Looking at the mechanical cotton picker shaving off the cotton in his fields, Rehman Rayim smiled with content as if enjoying a mouthful of cotton candy.
It is the harvest season for cotton in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the country's largest cotton production base. For many cotton farmers like Rehman, it is also the happiest time as growing cotton provides the majority of their annual income.
Xinjiang has ranked first in the country for total cotton output in terms of both yield and planting area for 25 consecutive years.
Rehman, 55, is a local of Bachu County in south Xinjiang's Kashgar Prefecture. Located near China's largest desert, the county has a long sunshine duration and an ideal dry climate for growing cotton, with a growing area exceeding 73,000 hectares.
The cotton fields in Bachu used to be planted with crops like corn and wheat decades ago, yet the scarce output saw local people struggle to make ends meet. Rehman's father was one of the first to switch to growing cotton as the local government promoted the drought-resistant plant.
More and more local farmers switched to growing cotton in search of increased income. In 1985, Rehman contracted a piece of land and became a cotton farmer.
He earned nearly 1,000 yuan (about 149.4 U.S. dollars) that year. "It almost tripled my income from growing crops," recalled Rehman, who then kept pace with the latest cotton-growing technologies from drip irrigation to cotton-picking machinery.
Thanks to Rehman's hard work and support from the government, he and his family moved into a new house in 2016.
He expanded his cotton-growing area to 2 hectares this year, and expects to make about 100,000 yuan.
Growing cotton is a major source of income for many farmers in Xinjiang, especially in the poor regions in the south. Data from the China Cotton Association showed that the income from growing cotton makes up over 80 percent of the local agricultural income in the prefectures of Hotan, Aksu, Kashgar and the Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture of Kizilsu in south Xinjiang.
In 2020, the total cotton planting area in Xinjiang reached 2.51 million hectares, nearly the same as in 2019. Xinjiang is expected to see another bumper harvest this year.
Rehman has left the cotton fields to his son, who will now be responsible for ensuring the family's cozy life continues. "These cotton bolls are sweeter than cotton candy to us," said Rehman.