Earlier this summer, Chinese grower Liu Zhancun sold a watermelon for 2,000 yuan (US$279) at a fruit auction, 100 times the usual price.
The Gobi Desert that houses Liu's family in the city of Zhongwei has long been used to grow watermelons, but the yield had been too scarce to feed locals. "It seldom rained, and for generations the place remained poor," recalled Liu Wengang, father of Liu Zhancun and a melon farmer with over 30 years of experience in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
The arid climate has now become a blessing. In the 1980s, the local government encouraged residents to lay gravel on top of the sandy earth. "No one expected any positive change, but hope grew unexpectedly from the stones," said Liu Wengang. "Covering sandy earth with gravel can reduce water evaporation and sandstorms, and protect plants from diseases, insects and pests. It is a traditional but scientific method that farmers discovered in the ongoing battle with drought," said Zhang Shouge, an official with the city's Agriculture Department.
Watermelons from the Gobi Desert are benefiting from the large discrepancy between day and night temperatures and rich amino acid and other nutrients. The fruit was even highlighted at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2009.
Now 90 percent of the 66,700 hectares of gravel land in Zhongwei is used to grow watermelons, which generated an output value of 2.5 billion yuan in 2018 and benefited 280,000 villagers from 141 villages.
"Growing watermelons has become our pillar industry and the per capita annual income has reached 10,000 yuan in the main production zone," said Zhang, adding that local government has worked to standardize its plantation and expand its sales through promotions and setting up outlets.
"The price of a square watermelon is 10 times that of a regular one," said the younger Liu. "Our cooperative is expected to make 3 million yuan this year, three times that of last year. And we plan to expand its scale next year."