Economy and Trade

County's wealth entwined with flourishing orchids

Updated: May 30, 2024 By LI WENFANG in Shaoguan, Guangdong CHINA DAILY Print
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A worker poses with orchids from a research company's plot in Wengyuan county in Guangdong province. PARKER ZHENG/CHINA DAILY

Editor's note: In a series of reports titled "Claims to Fame", China Daily looks at how some regions have earned wealth and recognition through specific products to realize the goal of rural vitalization.

When Cao Dexing from Taichung in Taiwan visited a friend in Guangdong province in 1996, he had little inkling he would become part of a multibillion yuan orchid industry that today supplies the majority of the Chinese market.

His friend in Shunde was selling orchids grown in Taiwan. Back then, orchid growing was a rare agricultural venture on the Chinese mainland, while Taiwan had a sizable orchid industry, Cao said.

In 1998, Cao, now 47, quit his job as a salesman in Taiwan and joined his friend in the orchid business in Shunde, where he also met his future wife, who is from Hunan province.

However, it was a visit with a group of businesspeople from Taiwan to hilly Wengyuan county in Guangdong's north that changed Cao's fortunes.

Cao said one of his workers had told him that orchids grow well in Wengyuan. The group brought dozens of the flowering plants back with them to Shunde.

"In Wengyuan, the temperature difference between day and night is large. The air is clear, the water is good, and there are no polluting enterprises. These are favorable conditions for orchids' growth," he said.

In 2002, Cao signed an agreement to start orchid farming in Wengyuan's Xianhe township.

"We didn't make our decision on the first visits, but the township Party chief He Wenhui was very proactive and welcoming. When we showed a little interest he kept calling us. We were persuaded and somewhat moved," Cao said.

"The economy here was underdeveloped. When local people knew orchids could make money, they were excited. The orchid prices were high then," Cao added.

A pot of orchids in Cao's office, which today sells for less than 200 yuan ($28), cost more than 3,000 yuan two decades ago. Back then, a worker was paid 6 yuan a day.

However, without an industrial chain, Cao found it difficult to even reach his pot supplier, with the road network virtually nonexistent.

Despite this, initial investment grew as local investors put their faith in the industry, which has also been expanded through the development and introduction of new orchid varieties to the market. In the meantime, Taiwan investors brought their expertise, while the government offered strong support, Cao said.

Today, Cao's Wengyuan Defang Orchid Garden Co operates 300 mu (20 hectares) of orchid farms. The main market for his flowers has shifted from Hong Kong and South Korea, where demand has dwindled, to the Chinese mainland.

"I have been a participant in and witness of Wengyuan's orchid industry. Now we have the government's policies for rural revitalization. I think the prospects are promising," Cao said.

A farmer sells orchids through livestreaming. PARKER ZHENG/CHINA DAILY

Orchid boom

Over the past 25 years, orchid farming in the county has gone from virtually zero to an annual turnover of 3 billion yuan (see box).Orchid farms in the county cover more than 2,360 hectares, and 21,000 people have found well-paying jobs related to the industry.

Ma Sanlang, 37, who owns the New Brothers Agricultural Development Co, is one of the locals benefiting from the boom.

He had several jobs in Shenzhen before he returned to his home village of Songtang in 2005 to take care of his parents. At the time, he worked at an orchid farm of an investor from Taiwan.

In 2020, Ma started his own orchid growing business. He now has 100 mu (6.67 hectares) of farmland and grows more than 200 orchid varieties. Last year, his business earned more than 10 million yuan in revenue.

"I wouldn't have what I have now without my orchid business. I have my apartment, my car. My three kids are going to primary school in the county town to have a good education," he said.

Ma employs 10 full-time and four part-time workers. Locals make money by both renting their land and working in the sector.

A key to the industry's rapid growth over the past 25 years has been the input from the local government, which has actively attracted investment, including for research facilities, and strongly promoted the local orchid industry, he added.

The 28th China Orchid Expo was held in Wengyuan in 2018, making it the first county to host the event.

Also, an orchid industrial park was designated as a national modern agriculture industrial park by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Finance in 2022. It is the only industrial park in the country that focuses on flowers.

While Ma's sales volume has increased over the past two years, the price of orchids has fallen. He believes ongoing development of new orchid varieties is crucial to maintaining good prices.

His company is one of the shareholders of Guangdong Wengshan Orchid Research Co, a major orchid breeding facility in Wengyuan. The Environmental Horticulture Research Institute of the Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Sciences is also a shareholder. The company has other research institutions across the country developing new orchid varieties.

Two decades ago, expensive orchid seedlings were sourced from Taiwan and South Korea. Today, 16 agricultural research facilities in Wengyuan provide about half of the seedlings used in the county, with the remainder coming from other provinces, said Liu Weiping, chairman of Guangdong Wengshan Orchid Research Co and vice-chairman of the Orchid Sub-Association of the China Flower Association.

A researcher studies orchid seedlings in a laboratory in Wengyuan. PARKER ZHENG/CHINA DAILY

Liu said his company's orchid breeding program is based on market forecasts, with trips made annually to conduct market research. "We learn people's demand through market research. For example, they may get tired of too many reddish flowers. Big plants could fall out of fashion, with a change in people's aesthetic preferences and smaller residential housing units," Liu said.

It takes eight to 12 years to sell a newly developed orchid variety on a large scale. The company has developed up to 500 orchid varieties, which can be grown on a commercial scale. "Without new varieties, you can never retain market share," Liu said.

The varieties developed in Wengyuan have won 29 top awards at national orchid expos.

Liu also undertakes field trips to discover new wild orchid varieties. In the future, his company hopes to conduct orchid breeding in space to develop new varieties, and also promote standardized farming practices to improve quality control.

Different orchid species can be seen in traditional Chinese paintings, and often denote cultural refinement. The plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum are praised as the four "gentlemen" of Chinese flowers.

Chinese orchids sell well, especially in the northern part of the country, where they can easily survive indoors and brighten interiors in winter, Liu said.

Wengyuan has 22 varieties of wild orchids, with more than 1,500 Chinese orchid varieties and over 300 exotic orchid varieties grown in the county.

Online offerings

Technology has transformed Wengyuan's orchid industry in another way.

About 700 million yuan, or almost a third, of its 3 billion yuan in annual sales are now done online, according to Lan Baoling, deputy dean of Guangdong Songshan Polytechnic College's Rural E-commerce Industry Department.

Wengyuan Wanyi Information Technology Co generated more than 30 million yuan last year from online sales of orchids, said Yan Lianhua, the company's executive director.

Yan has e-commerce teams at her Wengyuan farm and at a flower market in Foshan, Guangdong. Her company sells moth orchids, which are classified as exotic and are highly profitable. However, they constitute only a minor part of the Wengyuan farming operations, she said, adding Chinese orchids make up the lion's share.

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