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LANZHOU - Growing crops had never been profitable for the farmers of Shahe village, located in the waterless and desolate Gobi Desert of Gansu province.
"The land was so barren that most villagers had no choice but to leave to make a living," said Fan Lide, a resident of Shahe who has worked as a plumber, mechanic and taxi driver in other provinces.
In 2009, the Suzhou district in Jiuquan, which encompasses Shahe, launched a program to build greenhouses in the desert so that farmers could grow cash crops such as vegetables, edible fungi and grapes.
Farming in the Gobi has its advantages: The extended sunlight provides adequate energy for crops, and the significant temperature difference between day and night helps crops accumulate nutrients. The desert"s hot, dry air also means fewer pests and crop diseases.
The first group of 50 greenhouses built by the district took up about 800 hectares. Fan rented 4 hectares to grow tomatoes and chili peppers.
The greenhouses are loaded with all kinds of technology, including soil-free cultivation, integrated water and fertilization controls and remote phone app controls.
With an app called Greenhouse Manager, Fan can monitor and control the environment in the greenhouses by adjusting all kinds of sensors installed on his phone.
For example, with a tap of the screen, the insulation layer on the roof of the greenhouse opens automatically to let in more fresh air.
"I can also see the real-time temperature and humidity in the greenhouses or send a command to irrigate and fertilize the crops," Fan said.
The Gobi greenhouses use drip and spray irrigation, which cuts water consumption by almost 50 percent compared with a normal farm, according to Yan Shengjun, an agricultural adviser who serves as a consultant for the local farmers.
The greenhouses are also eco-friendly, as they use substrates for soil-free cultivation recycled from rotten leaves, straw and cow and sheep feces.
With the greenhouses, Fan earns around 70,000 yuan ($10,500) annually.
"Vegetables produced in the greenhouses are harvested two or three times a year. As organic food gets more popular in the market, our income also increases," Fan said.
The greenhouse program has helped bring an average revenue of about $72,300 per hectare to local farmers, and officials said plans to build more agricultural facilities in the Gobi are underway.
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