It's one of the few big days of the year for the Wang family. More than 400 jujube (Chinese date) trees have to be harvested, and the sunny weather one October morning in Hebei Province made this the perfect time to start it.
The village of Wangzhuangtou consists mainly of families with the surname Wang. And so it was that Wang Hongyue, 56, and his family his wife, Chang Huanmin; their daughter, Wang Xia; and a 5-year-old grandson, Zhao Linru arose early to get started.
The labour force grew just before 7 am with the arrival of Zhao Baowang, the daughter's husband. He's a major factor in the success of the harvest as Wang's two sons have both died one by drowning in a well and the other in a traffic accident.
The family is typical of those in rural China, where top leaders in Beijing have focused attention on the inequities between living there and in the urban areas.
But the Wang family have their minds today on the task at hand. Shortly after Zhao Baowang's arrival, they set out for the fields at the other end of the village, where about half of their jujube trees grow.
"Nice day. The weather is really co-operating this year," Wang said, recalling that it rained for several consecutive days at harvest time last year, ruining the jujubes on the tree and inflicting a considerable financial loss.
The red fruit on the five lines of jujube trees, which seemed to glisten in the morning sun, obviously indicated a good harvest this year.
Arriving, the family dispersed efficiently in the orchard. The father and son-in-law quickly unfolded a large piece of cloth directly under one of the trees.
Holding a long stick with a hook in one hand, Wang clasped the upper part of the trunk of a tree and began to shake it vigorously. The fruits and leaves fell like rain onto the cloth.
Immediately, the two women picked up long, thin bamboo sticks and began to knock down the remaining jujubes that were higher on the tree.
A few metres away, the grandson collected scattered jujubes into a small basket.
After the harvest was finished at one tree, the men moved the cloth to the next tree, and the process began again. And so the scene continued for the next four days.
Everybody's doing it
Altogether, the family collected about 5,000 kilograms of jujubes, which earned them about 10,000 yuan (US$1,250) more or less the standard in recent years.
The problem for the Wang family was the competition.
"Everyone had a decent harvest this year," Wang Hongyue said. "These days, there are too many people growing Chinese jujubes."
It wasn't always that way. In 1992, Wang received the right to use 10 mu (0.67 hectares) when the village, on behalf of the State, signed a 30-year lease based on the number of members in the family.
Part of the land actually belonged to his deceased sons, but it reverted back to him upon their untimely deaths.
Wang did not grow jujubes on all of that land at first. He knew it would take four or five years before they would bear fruit, so he planted wheat or soybeans on part of the land. Once the trees began to produce, he converted the entire land into jujube orchards.
The family was among the first in Wangzhuangtou to grow jujubes. Wang said he remembered one year in the late 1990s when his crop sold for 20,000 yuan (US$2,418 at the time).
"There were few people who grew jujube trees at that time, and the trees of those who just changed from other crops to jujubes had not matured enough to bear fruit," he said.
"Soon, more people began to pour in (in early 2000)."
Today almost all 200 households in the village in eastern Hebei, about a half-hour's drive from Cangzhou, grow jujubes. As a result, the area turns into a red sea as the households spread their harvests on the ground in front of their doors or in their courtyards to dry under the sun.
"In bad years, when the harvest is poor, the price is high, and in years like this year, when everyone has a good harvest, the price will definitely be lower," Wang said.
Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but Wang is optimistic that his competition in jujube growing will diminish again.
"You see, sooner or later, when the price is too low," he said, "people will cut down their trees and grow wheat or soybeans again."
However, another looming threat, which grows bigger each year, might thwart the change, Wang said.
A decline in groundwater levels in the area makes it more and more difficult to get enough irrigation for the trees or, for that matter, enough drinking water.
Only about 10 years ago, the village was dotted with wells for irrigation and families' everyday use, Wang said. It was in one of them that his second son drowned.
"People had to dig only about 10 or 20 metres before they saw water at that time," he said. "Now they've run dry and have had to be refilled with earth."
Years of over-exploitation of the underground water for construction and irrigation have greatly decreased the levels of the vast Huabei (North China) Plain. Nearly 70,000 square kilometres of underground water is below the sea level, according to figures from the China Institute of Geo-environmental Monitoring.
Today the approximately 1,000 people of Wangzhuangtou rely on one deep well in the eastern part of the village that produces water thanks to an electronic pump.
"I am afraid it is about 300 metres deep now," Wang said.
What's more, drinking water may be drawn only once every other afternoon. Wang has a big urn in his kitchen to hold his family's water.
"Luckily," he said, "no severe water shortage has ever occurred."
Enough to get by
Harvesting jujubes is certainly back-breaking work, but farmers find it's probably the greatest effort required of them all year long.
Basically, in June, when the trees begin to blossom, Wang irrigates, eliminates weeds and sprays insecticide. He also cuts off the trunk bark in the middle of every tree to ensure that the upper part gets more nutrition, which produces more flowers and, ultimately, more jujubes.
Aside from the occasional stroll among his trees to monitor the growing situation and a possible onset of insects, Wang only has to wait until late September or early October to harvest the fruit.
The days immediately after the harvest are spent drying the crop on mats made of corn stalks while waiting for jujube buyers from the south to arrive.
The 10,000 yuan the family earns is generally enough to last Wang and his wife all year long, as long as neither of them falls ill.
When serious diseases or accidents do come, though, the whole village feels devastated.
Wang's brother, Wang Honglai, former head of the village, fell into a debt of more than 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) last year to pay for treatment for his youngest son, whose motorcycle crashed into a three-wheeled agricultural vehicle.
The 24-year-old man survived but was left with an obvious scar on his neck and numbness in his arms and legs. Now Wang Honglai, 59, earns extra money doing road repair work on the highway near the village and being in charge of newspaper and letter delivery.
"What a pity for a boy that smart," Wang Hongyue lamented.
During the off-season for jujube growing, men in the village go to Cangzhou to do part-time jobs. The highway that comes about two kilometres from Wangzhuangtou, which was built two years ago, shortened the original one-hour journey to the city by half.
Wang Hongyue also goes to the city to work with other villagers at a construction site for 35 yuan (US$4.40) a day.
"That is the price during the off-season; during harvest time, they give 50 yuan (US$6.25) a day," he said.
Zhao Baowang, Wang's son-in-law, also works in construction and builds furniture or paints houses. For a day's work, Zhao can earn between 30 and 50 yuan (US3.75-6.25). With all the construction going on in Cangzhou, Zhao said, it's easy to find painting jobs.
Although growing jujubes may seem to be a perpetual family tradition, Wang pins his hopes on Zhao Linru, that 5-year-old grandson who gathered the jujubes in the basket.
Education, in Wang's eyes, is the answer. Wang, who never spent a day in school, speaks proudly of his youngest sister, who received the highest education level at a nurse training institute in Cangzhou and now works at a big hospital there.
The primary school in Wangzhuangtou was closed in a merging of teaching resources, and students from the village have to go to Cui'erzhuang, 9 kilometres away.
"You've got to go to school, go to college and go to the city," he told his grandson.
"Be good in school. Do you hear that?"