At a conference in the UN headquarters in New York City, the participants, and officials from Fiji, Lesotho, Laos, Nigeria and other countries, couldn’t stop praising a mysterious plant. It was Juncao, literally meaning “fungus grass” in Chinese, which had been developed by Chinese scientists after decades of research and cultivation.
What is Juncao? Not many people know.
It is a hybrid grass as well as an important multi-functional agricultural resource. Its leaves, stems and roots can be used for different kinds of ecological management, such as soil erosion control and desertification prevention. It can also be used for mushroom farming, or as livestock forage and poultry feed.
The Republic of Fiji in the South Pacific used to run out of livestock forage in the dry season and its fungi products were fully dependent on imports. But after China introduced the Juncao technology as part of its free assistance, the local people have learned to grow Juncao as livestock forage. They have also learned to grow edible and medicinal fungi on chopped Juncao for personal use or for sale. Juncao has become a magic grass that is helping the local population get rid of poverty and live better lives.
Fiji has two seasons, the rainy season and the dry season. Each year in the dry season, when the central and western regions ran out of green feed, the cattle and sheep rapidly lost weight and farmers had to sell them at a lower price, suffering a loss. The feed shortage in the dry season hampered the development of Fiji’s livestock breeding industry.
However, today Juncao with its tall stem, wide adaptability, fast growth and high crude protein content has become a favorite live-stock feed. It is a better alternative to the green corn straw feed for livestock.
Juncao plants grow in profusion
To help Fiji grow Juncao, Chinese experts brought 19 plants from China, and after numerous difficulties cultivated 38 seedlings from them. These seedlings took root and multiplied in a 100-acre grassland base, which is now providing seedlings to other parts of the country. The expansion of the Juncao grassland has ensured sufficient green feed for livestock in the dry season.
Fiji’s famous Yaqara Ranch, sprawling about 3,000 acres, is an important beef cattle and sheep supply base in the country. A few years ago, Adrian Ram, the general manager, would shake his head lugubriously and sigh when asked how his ranch was doing.
A Juncao demonstration park
At that time, the ranch was plagued by a shortage of green feed in the dry season. So when the ranch authorities were told about Juncao, they decided to grow it on 7 acres as a trial run. After a few months, the Juncao grew luxuriantly. It did not die during the floods in the rainy season, nor did it wither in the dry season. The “all-weather” grass turned out to be the solution to the ranch’s problem of green feed shortage. Having benefited from the grass, the ranch mastered the Juncao cultivation technology from the Chinese experts and today, its Juncao grassland has expanded to 50 acres.
The ranch’s livestock has also increased from 1,000 to 5,700 head of cattle and more than 300 sheep. Ram is excited about the plan to expand the cultivation to 1,000 acres and dramatically increase the number of cattle and sheep. They have applied for organic beef and mutton certification with plans to export their beef cattle.
Juncao has won the favor of large ranches as well as small farms.
Mohamed Shaheem has a small farm of a few dozen acres in Nadi with 60 goats, 110 sheep and 60 head of cattle. In the past, due to the feed shortage in the dry season, his livestock lost 20 to 30 percent of their weight, causing him a big loss. The Juncao project experts offered him free seeds as well as cultivation technology. “The Juncao grass stays tall and green even in the dry season, and has helped my livestock grow,” a happy Shaheem said.
“Fiji is not suitable for mushroom farming.” That was the assertion of a foreign expert in the past. For a long time, Fiji did not have its own edible fungi industry and depended on imports. But the Chinese gift of the Juncao technology ended the drought. It led to the then Fijian Minister for Agriculture, Rural and Maritime Development and National Disaster Management Inia Seruiratu making 36 visits to the Nadi Research Station to inspect the progress of the project.
With the introduction of the Juncao technology, Fiji acquired the basics for mushroom farming, mushroom strains and raw material. However, to grow mushroom successfully, one traditional problem had to be sorted out first, i.e., the local climate, which is not conducive to mushroom growth. The experts started figuring out solutions.
If the temperature proved to be too high, farmers could dig a 40-centimeter-deep ditch and then put bags containing chopped Juncao and the right mushroom spawn in them, finally covering up the ditch with a thin blanket of soil to protect the bags from direct sunlight.
If the air was too dry, the farmers could regularly spray water on the blanket of soil and cover it with film for moisture retention.
If they did not have a mushroom fruiting chamber, they could use the local coconut and mango forests, which were natural mushroom fruiting spaces.
A mushroom farmer's bumper crop
These seemingly low-tech methods helped the local farmers understand, learn and apply the technology.
Within a few years, Fiji’s Juncao and edible fungi industry had been developed. Many farmers made money with their first mushroom harvest. Fiji’s reputation of not being “suitable for mushroom farming” changed. So far, Fiji has cultivated more than 1 million bags of mushroom worth 5 million Fijian dollars (US$2.26 million). Behind the success story lies the Sino-Fijian cooperation.
