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KUNMING - Li Zhizhong may not be able to locate Australia on a map, but he is a master at cultivating Australian macadamia nuts.

Li, 63, has devoted more than a decade of his life to the 2 hectares of macadamias he grows in Mengzhi village in Yunnan province. The village is among the largest production areas for macadamias in China thanks to locals who brought Australian seedlings there more than 20 years ago.

"We used to grow corn and potatoes, but we didn"t make much money," Li said. "With macadamias, we all became rich."

Currently, about 133,300 hectares of macadamias are under cultivation in Lincang, where more than 170,000 farming households are engaged in the business.

In the 1990s, local officials established Mengzhi as a pilot area for macadamia growing, but villagers were reluctant to switch to the exotic crop.

"Most villagers were suspicious of the seedlings because they basically knew nothing about the nuts," Li said. Only one man, Bi Jiafu, was willing to give them a try, he said.

"He read a magazine about the environment required to grow macadamias and about the nuts" high market value," Li said. "He said the county"s climate was perfect."

Bi approached the county government with a request for 100 seedlings.

"He spent days choosing the right place, and then planted and fertilized the seedlings. Government experts often came to help," Li said.

In 2001, Bi"s fields produced the first batch of macadamias. Production climbed every year, with each hectare of the nuts generating up to 240,000 yuan ($37,500) annually.

The bountiful harvests led villagers to try their luck. Many began to buy seedlings and learn techniques from Bi. The county government also gave away seedlings to foster a macadamia industry.

The exotic nuts transformed the county"s fortunes. Li, for example, was able to buy a car worth 130,000 yuan and a house worth 400,000 yuan.

In another village, resident Yang Wenzhu makes about 500,000 yuan a year growing macadamias. Yang calls his new house the "nut house" and his car the "nut car".

Xinhua