Photographer transforming into avocado farming pioneer

Updated: Feb 21, 2024 China Daily Print
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Dameng's photography work, The Va Girl and Her Avocados. CHINA DAILY

Li Wei, 30, better known by his online alias "Dameng", manages an avocado orchard in Menglian Dai, Lahu, and Va Autonomous County of Pu'er, Yunnan province. He uses his photography to promote the city, which sits on the border between China and Myanmar.

Hailing from Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous prefecture, Yunnan, Dameng is a member of the Hani ethnic group. Three years ago, he was working as a travel experience designer and photographer, having visited over 30 countries. However, he felt drawn to his own ethnic group and decided to return to Yunnan to document local ethnic cultures.

After visiting several places, Dameng lacked sustained financial support, so he started looking for ways to use his skills to help local people and also make some money.

In October 2020, he arrived in Menglian, a town comparable in latitude to Michoacan, Mexico, a major avocado-producing region.

"When I saw avocado trees stretching from the mountaintops to the foothills, I knew I had finally found the right place that could accommodate me," he recalled.

In April 2021, Dameng planted his first batch of avocado seedlings. But for the first three years, he had to prune the avocados to encourage the growth of the trees, and only from the fourth year onward did the trees begin to yield fruit.

Since his own avocado trees have not yet borne fruit, Dameng has been purchasing avocados from local farmers, above market price, to sell through his own online and offline channels.

Using his expertise in photography, Dameng bridges the gap between consumers and the origin of the avocados, allowing them to see the fruits' growing environment and the growth process. His reverence for nature and ethnic culture earned recognition from consumers.

Dameng (center) posing for a photo with local farmers. CHINA DAILY

By the end of the local avocado harvest season in early January, Dameng achieved sales revenue of 1 million yuan.

Unlike many agricultural companies, which often maintain a purely leasing relationship with the local community, Dameng makes sure that all the income is shared equally between him and the local farmers who rent their fields to him. This, he believes, fosters inclusivity and equitable agricultural development.

Dameng is currently collaborating with 96 households of Va, Lahu, and Dai ethnic groups to plant 5,000 avocado trees, encouraging them to intercrop avocados in the front and backyards of their homes or in coffee fields, which not only maximizes land utilization but also diversifies income sources.

Ai Dan, for example, a 46-year-old Va villager, planted 200 avocado trees alongside his coffee crop, and last year had a bumper harvest of both coffee and avocados.

"I earned 10,000 yuan ($1,389) from avocados and over 10,000 yuan from coffee. Planting two crops on one piece of land is much more profitable," Ai said.

Dameng also educated local farmers on sustainable farming practices, advocating against the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He initiated lessons on producing organic enzymes from fruit waste to enhance soil fertility.

In his spare time, Dameng likes to take photos of the locals, capturing their simple and vivid smiles.

His work, The Va Girl and Her Avocados, was published in a well-known magazine last year, and Spring in the Ears, featuring elderly Va women wearing wildflowers in their ears, won an award at the Chinese Ethnic Minority Photographer Prize last year.

In addition to photography, Dameng takes advantage of his experience as a travel designer. He offers a project where participants can pick seasonal fruits at the orchard, experience tea picking at the famed Jingmai Mountain of Pu'er, and visit the village of the Blang ethnic group.

He also ventures into developing cultural and creative products, with proceeds donated to rural public welfare initiatives.

Dameng said that many people envy his seemingly peaceful farm life, but the reality is quite different. He must deal with various challenges, such as expanding sales channels and improving product presentation and promotion.

"Whenever I feel lost and full of doubt, I like to take off my shoes and step onto the soil of the orchard. It grounds me like nothing else," he said.

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