22 entries.

"Kuancheng chestnut forests are distributed on the foothills and the lower parts of hillsides, existing in harmony with the local flora and fauna and setting an important example for the development of eco-agriculture in a mountainous, semiarid area with limited resources," says Shang Heli, economic crops director at Kuancheng's agriculture and rural affairs bureau.

"Evolved from ancient times, chestnut cultivation here encompasses rationally allocated soil terraces, customized irrigation pits and channels, natural fertilization and pest control, and complementary crops, such as mushrooms and grain, as well as free-ranging poultry, grown and bred under the trees that altogether offer a closed-loop, comprehensive, efficient and ecological farming tradition passed down generations," he says.

Food entrepreneur Liu Jianxia holds a tray of oven-roasted chestnuts at her shop in Chengde, Hebei, on March 27.[Photo provided by Wang Haoran/China Daily]

"Behind this harmonious symbiosis between chestnut cultivation and the natural environment is a flexible smallholder farming and cooperatives network that constitutes a stable and highly adaptable social and economic operation mode," says Shang, who was closely involved in the county's application for inclusion on the UN heritage list.

Kuancheng's ecological view of respecting nature and the social organization that supports agricultural production in turn reflects its rich cultural connotations, according to the UN.

"A code of conduct for protecting the natural environment and promoting the harmonious coexistence between humans and nature has been gradually established by the local community, with aspects such as clothing, dwellings, festivals and ceremonies showing people's respect for and adaptation to their physical environment," it said.

A "cultural symbol value" of chestnuts has also been gradually formed in the area, as shown in the food culture of the chestnut.

The crop "can be regarded not only as a staple food but also a fruit and a medicine. The chestnut is seen locally as the spiritual symbol of auspiciousness, and the determination and chestnut-related legends, stories and literary works, as well as ancient chestnut trees, serve as historical and cultural symbols", according to the UN heritage listing.

Workers check chestnuts at the Shen Li Food facility in Kuancheng on March 26.[Photo provided by Wang Haoran/China Daily]

Heritage protected

In July 2022, President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to the World Conference on Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, saying that it is the common responsibility of humankind to protect agricultural heritage.

China has actively responded to the program initiated by the FAO and the country has been protecting and inheriting agricultural heritage, Xi highlighted.

Local authorities, recognizing the pillar agricultural sector, will "improve policy mechanisms and give full play to the county's advantages, study and formulate chestnut industry development regulations and work plans, and comprehensively promote the protection and inheritance of Kuancheng's traditional chestnut cultivation system", says Wang Xin, deputy director at the county's agriculture and rural affairs bureau.

"We will also look at increasing capital investment, expanding and strengthening chestnut and fruit industry areas, and work toward a network that brings together leading enterprises, cooperatives, farmers and markets, under a comprehensive ecological industrial chain to increase local farmers' incomes," he says.

"The third step is to build on our branding, help expand sales channels in multiple directions, and leverage our farm-culture heritage, to further promote our chestnuts and better serve the people of Kuancheng," Wang says.

Chestnuts await checking and packaging at the food facility.[Photo provided by Wang Haoran/China Daily]

Improving livelihoods

Helping to lead the charge in tapping Kuancheng's agricultural strengths for the next green stages of development is homegrown company Shen Li Food. The food processing group works with 200,000 local farmers to offer more than 70 chestnut and related products that are exported to more than 30 countries and regions, including the United States, Germany and Japan.

Business innovation measures include long-term R&D and technological tie-ups with academic institutions to ensure that nutrition and production levels meet the highest standards, according to the company.

"We work side by side with the farmers and local residents to grow our chestnut industry, bringing real benefits to the economy and improving livelihoods. The UN heritage listing will allow more people across the world to enjoy our produce," says Han Guodong, the company's deputy general manager.

A worker monitors the production line at the facility.[Photo provided by Wang Haoran/China Daily]

Young Kuancheng residents like 40-year-old entrepreneur Liu Jianxia are also looking to their roots to ride the latest developments, promoting Kuancheng's chestnuts at home and abroad.

Her three shops, two in the city center and one in the county, selling chestnuts and other food products, help rake in more than 2 million yuan a year.

Other than focusing on e-commerce trends, such as livestreaming, Liu's investments in innovative practices include modern food processing equipment and attractive product packaging to keep up to speed with evolving consumer tastes.

"I received a lot of local support, such as government financial aid, for my education all the way up to the tertiary level, where I majored in business management," she says.

"We've reaped a lot from our chestnuts, which are deeply embedded in our history, culture and way of life. It seems only natural to share the rich bounty of our home with everyone."