URUMQI－For Nebi Jelili, the soft cotton flowers grown in the fields of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region are "nuggets of gold" that have changed his family's fortune.
The 34-year-old lives in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, and is well-known by villagers. Last year, he was named the prefecture's champion cotton picker after he gathered over 240 kilograms every day for 50 days in a row.
The title is considered an honor in Xinjiang, which has ranked first in the country in terms of cotton output and planting area for 25 years.
Though cotton-picking machines are becoming common in Xinjiang, many cotton fields, especially those in the region's south, are too scattered to be harvested by machines and still need to be picked by hand.
In autumn and early winter, armies of cotton pickers swarm to south Xinjiang for seasonal work. The most productive laborer is often crowned the "cotton-picking king" or "cotton-picking queen".
Nebi's family used to rely on farming for a living, but their fields were too limited to support them. A car accident in 2007 plunged the family into debt.
In the early 2010s, he started picking cotton to boost the family's income. He could only pick 100 kg a day at first, while now he can pick up to 280 kg.
"There is no secret to becoming a cotton-picking champion. All you have to do is to work hard," said Nebi, who starts his day before dawn and works while others take breaks.
He is paid about 2 yuan (30 cents) for every kg of cotton he picks.
He pocketed 30,000 yuan last year by picking cotton, which accounted for over 70 percent of his family's annual income.
However, Nebi knows that in the years ahead he will be unable to rely on cotton picking as a sole source of income, given the increasing reliance on machinery to do the job.
Last year, Nebi invested 100,000 yuan to set up a recycling center with other villagers, and his wife opened a cold noodles store to boost the family's income.
As a self-made man, Nebi is proud he has taken matters into his own hands when it comes to beating poverty.
"Hard work pays off," he said."For those who have doubts, they are welcome to visit my home to see the changes."