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September 13, 2011

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Divine taste of peento peaches

THOSE funny-looking "squashed" peento peaches are said to be the fruit of immortality grown by the Heavenly Mother, picked every 3,000 years and fed to the Eight Immortals. You can pick them in Jinshan, says Wing Tan.

They're called saturn peaches, saucer peaches, flat peaches and donut peaches, but in China they're known as peentos (originally pan tao, round peach). They're the fruit of the gods, the original peach, it's said.

In Luxiang Town, Shanghai's Jinshan District, peach growing is an industry.

Many people consider the small, round peento the most delicious of all peaches. It's intensely peachy-flavored, low in acidity, sweet and juicy - and it has only a tiny pit. The flesh is classified as silvery or white. It looks a bit squashed, with a depressed center, hence the name saucer or donut peach.

According to mythology, these peaches were grown by the Heavenly Queen in an orchard of 3,600 trees in the Kunlun Mountains to the west; they took 3,000 years to mature, another 3,000 years to bear fruit and another 3,000 years for the fruit to ripen. Every 500 years, the Eight Immortals were invited to a banquet and served the divine peaches.

Luxiang Town has made the peento peach its "strategic" fruit, one which has made many farmers millionaires.

Peentos were planted more than 30 years ago in Luxiang Town; they were introduced from neighboring Fenghua City in Zhejiang Province, says Peng Xuehua, a local government official.

"Year by year, we have seen opportunities through this small but juicy fruit."

Rice and wheat are the traditional crops in Luxiang Town, but they are a relatively high-cost crop, with low added value, so they don't generate high revenue.

In 2001, the town began to reorganize its agriculture by introducing peento peaches as a "strategic fruit" producing high profit - about eight times that of traditional agricultural produce.

That year the government launched preferential policies to encourage locals to grow peaches. The town was designated a growing center.

In 2002, a peento risk foundation was set up for farmers. From 2004 to 2007 the municipal and the district governments gave subsidies of 300 yuan (US$46.88) per mu (667 square meters) to each peach grower.

Since 2007, the Shanghai Forestry Center has paid 50 percent of farmers expenses for organic fertilizers, pesticides and eco protective paper bags (used to wrap peaches and keep them free of insects, pesticides and too much sun).

The government has invested more than 30 million yuan in construction and renovation of agriculture infrastructure, including peach green houses, cold storage, irrigation pipes, roads and warehouses.

Farmers' income has risen dramatically. Last year, 241 hectares of orchards yielded 27 million yuan in sales, or 7,000 yuan.

This year the planting area is 373 hectares and the revenue is still being calculated.

Among the first peento growers were 58-year-old Ma Jinlin and his elder brother Ma Jinshou who planted trees in the early 2000s. Today they are called the "Peento Kings' of Heping Village, Luxiang Town. They have planted almost 15 hectares and have assets of more than 10 million yuan.

"I've bought new cars and new houses, but still kept my old wife, whom I will keep forever," jokes the younger Ma.

In Heping Village, more than 70 households are growing peaches and most of them have become millionaires.

Luxiang Town features well-known, high-quality Huangmu Peento (The immortal Heavenly Queen Mother). It is certified safe.

Luxiang is now China's largest peento-growing area.

In 2005, the Shanghai Huangmu Peento Peach Cooperative Association was set up, bringing together more than 250 individual growers and farmers to reduce expenses and risks.

The cooperative has more than 300 hectares under cultivation. The output value per mu is 7,000 yuan, while the output value from peentos grown in greenhouses is 25,000-30,000 yuan.

In 2009, the total output value of Luxiang Town's peento peaches was more than 56 million yuan, each farmer earning a profit of nearly 95,000 yuan. More than 2,000 jobs were created.

To guarantee and maintain quality, a Luxiang Town peento-planting standard system was also set up in 2005. Peach growers work with the national agricultural center on disease and insect pests.

Each month a local forestry officer briefs farmers on disease and pest control; cooperative members are required to attend regular lectures and technical training.

Last year, the cooperative was one of the peach suppliers for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Every year the cooperative organizes around 10 talks given by expert to peach farmers who take members to their own farms and teach skills.

They also visit cooperation members' farms regularly to provide guidance on insect control, disease prevention, grove maintenance and soil management. Every season growers get newsletters about planting, insect warnings and weather forecasts.

However, farmers are still faced with a challenge of marketing and branding peento peaches.

Ma the elder says many people fake the Huangmu brand and sell substandard peaches, which damages the brand name.

The heavy rains after typhoon Muifa in August caused major losses. A lot of fruit dropped and the harvest fell.

"But we didn't use pesticides because the brand is much more important than anything else," says Ma. "It's not easy to set up and maintain the brand."

Luxiang is now trying to protect the brand by applying for special designation as a Protected Original Production Area.

"We realize branding is one way ahead. Good products also need good sales," official Peng says. "When people talk about peento peaches, I hope they first think about our peaches in Luxiang Town."


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