New type of farmers set to reshape China's rice farming
Rice is a major staple food in China, but it doesn't grow successfully without a lot of effort. [Photo: vcg.com]
Suzhou has been a pioneering region in China's market-oriented economic reform and growth since the 1980s.
Though the city is now best known for its manufacturing industry and cultural and tourist attractions, it still retains a key part of its agricultural heritage in the northwest suburb. The area, called Wangting, is home to sprawling paddy fields, stretching far and wide.
But the scene before our eyes shatters our impressions of traditional rice farming, which usually involves farmers using cattle pulling a plough to till a small plot of land.
What we see here are various tractors on a vast area with farmers at the wheel, preparing the land before transplanting rice seedlings.
Sturdy, deeply-tanned Zhu Yunde is one of the farmers who greet us.
The 29-year-old university graduate runs 90 hectares of paddy fields in Wangting.
He says one tractor can finish ploughing about five hectares of land a day—an efficiency unimaginable if only man and cattle power are used.
As well as ploughing, Zhu says machines are used in nearly all the other processes of rice agriculture, including transplanting, irrigation and harvesting:
"Every rice transplanter is manned by two people--one is responsible for driving the machine, the other refilling the rice seedlings in the machine tray. In the past, it was done by hand. Now it's way more efficient. A skilled, hard-working person could only transplant one Mu of rice paddy a day at most. Now a rice transplanter can finish 50 to 70 Mu a day."
Mu is a traditional Chinese measurement of size. One Mu equals roughly one tenth of a football pitch.
Zhu Yunde's 90-hectare rice farm has just a dozen permanent workers. This would be unachievable for his small team without the machines.
One skilled rice farmer with only cattle to help could normally maintain no more than a third of a hectare. This means that without the modern farming machines Zhu and his team would have been able to farm just four hectares.
Zhu says it's often at the end of May or early June that he and his team prepare the paddy fields and transplant the rice seedlings.
Though machines have become an essential part of his farm, traditional manual farm work can't be avoided altogether.
"The planting process of the rice crops is almost mechanized. But one thing that has not been mechanized is the weeding. We still have to do the job by hand. That's because herbicides can't be used during the growing season," says Zhu.
Zhu adds his farm yields 15,000 kilograms of rice in each hectare a year. This productivity is almost the same as a traditional small-sized family farm using mostly man and cattle power.
The farmer admits that machines can't compare with skilled manual labor in certain procedures in terms of quality of work:
"If you transplant the rice seedlings by hand, the seedlings in the seedbed will be allowed to grow taller before being transplanted. Moreover, picking the seedlings by hand will cause less harm to their roots compared with being picked by a machine.
“But now transplanting by hand is not practical for a large-scale farm due to the requirements of production efficiency and the restraints of human resources."
For decades, rice farming in China has been done by rural families. Usually in east and south China, a four-member family would cultivate a small plot of rice paddies, no larger than a hectare on average.
Zhu says this mode of traditional farming means the farmers can work intricately on their farm to increase productivity:
"A family farm may be one or two hectares. So they can pay more attention to each piece of land and the very small details of each step in growing the rice. In contrast, we focus on how to improve farm efficiency. So we may pay not as much attention as they do to the very small details. The yields per unit area of our farmland are just a little bit lower than the small family farms. But the gap is tiny."
Just over a decade into its existence, Zhu's large-scale farm may be a new model for rice farming in China.
It's new both in terms of its company-like management as well as the modern farming machines and technologies it adopts.
In fact, the university-educated young man has been dubbed a new type of career farmer by the local authorities.
The honor of this new identity has compelled the young farmer to introduce and promote the most advanced farming machines to China.
"As a matter of fact, my farm and my team are devoting much of the effort to introducing and applying new technologies and machines for rice growing in China. Whenever there are new machines, we buy them. Generally, my farm is at the forefront in terms of introducing new agricultural machines to the farms in Suzhou," the young farmer reveals.
Zhu says that many of today's farming machines are large and high-powered, thus more economical to be used on large farms.
He proudly talks about how his farm has helped promote the use of a type of Japan-made plant protection machine:
"In 2012, a Japanese company introduced its plant protection machine to China. That machine can walk in the paddy fields. We bought 30 of them and were the first to use them in Jiangsu Province. At the time, many other farmers came to ask about the advantages and disadvantages of the machines.
