(Photo: People's Daily)
On a vast farm in north China's Hebei Province, chickens roam here and there, occasionally fluttering up into the trees. The only unusual thing is that each fowl wears an electronic anklet.
Like humans with activity trackers, the free-range chicken in Wuyi County wear anklets counting their steps to determine when they are ready for market.
"We don't sell them until they have taken over 1 million steps, roughly 160 days," said He Xiaofei, manager of the chicken farm. Walking about tightens chickens' muscles and makes the meat more tasty. Some 10,000 chickens are currently strolling around the farm's 14 hectares, all of whom eat only natural food.
The chicken farm is a poverty alleviation project supported by the county government and shopping site JD.com.
Wuyi is one of the poorest counties in China with most of the farmland barren and alkaline. More than 60 percent of poor residents are elderly, sick or unable to support themselves.
With small interest-free loans provided by JD.com, villagers are able to claim a number of chicken and get a dividend when they are sold. Some also have part-time jobs on the farm.
The government pays for insurance for the chicken, guaranteeing the incomes of the "investors."
Li Xisheng, 76, borrowed 4,500 yuan (716 U.S. dollars) to claim 100 chickens last year. When they were ready for market, JD.com paid him 10,000 yuan. Deducting the loan repayment and farm management fees -- water, electricity and slaughtering -- Li earned 3,000 yuan.
"The chickens have changed my life," Li said, adding he has just bought an electric tricycle.
The ready-to-cook chicken sell well online even though they cost 168 yuan to 188 yuan, three or four times the normal price. Buyers have left over 14,000 comments on JD.com, most in awe of the taste.
China's expanding middle-income group has created a lucrative market for high quality agricultural products, attracting investors including Internet giants Alibaba and NetEase. Both companies have free-range pig farms.
Liu Wei, deputy head of Wuyi County, said the chicken farm benefited poor villagers while bringing profits for big business. The farm has helped lift more than 400 households out of poverty in the county since March 2016, and will be expanded this year, with facilities to cater for tourists.
"With more income expected, more people will cast off poverty this year," Liu said.