|Michael A. Katz |||Oct 15, 2014 11:18 AM EDT|
(Photo : Reuters) There's gold in them walnuts: These little nuts are bringing in a fortune for Chinese farmers.
It was barely 10 years ago that farmers in Laishui, China were struggling to survive. Today, however, they own imported cars, apartments in the city and go on luxury vacations, all thanks to a little nugget worth more than gold - the walnut.
As China's economy has boomed over the past decade, so too have prices for walnuts, which are prized not for eating, but for rolling between one's palm and fingers to improve circulation, similar to Baoding balls.
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"We are all grateful for the huge changes the walnuts have brought us," walnut farmer Li Zhanhua, who takes in up to 2 million yuan ($325,000) a year from his harvests, told Agence France Presse. "All of our development depends on them."
Farmers search for pairs of walnuts with the most symmetrical pits and ridges, which is what customers are looking for. Larger sized walnuts with a deep brown color are in the greatest demand and fetch the highest prices.
Walnut prices have become so astronomical that Li says he once sold a pair for 160,000 yuan ($26,000), adding that "even a relatively ordinary pair of walnuts can be more expensive than gold, in terms of weight."
Before the walnut boom, when farmers like Li grew wheat and corn, "we could never have imagined this," said Li. "Before, just building a house or getting married would be a big expense for us. We didn't imagine buying houses in the city."
The idea of walnuts being worth more than gold would likely shock most Westeners - they go for $8 a pound in the U.S., but they have been popular among China's upper class for almost 2,000 years. They were first used as toys in the imperial courts as early as 220 AD. They were favored by officials during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and have been a status symbol ever since.
The meteoric rise in walnut prices in China is reminiscent of the tulip craze of the 17th century. In fact, some Chinese have used walnuts as an alternative to the low-interest rate offered by banks as traders have begun speculating on unpeeled walnuts. "Betting on skin" is a common practice that involves buyers paying a fixed price for walnuts before the outer covering is removed and the true value is revealed.
Of course during any commodity boom, crime and theft are not far behind. Because the walnuts have become so valuable, farmers have had to protect their farms with barbed-wire fences, big attack dogs and security cameras.
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