Despite the success in mushroom farming with affordable low-tech methods, the Chinese experts didn’t stop there. They also helped Fiji build a modern production base. A Juncao mushroom production line with an annual capacity of 300 tons has been built at the Fiji Juncao Technology Demonstration Center, which has advanced equipment like automatic mixers, high pressure sterilizers, bagging machines and a mushroom incubation and fruiting system with automatic light, temperature and moisture control. The center has become a cradle for nurturing and upgrading the Juncao and mushroom industry in this Pacific island nation.
One day, the village of Navilawa reverberated with songs.
It started out as a solo by a benign-looking elderly man with gray hair and a white beard, dressed in a traditional Fijian shirt. His song, melodious and elegant, made you think of gauzy clouds floating in the sky, or cold sparkling spring water. Then the solo turned into a chorus with everybody on their feet, looking solemn. There was no conductor or musical instrument, but everyone sang in harmony. Though the Chinese experts couldn’t understand what the villagers were singing, they instinctively realized that the Fijians’ songs were among the most beautiful languages in the world.
The chorus was the finale of the 20th session of Juncao and mushroom cultivation technology training. At the end of the session, the villagers who took part in it expressed their appreciation and friendship with their songs.
Many similar sessions have been held since then. There are no desks or chairs at the training. The lecturers and participants sit on the ground, which doesn’t dampen the participants’ enthusiasm in any way. They remember every detail the experts talked about.
To take the farming technology to more people, the Chinese experts often traveled to remote areas, conducting demonstrations and training. They have left their footprints in rugged mountainous regions as well as remote islands that are not easily accessible.
As a famous Fijian proverb goes, “A flower bud will give birth to tens of millions of fruits.” The Juncao seedlings have produced an abundance of grass and mushrooms, which have taken root in Fiji. The tiny seedlings have not only sprouted into bumper harvests but also created a blossoming friendship between the two peoples.
Everybody in Fiji, from the president to the man on the street, has the same feelings toward this assistance.
During the 34th Session of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific in Nadi, Fijian President Jioji Konrote visited the Juncao project’s exhibition booth and shook hands with all the Chinese experts.
The Fiji Juncao Technology Demonstration Center
Then he took Lin Zhansen, the leader of the team, by hand and proudly introduced him to then FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, saying: “Mr. Lin is the leader of the team of Chinese Juncao experts and an old friend. The Juncao project has been a success in Fiji. The experts have helped us a lot.
The Juncao technology was developed in Fujian Province in southeastern China, and Papua New Guinea (PNG) was the first stop in Juncao’s overseas journey in China’s foreign assistance programs.
In 2000, Fujian signed a Juncao technology cooperation agreement with PNG’s Eastern Highlands Province. Subsequently, many farmers in the province earned a substantial income thanks to the Juncao and mushroom project. The former defense minister of PNG changed his daughter’s name to Juncao and announced it in the newspapers.
From then on, an increasing number of people began to know and understand what Juncao was, and an increasing number of people escaped poverty with the project.
Some say it is a wild crop,
Some say it is a lifeline.
Oh, it is an amazing crop,
It is food, medicine and hope...
So goes a Lesotho folk song written by the Mabote Mushroom Association of Lesotho. In Lesotho, more than half the population lives below the poverty line. China’s gift of the Juncao technology has helped thousands of Basotho step out of poverty.
Beautiful landscape in Fiji
As part of China’s foreign assistance program, the Juncao technology has been introduced in 106 countries and production bases built in 13 countries, including Rwanda and Eritrea. With the expansion of Juncao acreage, seeds of friendship have been sown in more and more countries, carrying with them the warmth and camaraderie of a distant Asian country and the hope for a better future.
The Juncao technology was developed by Professor Lin Zhanxi of Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. It is original technology with the Chinese fully owning the intellectual property right.
China’s gift of the Juncao technology to Fiji mainly consists of two parts – technical cooperation and building a demonstration center. The technical cooperation has been carried out in two phases. In the first phase, eight varieties of edible and medicinal fungi were produced by the demonstration project, which ended Fiji’s reputation of not being unable to produce edible and medicinal fungi. The second phase of the cooperation was initiated in December 2017. In the ensuing three years, 11 Chinese technical experts are working in Fiji to continue with the demonstration project, produce edible and medicinal fungi, and provide training in Juncao technology to help Fiji build its Juncao industry.
The Juncao Technology Demonstration Center comprises Juncao processing workshops, laboratories, training classrooms and trainees’ dormitories. The construction area is about 3,100 square meters, and the nursery garden area about 20,000 square meters.
China’s gift of the Juncao technology is of great significance for Fiji to increase employment, develop its rural economy and eradicate poverty. In February 2019, Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture said “optimizing the utilization of Juncao to improve the productivity of the livestock breeding industry” was one of the five new measures announced by the government to promote Fiji’s agricultural development.
The project has attracted the attention and approval of all sectors of Fijian society. Fijian President Jioji Konrote and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama have both visited the demonstration center, where they commended the technical cooperation and praised the Chinese experts as Fiji’s good friends.