Rich pickings for raspberry farm
Seven years ago, Martin Dabilly saw an opportunity and took it, growing raspberries northeast of Kunming with the help and expertise of his family, Chen Liang and Li Yingqing report.
In 1860, a French missionary built a church and planted vines with seeds brought from France in Deqen, northwestern Yunnan province. Now the province is considered the world’s sole repository of a rare grape varietal called rose honey, which has been extinct in France for more than 100 years.
After another French missionary left Vietnam to settle in an isolated village in the province’s Bingchuan county in 1892, he planted coffee seeds around the church he built. Now Yunnan has become the country’s major coffee growing region.
In November 2008, Frenchman Martin Dabilly planted the first raspberry seedling of a French variety in a 4-hectare plot he rented in Longyuan village in Songming county, about 50 kilometers northeast of Kunming in Yunnan. Now raspberries harvested on his farm, which has been expanded to 15 hectares, are sold not only in Kunming, but also in many of China’s major cities. More Chinese customers have started to know about and purchase “the French fruit made in China”.
An agriculture graduate from a university in Toulouse, France, Dabilly came to China in 2005. In Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, he worked for a French company, growing kiwi fruit in the region. During his two years in Sichuan, he found that fruits produced in China often had high output but poor quality.
“I wondered why China had to import very expensive foreign fruits, why I couldn’t find raspberries on the market,” he told China Daily at his office at Meiming Raspberry Farm in Longyuan village, in fluent Mandarin. The man from an old winemaking family started looking for raspberries on the Chinese market and places good to grow the fruit.
Soon he found that Russians introduced the berry to Northeast China in the 1930s. Even though there is large-scale raspberry cultivation in Northeast China, especially in Heilongjiang province, few can be found on the Chinese market as most of them will be quickly frozen and exported to the United States.
“No raspberries on the Chinese market. But I could grow high-quality raspberries. I saw the opportunity,” Dabilly said.
Together with his father, also an experienced farmer, he started looking for a place for his raspberry farm in 2007, after he declined the company’s offer to transfer him back to France.
Sichuan, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and Yunnan were three of his candidates. “To grow raspberries requires moderate temperatures and moisture, and a lot of sunshine,” the French farmer said. “Sunshine is a problem in Sichuan; Xinjiang’s winter is too long, and also it’s far from major cities, which means a problem for distribution. So we decided to go to Yunnan.”
On the expressway leading to Kunming, the Dabilly family saw the flat fields in Songming county. “Weather and distance are both good for running a farm,” Dabilly said. In 2008, he spent 10,500 yuan ($1,692) per hectare to rent the land for his farm. Last year, the rent increased to 37,500 yuan per hectare. “Many people came to rent land here to grow vegetables,” he explained.
The harvesting season for his farm is May to October, he said. In 2013, Meiming yielded 30 metric tons of raspberries and sold 27 tons. Last year, it harvested 40 tons and sold 38 tons.
Marketing is a major challenge for Meiming, Dabilly said. “A problem is that few Chinese know what shumei (raspberry in Chinese) is,” he said.
Another challenge was finding trustworthy supermarkets, distributors and hotels, he said.
At the beginning, he signed sales contracts with some major supermarkets in Beijing and Shanghai but later found “it was a big mistake”. “A contract said that we would receive our payment in two weeks, which turned out to be six months,” he said. “Supermarkets are thieves.”
Now he mainly deals with wholesale distributors and some five-star hotels and restaurants. Five-star hotels in Shanghai often have foreign executive chefs, who are usually interested in Meiming’s raspberries, Dabilly said.
As a result, some of the hotels have become Meiming’s regular customers.
Raspberries are a fragile fruit, he said. Harvests must be done with maximum care. In the busiest season, the farm hires 70 workers from the nearby villages to handpick and pack raspberries. “Most of them are women, as men usually have migrated to big cities for work,” he said. “They are easy to find and are more careful with the berries.”
Raspberries are stored in the cold room as soon as possible, where they are quickly cooled to 2C, which is the best temperature to keep berries. Then a refrigerated van delivers the berries to Meiming’s customers in Kunming or to the airport, which is only an hour’s drive from the farm. “So our customers in other cities can have the freshest raspberries,” Dabilly said.
According to him, fresh of raspberries can only stay for three or four days. So fresh raspberries can hardly be exported or imported.
Meiming’s raspberries are good to be eaten directly without washing, Dabilly said, because their growth has followed the European standards. “The farm will purchase certain pesticides, mostly used by organic farms, from France,” said Thomas Dabilly, Martin’s older brother.
Thomas has visited the farm from France from time to time. While Martin Dabilly is responsible for growing and marketing, his brother is in charge of accounting and finance.
His father visits the farm once a year and stays for six months, Thomas Dabilly said. The father and Martin founded the family enterprise.
The father is responsible for the surplus raspberries to make raspberry liquor. After getting all of the permits and authentications in 2013, his father followed a traditional French process to brew the raspberry liquor at the farm. It has been branded with the brothers’ great-grandfather’s name, Marc. The sale of the liquor has reached 4,000 bottles, according to a report.
The profit from the business has been re-invested to expand the farm, renting more land and building a new laboratory, Thomas said.
At a corner of the farm, Martin built a cottage in a fenced garden for him and his wife, Claire, and their dog, Milou. When Thomas and his father visit, they live there, too.
Martin and his wife stay at the farm two or three days a week and live in Kunming the other days. His wife is studying Chinese medicine in Kunming, where the farm has an office.
“I have lived in China for 10 years. I love China,” Martin Dabilly said. “I have a good relationship with the local government, but I don’t go looking for the government’s help. The French government has never done anything for us. This company is a Chinese company.” Contact the writers at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org