Promoted as a health food, the versatile wolfberry is boosting rural incomes Ask any Chinese to name a little fruit that can be eaten fresh or dried, used as medicine, made into tea, stewed or fermented into wine, and most will say gouqi, or the wolfberry. A massive marketing drive accompanied by a health food craze has made the wolfberry a star cash crop and lifted thousands of farmers in the arid northwest out of poverty. Zhongning city , in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region , is China's undisputed wolfberry capital, producing one-third of the country's crop last year. The increase in demand for the fruit since the late 1990s has transformed the local economy, accounting for 40 per cent of farmers' income and about 200,000 seasonal jobs from June to October. Since 1997, the area of land devoted to wolfberry cultivation in Zhongning has grown from 360 to 7,000 hectares. But while production has risen 1,100 per cent, revenue has only increased 730 per cent. The bush which bears the juicy fruit has been cultivated in China for more than 600 years and wolfberries are known for their health benefits: the berries contain more beta-carotene than carrots and as much vitamin C as oranges. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine say the berries strengthen the immune system, and help maintain healthy blood pressure and blood sugar. The plant can tolerate hot and cold temperatures and grows well in poor soil conditions. Old Yang is a berry picker from the mountainous Guyuan county in the south. He earns about 25 yuan per day. 'It takes a lot of work to fill up a basket, not like picking apples,' he said, fingering the tiny tomato-coloured berries on the leafy bush. At the edge of the wolfberry field, a young woman with a deeply tanned face tending a stall said this year's bumper crop was hurting prices. At one of Zhongning's wholesale markets, vendors said the average price of dried wolfberries had dropped about 10 per cent from a high of 36 yuan per kg a few years ago to 30 to 32 yuan this year. It takes 6kg of fresh berries to make 1kg of dried gouqi. The fame of Ningxia's wolfberries has meant that berries grown in Inner Mongolia and Tibet are labelled as coming from Ningxia. Signs of saturation have prompted the local government and enterprises to refine their strategies, including processing the berries into value-added products such as diet supplement capsules, bottled drinks, wine and liquor. They are also employing aggressive marketing campaigns to create brand awareness. Ningxia Red, a company owned by the Ningxia Xiangshan Group, bought a prime-time slot on CCTV for 300 million yuan to promote its vermouth-like sweet wine in the first quarter of the year. At the annual Zhongning wolfberry festival last week, officials from the State Forestry Administration pledged continued support for research into wolfberry farming, as the central government has highlighted the area an example of sustainable development. This state support is a part of Beijing's 'Go West' campaign. Zhongning has also benefited from massive infrastructure projects in recent years. Ningxia has a population of 5.6 million, of which one-third belongs to the Hui minority, descended from Arab and Iranian traders travelling to China in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Under the 'Go West' campaign, the region's GDP has grown by an annual average of 9.5 per cent during the past five years. However, the region is still poor and, with a per capita income of 5,800 yuan, it ranked 22nd among the nation's provinces and regions last year. Although the wolfberry has lifted many farmers out of poverty, trade-promotion officials are aware of the risk of placing too much emphasis on a single cash crop. 'We want to diversify,' said an official from the regional capital, Yinchuan . 'The wolfberry festival attracts many businesspeople and we hope they will spread the word about other investment opportunities in Ningxia.' Besides agriculture, investors had shown interest in coal mines and tourism, he said. Ningxia is home to the royal tombs of the Western Xia dynasty (1,100 to 1,300 AD), which authorities are trying to have listed as a world heritage site.