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.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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 chen­liang@chi­nadaily.com.cn and liy­ingqing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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