Chinese Co-op Helps More Than 275 Smallholder Farmers Raise Their Yields and Profits

In remote, rural Yuli County, in China’s Xinjiang region, the land is well suited to cotton farming, with 90% of the land dedicated to growing cotton. Generations of smallholder farmers have farmed cotton here for centuries amid widespread poverty, selling their yields to support their families. Three of BCI’s 13 Implementing Partners* (IPs) in China support 7,123 BCI Farmers in the region. Increasingly, BCI is collaborating with diverse local partners – including cotton co-operatives, ginners, NGOs, social enterprises and local authorities – to raise awareness of the benefits of growing Better Cotton and to encourage more cotton farmers to participate in the BCI programme.

One such IP is the Zhong Wang Cotton Cooperative, established by the Zhong Wang family in 2015. It has also been a BCI IP since 2017 and manages one Producer Unit** (PU) of 277 BCI Farmers, the entire membership of the co-op. In particular, the co-op seeks to attract more local cotton farmers to participate in BCI, and encourage more ginners to source more Better Cotton (ginning separates cotton fibre from the raw cotton bolls). The Zhong Wang family has also been running its own ginning factory, Zhong Wang Textile Company, for three generations. 28-year-old engineering graduate Zhang Biao is proud to be leading his family’s efforts to support BCI Farmers through the co-op and the family ginning factory.

“It’s an unconventional choice when many young people in China are moving to cities, but I believe agriculture is the foundation of all things in our country, and there are still many opportunities for young people [in farming]. I’m pleased to be helping farmers in Yuli County to grow their cotton more sustainably.”

As a PU Manager**, Zhang Biao’s goal is to help the 277 farmers in his PU deliver high quality cotton to the supply chain, and so far, he has achieved considerable success. The Zhong Wang Cotton Co-operative has nearly doubled its membership in two years, and with each of its 277 BCI Farmer members representing a family of four or five people, the benefits of membership have a multiplier effect.

Through the co-op, BCI Farmers have access to resources such as drip irrigation equipment and information on obtaining funding and government subsidies. The co-op purchases high quality pesticides, fertilisers and seeds on their behalf, helping them to benefit from bulk discounts. It supports capacity-building at many levels: hosting training for Field Facilitators***, offering larger knowledge exchange events for all members and providing advice on individual farms. As a co-op, Zhong Wong also buys its members’ cotton crop at the end of the season and sells it on to ginners. The family’s own ginning factory now sources approximately 70% Better Cotton.

“It’s my job to ensure that all our members learn best practice in respecting the BCI Principles and Criteria, while reinforcing the benefits of Better Cotton among our members, local cotton farming communities and through my daily interaction with other ginning factories [in the region],” says Zhang Biao.

With water scarcity becoming an increasing challenge in Yuli County — due to low rainfall, declining ground water levels and stricter government controls on ground water use — Zhang Biao is advising the BCI Farmers in his PU to optimise water use.

Using efficient drip irrigation techniques, BCI Farmers are delivering water to the roots more quickly and reducing evaporation, compared to flood irrigation.

In the same way, BCI Farmers take a precise approach to improving soil health, with the co-op recommending different fertilisers depending on the soil’s needs. To improve pest control and reduce pesticide costs, Zhang Biao encourages BCI Farmers to grow crops such as corn and sesame around the fields, in order to attract more beneficial insects onto their farm, which also helps to promote biodiversity.

As a result of the co-op’s support, BCI Farmers have raised their yield by 370 kg of seed cotton/hectare annually since 2015 — to 5,400kg/hectare in 2016-17 — and increased their profits by $471 USD since 2015. With the additional income, many of the BCI Farmers buy farming tools and agricultural equipment, and help further raise their yields and increase their profits. To help them further boost their yields, Zhang Biao is keen to explore how his members could share machinery, so that they can implement mechanised farming techniques and make further productivity gains.

Importantly, Zhang Biao is seeing increased interest in Better Cotton among ginners, as demand for more sustainable cotton grows further up the supply chain, and wants to continue helping to accelerate the uptake of Better Cotton.

“Overall, I am optimistic about the future of Better Cotton in China,” he concludes. “Demand [for Better Cotton] is growing, people here are more environmentally conscious, and the government is pushing for improved environmental performance. Young farmers in particular are taking advantage of the opportunity to learn more precise, scientific farming approaches through BCI.”

Read more about BCI’s work in China here.

* Conducting training for millions of BCI Farmers worldwide is a major undertaking and relies on the support of trusted, like-minded partners on the ground in each country where Better Cotton is grown. We call these partners our Implementing Partners (IPs), and we take an inclusive approach to the types of organisation with whom we partner. They can be NGOs, co-operatives or companies within the cotton supply chain, and are responsible for helping BCI Farmers acquire the social and environmental knowledge they need to cultivate Better Cotton, and encourage uptake of Better Cotton in the cotton supply chain. 

** Each Implementing Partner supports a series of Producer Units (PUs), a grouping of BCI Farmers (from smallholder or medium sized farms) from the same community or region. Their leader, the PU Manager, helps multiple, smaller groups, known as Learning Groups, to master best practice techniques, in line with the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, our global definition of Better Cotton.

*** Our more than 4,000 Field Facilitators, employed by our IPs, form the backbone of the implementation system across the world. Often with backgrounds in agronomy, Field Facilitators deliver on-the-ground training (frequently through practical demonstrations in the field) and raise awareness of social issues.