by Cecile Zehnacker
Growing plants and crops can be a real challenge in high-altitude regions due to the harsh climate and lower air pressure. However， farming initiatives supported by research and technology have been expanding on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Some focus on local livelihood by improving working conditions and creating opportunities for new income sources while others focus on the productivity of locally grown plants and crops to ease the lives of local farmers.
Bome County Plateau Tibetan Gastrodia Elata Development Co.， Ltd.， located in Nyingchi Prefecture， southwestern Chinas Tibet Autonomous Region， specializes in growing Gastrodia elata， a medicinal herb long used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat migraines， insomnia， stress， and depression.
The local species of the plant is grown from artificially pollinated wild seedlings found in Bome County. Armillaria mellea， a specific fungus commonly known as honey fungus， provides 95 percent of the nutrients needed by the plant. Gastrodia elata grows on the fungus for three years before its seeds can be harvested and processed.
The research team performed over 30 trials before figuring out how to successfully grow the plant. Since then， the company has been researching and growing wild Gastrodia elata in a local forest area covering a total of 500 mu （around 33.3 hectares）. The growing area will reach 1，000 mu （around 66.7 hectares） by the end of this year while being supplemented with labs and management facilities. The company employs over 2，800 seasonal local employees， 10 permanent employees， and a team of high-profile scientists to support research and development. About 10，000 seedlings are now growing steadily in the plantation.
Alongside growing this new type of Gastrodia elata which appears to have stronger benefits than other types， the company is also working on developing a rational business model to support and empower local people. It provides training combining theoretical knowledge with field practice as a part of an effort to create cooperatives. Participants in the training programs can earn 150 to 300 yuan （US$ 21 to 42） a day. The long-term project is planned to last 20 years. To contribute to the national poverty alleviation campaign that ended last year， the company also supported 20 registered poor households to improve their living and lift them out of poverty.
First Highland Tea
The Yigong Tea Plantation is also located in Bome County. It produces various tea products such as black tea， green tea， and tea bricks （compressed tea）. It was the first highland tea plantation and is considered the best of its kind in China. Despite the challenging weather， the area was selected because of relatively low altitude and high humidity. The average 220 yearly rainy days create humid and foggy weather perfect for tea growing.
The Yigong Tea Plantation was founded in 1960 with the goal of producing the first local tea. Even though tea is a key part of daily Tibetan life， Tibet didnt previously have any local tea. All tea leaves were brought to Tibet along the ancient Tea-Horse Road， an ancient tea trade road connecting Yunnan and Tibet. Famous compressed Puer tea from Yunnan was one of the first teas to be carried to Tibet via the Tea-Horse Road. Such tea bricks are still used today for famous Tibetan butter tea.
Tea pickers work for an average of 120 days a year between April and September for an annual income of 20，000 yuan（US$2，857）. According to a local worker， public health insurance and retirement pension offered by the company contributed greatly to improving his living conditions. He expressed relief about a stable source of income after retirement. He also said his living conditions are improving constantly， and he hopes the plantation and tea sales keep growing. Last year， the tea plantations total production reached 11，500 kilograms and the figure only continues growing. The tea-growing area also increased. It only covered 2，000 mu （around 133.4 hectares） in 2014 and has now expanded to over 5，000 mu（around 333.3 hectares）， improving incomes and creating jobs for more local people.
Crops at 3，500 Meters
The Tibet Academy of Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Sciences in Lhasa is an experimental research base created in 1978. Its research goals are to select seeds suitable for the local environment and optimize cultivation conditions to maximize productivity. It operates three research centers and a lab to study different types of crops such as barley， wheat， corn， potato， and oilseed rape.
Higher-elevation places like Lhasa have fewer options than Nyingchi. High-level productivity is hard to achieve at higher altitudes primarily due to the lower temperatures. Consequently， local people tend to favor crops with higher productivity such as highland barley， which is heavily planted and promoted in the region. Productivity and quality are the main goals， and the base is now working on the 4th generation of highland barley seeds. This new generation of seeds can produce 400 kilograms of barley per mu， compared to 100 to 200 kilograms with previous generations.
Improvement of equipment and transportation has also played an important role. Past constraints such as lack of fertilizer， heating systems， and proper drainage have finally been addressed. The base has also established partnerships with higher education institutions and invited students to visit and participate in research as a part of graduate projects. Furthermore， goals of ecological protection and sustainability are also central concerns of the base， which is now researching soil preservation in concert with improved productivity.
Alongside crops， the Lhasa area also features a research center on locally-grown fruits and vegetables， and Nyingchi hosts a cooperative that sells matsutake， a famous local wild mushroom that is highly appreciated in China and abroad. The cooperative buys mushrooms directly from local villagers to improve their incomes. These are just a few examples of the many initiatives currently emerging in Tibet combining research and technology， economic development， empowerment of local people， and improvement of living conditions and income.