CHANGSHA－Yu Jianqi was a construction engineer before he returned to his hometown four years ago to pursue his passion of searching for “lost seeds” to grow old varieties of plants and vegetables.
Yu’s interest in the forgotten seeds began in 2006, when he returned to Lutang village, Hunan province, after working away from home for many years.
His mother made him a dish of towel gourd.”It was so delicious, the same taste as in my childhood,” Yu said.
The second life-changing meal was a lunch at a rural restaurant during a business trip. “The vegetable was amazing and I couldn’t stop eating it,” he said.
Yu discovered the secret of the delicious meals was that the ingredients were grown from old local varieties of seeds.
“Commercial varieties, which are better suited to modern large-scale production, have gradually replaced the local ones,” Yu said. “That’s why we believe some food doesn’t taste the same as we remember.”
China has the world’s second-largest supply of germplasm resources, but the quantity has been on the decline.
In 2016, after several years of studying and preparing for his new venture, Yu quit his job and returned to Lutang where he acquired 80 hectares of land.
His plan was to collect and propagate local seed varieties on his plantation. The first step was finding the seeds.”Whenever I heard where old seeds were, I would set off there immediately,” he said.
In four years, he visited hundreds of counties and cities in Hunan and also places in Hubei and Yunnan provinces and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
He stayed in Libo county, Guizhou province, for a month and visited more than 30 villages. “In a remote village I finally found a batch of seeds of tomato, eggplant, pepper and other old vegetable varieties that have been planted for more than 200 years,” Yu said.
However, on his way back home he was caught in a landslide.
“I had no time to hesitate and only grabbed the bag of seeds before jumping out of the car,” he said.
So far, Yu has collected the seeds of nearly 800 varieties of rice, vegetables, flowers and other plants. He has also invested heavily in building a warehouse and exhibition hall and started work on propagation of the seeds.
Farmers in his cooperative use traditional methods to plant the seeds Yu has collected. Sometimes they start with 10 seeds and end up with thousands. Experts from the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Hunan Seed Association often come to Yu’s cooperative to provide guidance.
For Yu, the old seed varieties mean more than just producing high-quality produce, they also represent the “genetic resources” of a country.
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In May, Hunan, one of the country’s major grain producers, launched its first germplasm pool in an effort to strengthen the protection and utilization of agricultural resources.
Some of the 30,000 varieties now preserved in the pool were donated by Yu. For every seed variety he collects he gives one to the germplasm pool.
Yu also plans to build a research base to help children understand more about the old seeds.
With the increasing demand for high-quality food in China and the emergence of more family farms, Yu has met a large number of like-minded friends who have helped his old seeds find a new market.
Last year, sales of Yu’s seeds exceeded 3 million yuan (US$420,000). “Only through planting these seeds on farmland, and by the farmers’ own hands, can we pass on the resources,” Yu said.