“Before we experimented with them, people were careful and didn't dare to use them, fearing potential defects. But after two years, the machines were accepted by our farmers. They are now a common agricultural machine."
The plant protection machine not only improves the efficiency of spraying pesticides on the crops, but also better protects the farmers who do the work.
It used to be common practice that farmers would trudge tediously through the rice paddies lugging heavy containers of pesticides.
This is now largely a thing of the past--agricultural drones, more advanced than the plant protection machines, have taken over.
Besides efficiency and safety, the various farming machines at Zhu's farm give it an enviable advantage when the weather is bad.
"We farmers can only do our best and leave everything else to God in terms of agricultural yield. I remember clearly it incessantly rained from mid-October 2015 to early December. Many of my fellow farmers couldn't harvest the rice because of the rain. The paddies couldn't be dried in time after the crop was harvested. So they got mildew," recalls Zhu.
Luckily for Zhu, five dryer machines he bought in that year helped him avoid a similar fate. Those machines and other equipment cost him a million yuan, or about 140-thousand US dollars, which a small family farm wouldn't be able to afford.
College-educated Zhu Yunde is dubbed a new type of career farmer as he and his market-oriented rice farm aims to transform rice agriculture in China. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
Zhu Yunde was not destined to become a farmer, even though he was born and grew up in the countryside.
His deepest impression of rice cultivating was that it was backward and demanding, with little reward.
"I knew how farmers transplanted rice seedlings in my village during my childhood. I've seen how my grandmother did farm work. At the time, even a man driving a small tractor could only plough about 1.3 hectares of land a day, and it was painstaking. So my impression of agricultural production, rice cultivation in particular, was that it's very tough," recalls Zhu.
But a year before he went to college in 2009, his father rented a large farm from the villagers, trying to explore a new way to cultivate rice.
When he graduated from Yangzhou University four years later, the young man was faced with a hard choice.
Going to the countryside and taking a job in agriculture are not on most of China's college graduates' radar.
Zhu recalls that many of his classmates didn't take farming jobs even if they had learnt agriculture at school.
Zhu himself also wanted to find a job in the cities and see the outside world a little bit more.
But his father persuaded him to join the family rice farm business.
"When I was persuaded by my father to run this farm, it was mainly out of care and love that I accepted his request because it was too tough for him to do the job by himself alone," says the younger Zhu.
Though reluctant, in 2013 Zhu Yunde began to take over and expand the farm. And handing over the farm from father to son also meant changing the way it was run.
The younger Zhu has been steering the farm towards one based on modern technologies and machines and getting it more involved in the market.
Zhu says this kind of shift undoubtedly involves a large investment, especially in buying necessary equipment.
The young farmer says a tranche of government-sponsored bank loans has been essential for his farm to overcome the difficulties in the early years of his management:
"Coincidentally, it was in 2015, when it rained incessantly during the harvest season, that we got a bank loan and bought some dryer machines. We spent one million yuan on five such machines. That bank loan was really important for us. If we hadn't been able to buy the dryer machines, two thirds of our farm's rice yields in 2015 may have failed. That would have been a great loss."
In addition to the initial cost, Zhu says another big problem all farms face is the shortage of capable young workers:
"Human resources are in short supply in agriculture. I think the aging problem in agriculture is more serious than in industry. In the past five or six years, the government has been making efforts to cultivate a new type of career farmers. But young people, like me, have only been in agriculture for a short time."
According to Zhu's experience and observation, most farmers now are in their 50s or even 60s and 70s. And there's a deep-seated social notion preventing young people becoming farmers.
In China, most parents object to their well-educated loved ones choosing to work in agriculture and live in the countryside.
This sentiment results from the long-standing situation where farmers live harsh, rural lives with a lower social status.
But Zhu says the situation is improving in some parts of China amid intensive government efforts to upgrade agriculture and bring young talent to the sector.
In Suzhou, the city government issued a policy document back in 2015, calling for the cultivation of these so-called "new type of career farmers".
Since then, financial and other kinds of support has been organized to attract and train young farmers, like Zhu Yunde.
Modeled on an industrial park, the Yuting Modern Agricultural Development Park is in its seventh year in Wangting Town.
The agricultural park, organized by local officials, aims to encourage the growth of market-oriented farms and other agricultural undertakings.
