Yu Jianqi was a registered construction engineer before he returned to his hometown four years ago to be a farmer, driven by his obsession with seeds.
Yu said his seed story began with two meals in 2006, one of which was a dish made of towel gourd by his mother when he came back home one day to Lutang Village, central China's Hunan Province, after working outside for many years.
"It was so delicious, the same taste as in my childhood," said Yu, adding that the second life-changing meal was a lunch at a rural restaurant during a business trip. "The vegetable was amazing and I couldn't stop eating."
The secret of the delectable meals was soon found by Yu -- they were all from old seeds of local varieties. "Commercial varieties which are better suited to modern agricultural intensification and large-scale production have gradually replaced the local ones," Yu said. "That's why we always feel like some food doesn't taste the same as in our memory."
The loss of taste means a decrease in seeds. Though as the world's second-largest country of crop germplasm resources, the quantity of local germplasm resources in China has been on the decline.
After several years of study and preparation, Yu quit his job in 2016 and returned to Lutang Village where he got 80 hectares of land through rural land transfer and established an ecological plantation to fully devote himself to collecting and breeding local varieties.
The first step was looking for seeds. "Whenever I heard of where there were old seeds, I would set off immediately." In four years, he has visited hundreds of counties and cities in Hunan and also the provinces and regions of Hubei, Yunnan and Xinjiang.
"Once in Libo County, southwest China's Guizhou Province, where I stayed for a month and visited more than 30 villages, I finally found in a remote village a batch of seeds of tomato, eggplant, pepper and other old vegetable varieties that have been planted for more than 200 years," Yu said, adding that on his way back home, however, he was caught in a landslide.
"I had no time to hesitate and only grabbed the bag of collected seeds before jumping out of the car," he said.
So far, Yu has collected seeds of nearly 800 varieties of rice, vegetables, flowers and other local plants, investing heavily to build a warehouse and exhibition hall for these treasures and starting the work of propagation.
Farmers in his cooperative use the most primitive methods to plant seeds collected from all over the country and turn each seed into 10 and then into hundreds and thousands. Experts from the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Hunan Seed Association often come to Yu's cooperative to provide guidance.
Having pursued the business for many years, the old seeds mean more than just delicious dishes for Yu, they also represent the "genetic resources" of a country.
Hunan Province, one of the country's major grain producers, launched in May its first germplasm pool of crop resources, as an effort to strengthen the comprehensive protection and utilization of germplasm resources.
Some of the more than 30,000 pieces of germplasm resources of various crops now preserved in the pool were donated by Yu. For every collected seed of a new variety, he would give one to the germplasm pool free of charge.
The new farmer said he also planned to build a research base to help more kids get to know the old seeds.
With the increasing demand for high-quality food in China and the emergence of more family farms, Yu has met a large number of like-minded friends who helped his old seeds find a market. In 2019, the sales volume of Yu's various kinds of old seeds exceeded 3 million yuan (about 420,000 U.S. dollars).
"Only through planting these seeds on the farmland and by the farmers' own hands can we pass down the resources," Yu said.