Rent-a-chicken lays golden eggs in rural China
The healthy eggs placed in the cooperative.
By Cheng Lu,Li Yong,Jiang Chenrong
Anyone wants a free chicken? It is not a swindler's trick, but a business model that has helped hundreds of rural families cast off poverty in Yan'an City, the cradle of the Chinese revolution.
Business today is a far cry from how things were fifteen years ago for Zhang Chunpu, 53. Today, he does not have to sneak up to farmer's yards under cover of darkness, like he did then. He does not need to sneak chickens into farmers' yards and run away anymore.
His rent-a-chicken program is essentially a free loan of chickens to farmers who then make money by selling the free-range eggs back to Zhang's cooperative.
Over the past decade, rent-a-chicken has helped more than 800 households in Yanchang County, deep in the mountain ravines. Previously, they survived on an annual income of less than 2,500 yuan (around 360 U.S. dollars) per capita.
A farmer is collecting eggs.
The idea came to Zhang by accident. In 2003, he saw profits from selling healthy eggs and acquired 6,000 chickens. But there was a lot more to poultry raising than he thought. It was not as easy as "let them roam the hillsides."
"The birds nearly ate up all the grass on the whole mountain. They fought with each other. The worst problem was that they didn't lay eggs. I was nearly bankrupt, but I couldn't see them starve to death," Zhang recalled.
He started knocking on the village doors one by one and offered to give villagers the birds. Few accepted them because they thought he was trying to scam them. Sometimes, he took to placing the uninvited feathered friend in someone's yard and running away.
Liu Xuejin was one of the few who accepted 50 chicks from Zhang 10 years ago when he was living in a cave on a bare hillside.
Rent-a-chicken brought Liu thousands of yuan in the first year and he did not need to go to a city like his fellow villagers to seek work. This could not have been better for him who had an ailing wife and three kids to look after.
Chickens are roaming in a farmer's orchard.
"The saying 'borrow chickens for eggs' refers to achieving one's own goal with other's resources. I can't imagine there would be such a good thing in real life," he said. Now Liu has more than 150 chickens and a yearly income of up to 30,000 yuan (4,350 U.S. dollars).
Each week, workers from the cooperative come to collect the eggs which are then taken to Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, more than 400 km away.
"Free-range chickens and eggs sell like hotcakes in big cities where more and more people yearn for healthy food," said Zhang. The birds he rents to farmers roam free in yards and on hillsides, eating pumpkins, cabbage and worms.
Zhang's cooperative earns 0.1 yuan from each egg, while farmers can earn 0.15 yuan. The real profit, however, comes from the chickens.
A farmer is cleaning the eggs.
At two and a half years old, hens begin to lay fewer eggs, so Zhang retrieved about 70 percent of them from farmers. It is more cost-efficient for farmers to raise younger chickens.
Farmers can keep the other chickens for their own use, but each hen means at least 30 yuan of profit for Zhang.
"Raising Chickens does not require much skill or labor. It's easy to make money for poorly educated or physically weak farmers," Zhang said, adding that a farmer earns about 100 yuan per year per chicken and that means a way out of poverty.
According to Yan'an poverty alleviation bureau, around 60 percent of the city's poor population cannot leave to work because of poor health, disability or other reasons. It is a major headache for local governments who are responsible for helping them to a better life.
"Rent-a-chicken is a good answer. The cooperative needs a stable supply of products, while farmers want to sell their apples and chickens," said Zhang Ming, deputy head of Yanchang County.
China aims to reduce the number of poor rural residents by over 10 million this year to meet the goal of building a moderately prosperous society by 2020.
Zhang Chunpu (left) offers learning materials to farmers.
Local governments have been looking for and creating various ways to fulfill their shared goals. Rent-a-chicken is exactly what they need.
To support the program, Yanchang County set up funds to reward the cooperative with 1,000 yuan for each household it helps out of poverty, and subsidizes the rural family to the tune of 1,000 to 3,000 yuan.
There are more than 20,000 poor households registered in Yanchang. More than 98 percent of them had overcome poverty by the end of last year, mostly through cooperatives like Zhang's.
"More people will escape poverty through my program," promised Zhang, who plans to expand the number of rental chickens from 70,000 to 300,000 within next three years.
Photos are provided by Zhang Chunpu
Editor: Lu Ye