Chen Yongming, a former official of Wangting Town, oversees the development of the park.
He says Wangting has designated 44 "new type of career farmers" under the guidance of the city government's policy:
"These new farmers are not just in name. They are new because they have been adopting new concepts of managing farms and using new technologies for agricultural production. We regularly arrange agricultural experts from universities to give lectures to our new farmers. Some of the lectures are about government policies as the new farmers and their farms are market-oriented. Other lectures focus on agricultural technologies on how to grow green and organic products."
Similar moves are also being made at a national level.
In May 2019, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs launched a three-year campaign to improve the science literacy of its rural population.
In three years, authorities say the country will train four million so-called scientifically-literate farmers, who understand science, can master modern technology and have business management capabilities.
In Wangting, Chen Yongming says favorable local policies are drawing an increasing number of young talents to agriculture:
"At present, some of the new farmers come from a farming family background. But we begin to see people from non-farming families or having jobs in the cities come to our park to join agriculture. These young people are clearly developing an interest in farming."
Li Quan is one such career farmer in Wangting. Born in the 1980s, he has a master's degree from Nanjing Agricultural University.
Li came to work at Zhu Yunde's farm in 2013. A year before, he worked there as an intern. Li decided to stay there after finding the job and overall working and living environment was good.
Li is not a native of Suzhou. He says farmers in his home village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southwest China still do manual farm work, which is hard and tough.
Initially, just like most Chinese parents, Li's parents were not in favour of him being a farmer.
But his work is shattering traditional notions.
"Now when I go back to my home-village, I tell my family and other villagers that my farm work is totally different from theirs. Mine is done by machines, especially large machines. It's easy for us farmers to drive the machines and we don't need to trudge in the muddy fields.
“So my family has gradually accepted my choice as they think that being a new type of farmer is pretty good. Now whenever I go back, my family proudly introduces me and my work to the fellow villagers. Such a notion about farming contrasts with that of the past," says Li.
In sharp contrast to long-standing norms of self-sufficient agriculture, Li Quan and his boss Zhu Yunde are aiming to help establish a market-based rice agriculture in China.
"What we've been doing is growing quality rice. Right after we rented farmland to grow rice, we aimed to cultivate our own brand of rice. Meanwhile, we have been helping other rice farmers in Suzhou cultivate an inter-connected rice industry instead of simply growing and selling rice by ourselves," Zhu says.
Zhu's farm has established its own rice brand, called Jinxiangyi, which literally means rice filled with golden fragrance.
The brand has made its name in Suzhou and even in Jiangsu Province. Jinxiangyi rice sells for 30 yuan a kilogram if it belongs to an organic sub-brand. The price is much higher than ordinary rice on the market, which is about six yuan a kilogram.
Zhu says behind the high price is delicate farm-work and high quality:
"We don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides in growing organic rice. We've installed insecticide lights and shields to repel insects. When pests are rampant in certain years and these measures are inadequate, we'll add some bio-pesticides to tackle the pests. These bio-pesticides will biodegrade in the fields after a while, so there's no residue on the crops."
As well as growing quality products, Zhu says marketing is very important for his market-oriented farm:
"The earnings of my farm depend largely on marketing. Each year when we go out and promote our rice brand and sell more of our rice, we earn more. If our rice doesn't sell well, we suffer financially."
Zhu got married at the end of 2014. His wife helps him with online marketing, while she shuns the actual farm work.
The couple have two kindergarten age daughters. In his spare time, Zhu plays badminton or takes his family out, a recreation rare for traditional self-sufficient Chinese farmers.
"After the busy harvest season, which ends in December, I have a rest. Then in February or March, I take my wife and children on a sight-seeing trip," Zhu says.
Zhu and many well-educated young farmers like him are actually helping reshape China's agriculture amid overall government efforts to modernize the sector and develop rural regions.
Since 2012, the Chinese central government has focused on these issues for eight consecutive years in its No. 1 Central Document.
The document is the first policy statement released by the central authorities usually at the start of each year and is seen as an indicator of policy priorities.
In the No. 1 Central Document of 2019, the government says it will move to encourage young talents to do agriculture, optimize agricultural structure and boost the production of green agricultural products.
As we end our interview and leave Zhu Yunde's farm behind, we know that he and his team are working to bring out another batch of Jinxiangyi rice, to go on sale with its golden fragrance in autumn.