At 65, Gao Longhuai has received the first paychecks of her life this year from a seed-breeding base in Hamashen village, Shanxi province.
She has received 12,000 yuan ($1,810) since March for helping the base plant sea buckthorn seedlings. The base also pays 10,000 yuan a year to rent her 1.3 hectares of land.
Gao is one of the many "left-behind" seniors in the village in Lanxian county, Lyuliang. About 80 percent of the villagers are old or middle-aged since most of its young people left due to the barren land's harsh environment.
"As rain-dependent farmers, we dealt with income instability for most of our life," Gao said. In a good year, her family could earn about 10,000 yuan by selling potatoes and corn, but more often, droughts would reduce their income to nothing.
"To make ends meet, my children had no choice but to leave as migrant workers," she said.
Village official Liang Xiaorui said that while young villagers tended to leave in search of better jobs, older people, unwilling to part with their homes, mostly stayed in the village and struggle with poverty.
To improve the lives of the elderly villagers, the county government introduced sea buckthorns in 2016, both as a commercial plant and as part of the local afforestation drive.
Sea buckthorns can be planted in saline soil to inhibit soil erosion, while their berries can be made into juices and cosmetics. Liang said each hectare of sea buckthorns could bring an annual profit of 60,000 yuan, which was more than could be earned from traditional crops.
Villagers were encouraged to lease their barren land to sea buckthorn companies. Apart from rent and dividends, elderly residents can also earn extra income by helping with the farm work. The government also subsidizes farmers to cushion them against possible slumps in profits.
The county now has 20,000 hectares of land under sea buckthorn, with five major plantations generating a yearly income of 20 million yuan and benefiting 5,155 people from impoverished families.
China has set the goal of eradicating absolute poverty by the end of this year, and poverty relief policies have been tailored to local conditions. In Lanxian, the sea buckthorn industry is now a success story of "poverty reduction through environmental protection".
Local officials are now planning to extend the industrial chain of sea buckthorns to expand job opportunities for the elderly and the young.
Hamashen will build a cold-storage facility and a factory next year to preserve and process freshly picked sea buckthorn berries. The seed-breeding base is also developing an orchard to allow tourists to pick fruits.
Du Gaixiu, 56, whose three children work in the provincial capital Taiyuan and only return home once a year, has high hopes for the industry, from which she earns 2,000 yuan a month.
"My kids may have an opportunity to return home and work in the processing factory," she said.
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