A customer selects potatos at a supermarket in Haikou, Hainan province, Sept 22. [Asianewsphoto]
DINGXI - The potato, known as "foreign yam" in Chinese, was once planted in China as a life-saving food to survive famines.
But as China moves towards being the center of potato production in Asia, the humble potato is now bringing wealth to some in western China who had been living in poverty.
Chen Chunlan, a potato farmer in Dingxi in northwest China's Gansu province, now lives a satisfying life in her newly-built, well-furnished home.
Chen credits her potato fields for the improved standard of living -- they provide her with an annual income of 70,000 yuan ($10,400).
But Chen clearly recalls the hard times not long ago, when local peasants often had to worry about their next meal.
"We used to grow wheat, but the meager harvest could barely feed us, let alone allow us to save some money," said Chen.
In 2001, destitution even forced Chen to flee Dingxi to try to earn a living in another place.
Dingxi, with its cold and arid climate and hence low agricultural yield, has long been listed as one of China's poorest regions.
In 1995, a severe drought hit Dingxi, and almost everything in the fields withered. But to the locals' surprise, the potatoes survived the catastrophe.
"Potatoes are amazingly drought-resistant and can acclimatize well to Dingxi's agricultural conditions," explained Wang Yihang, the provincial potato expert.
Next year, the Dingxi government launched the "Potato Project" to popularize the cultivation of potatoes to guarantee basic food supply.
Dingxi grows more potatoes than any other city in China, boasting over 200,000 hectares of potato fields, or one third of the city's arable land.
Thanks to the edible tuber, the city no longer has a food supply problem, and attention has shifted to making the "food of the poor" a major export.
"Some freshly harvested potatoes are transported to wholesale markets all over China on special trains, while others are processed in local plants," said Yang Zixing, party secretary of Dingxi city, referring to the city's 20 large factories that turn the smaller, unsuited-for-sale potatoes into starch or potato chips. Previously, these potatoes would have been discarded or used for pig feed.
Some companies have struck deals with Simplot, McDonald's french-fries supplier, to grow and process high-quality potatoes.
The city's potato-processing factories are the source for 25 percent of the local farmers' income.
Dingxi's success story suggests a bright future for potato cultivation in China, as cultivation of the tiny tuber rapidly expands into China's western regions.
"Over 4.7 million hectares of arable land in China are now growing potatoes, up from 2.7 million in the 1980s," said Wang.
"Most of the increased potato cultivation is in China's poor western regions -- the provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi and Qinghai, and the Ningxia Hui autonomous region."
The potato has proven to be more suitable than rice and wheat for cultivation on western China's arid, barren lands, playing a major role in relieving starvation in these regions.
Furthermore, surging demand for potato products like starch can galvanize these less-developed regions to quickly industrialize.
"Potatoes can be made into materials or ingredients that are needed in food processing, papermaking, pharmaceuticals, textiles and many other industries," said Wang.
And although in China potatoes are traditionally not a staple food as they are in many other parts of the world, it is nevertheless an integral part of Chinese cuisine.
Potato-based snacks are also becoming popular in China, especially after western fast food giants like McDonald's and KFC began selling french fries.
Given the market potential and adaptability to arid areas, the potato may well be a new industrial star in China's west.