Zhongning is the epicenter of goji production in China, raking in thousands of pounds of the berries worth a total of $232 million annually.
Fresh goji berries taste nothing like the limp, dried morsels we get in the West.
Right off the bush, they are plump with quite a bit of juice to them. They're vegetal in taste—reminiscent of cherry tomatoes but with a significantly sweeter flavor. In China, during the harvest season from summer to autumn, workers pick the bright neon red-orange berries all day long.
"I don't like picking them," 15-year-old Mingliu Ying says. "It takes too long and other people are much faster than me." Ying has taken me to goji fields in Zhongning County and we are watching women and children pluck berries off of short bushes, madly filling up their buckets beneath the afternoon sun. Once the containers are full, they're carted to a nearby facility to be dried. The workers are paid roughly 15 cents USD for every 500 grams of berries; they earn about $15 USD each day.
Ying is the daughter of a goji berry farmer in Zhongning County, the goji berry capital of China. She grew up in the fields and is currently on summer break, helping her mom sell berries at the wholesale market in Zhongning.
Located in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, the county of Zhongning is considered to be the birthplace of the goji berry. The earliest record of the goji berry dates back about 4,000 years ago to the Xia Dynasty. According to a book on the berries titled Lycium Barbarum and Human Health, gojis grown in Zhongning have the highest content of flavonoids than goji berries grown anywhere else in the world. It is said the large temperature difference between day and night and the rich soil are the reasons why they've become so prized.
At the goji wholesale market in Zhongning—the largest of its kind in the entire country—the main gates are shaped like berries and painted a bright red-orange. Hundreds of tons of gojis from throughout China are brought over here daily and sold to wholesale buyers. The market is saturated with tall bags of the product packed side-to-side. Men and women linger around, staring, and checking the fruit for quality, origin, taste, and size.
For the people in Zhongning, it's something to be proud of. The antioxidant-rich goji has long been touted as the ultimate superfood. Praised for its purported immune-boosting and vitality-enhancing properties, it's an easy product to market to the masses.
In the markets, gojis are found sun-dried and dehydrated, which renders them slightly more tart than their fresh counterparts. Cooks will stew them with meats like chicken and duck; it's great for deep and dark medicinal broths. Goji is also a common ingredient in Chinese herbal teas, usually served with dates, dried longan fruit, ginseng root, green tea leaves, and citrus. The ubiquitous ingredient can be found in a wide range of dishes, from savory to sweet.
Zhongning is the epicenter of the goji production and it rakes in a total of $232 million USD annually, according to a 2011 report by The Epoch Times. Approximately 3,500 tons of those berries (about 60 percent of the yearly haul) are shipped to more than 30 countries and generate more than $30 million USD. In 2013, the goji cultivation area in Zhongning grew to about 32,000 acres.
"The biggest market in China for goji berries is in the south, specifically places like Shengzhen, Guangdong, and Hong Kong," Hunian Liu says. "It's hot in the south and goji berries are good for circulation, which helps with the heat." Liu is a wholesale buyer from Hubei and he has come to Zhongning to collect his annual goji supply for the summer season. He's been in the berry business for 30 years now and each year purchases about 200 to 300 tons to distribute across the country.
Liu tells me that while Zhongning is the birthplace of the goji berry, it is slowly losing its status as the major producer.
"Actually, a great deal of the goji berries in this market come from [the provinces of] Gansu and Qinghai now," he says. "The Zhongning goji berry seed was brought to other neighboring northern regions and now many of them grow the berries better than they do here."
Jianli Dong, a vendor who has been in the industry for 20 years, agrees. At his stall, he shows me berries from different regions.
"The Qinghai ones are the best," he says, handing me a bit to chew on. They are significantly larger than the average goji berries. "It's colder there so the growing seasons are longer. They're sweeter."
To the uninitiated, the regional differences between goji berries are difficult to pinpoint. At the market, they look more or less the same: dried, wrinkly, and reddish-pink.
One type, however, stands out immediately: the elusive black goji berry, which sells for three times as much.
"These are harder to pick and grow, which is why they're more expensive," Jinghai Ma says. Ma is part of a farmers' cooperative selling black goji berries from Qinghai. He claims that all of his black gojis are from wild bushes. It's a variety that only grows at elevations of 8,800 to 9,800 feet above sea level. The black goji bush is also rather thorny, which makes them more difficult to harvest because tweezers are required.
There are yellow and white goji berries as well, but those are not widely available because not many people know they exist.
In fact, there are a lot of things about the goji plant that aren't commonly known. Back at the field, Ying points to the leaves of the bushes.
"They are edible," she says, to my surprise.
To prove her point, she takes me to her aunt's goji store across the street and brings out a container of goji leaves. The leaves are dried, partially oxidized, and balled up, like those of oolong tea.
Roughly a decade ago, southern Chinese tea processors from Fujian (the center of oolong tea in mainland China) came up north to Zhongning and experimented with making tea out of goji leaves. Traditionally, goji leaves were just eaten like any other vegetable—simply stir-fried with a bit of garlic and oil.
"The southerners processed it like they process oolong tea and now goji leaf tea is a growing market," Wenqian Ying, Ying's aunt tells me. The leaf has to be harvested in the spring when it is still tender.
I am given a cup of goji leaf tea; it has a distinctly bitter taste. They say that the tea has all the antioxidant benefits of the berry.
While sipping tea in the store, I notice all the other goji products on the shelves. There's goji candy, goji wine, goji honey, and goji beer. It's an endless stock of berry products.
In most restaurants and stores across China, gojis are but an afterthought, occasionally sprinkled on dishes for color and just a smidge of extra flavor. But at Zhongning, goji berries are a lifeline. The county is loud and proud about its main export. Nearly every block has a goji store. The streets are flooded with berry paraphernalia and painted on select walls are cartoonish goji mascots with silly faces, waving at the locals—a constant reminder that in Zhongning, the goji berry is an inescapable and honorable part of daily life.