Young Chinese devote to agro-innovation and rural revitalization
Written by Yin Xiuqi, narrated by Wu Jia.
The Yuting Modern Agricultural Development Park is in the northwest of Suzhou, a modern city next to China's economic hub of Shanghai.
As well as paddy fields, the park is home to row after row of greenhouses, clean paved roads, street lights and beautiful lawns dotted with cute farmhouses.
On this vast park with its broad paved roads, cars are the mode of transport, a scene unimaginable in many parts of China's countryside.
As we get out of our car, a tall, bespectacled young man leads us to his greenhouse.
Stepping into the greenhouse, rows of greenery catch our attention though we don't know exactly what vegetables are being grown here.
Our host, Hao Qidong, tells us it's a wide variety:
"We're experimenting with growing vegetables without fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. So this is organic cultivation. There are 28 kinds of vegetables in this greenhouse to demonstrate our growing technologies. We've improved the soil and adopted biological methods of repelling pests. Over there are tomatoes, here are cucumbers. Pumpkins, okras, eggplants, and peppers are over there."
Confident in the quality of his products, Hao picks a few cucumbers and happily asks us to try them.
Sensing our reluctance, Hao says they're safe once the dust is wiped off.
He himself has several bites of the cucumber before we put his product to our mouths.
It turns out that the risks we've taken to eat the cucumbers without washing them properly are rewarded by its taste, much better than what we buy from an urban market.
Hao Qidong introduces one of his new products, which he calls banana-zucchini, as his company is committed to contributing to China's agricultural innovation. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
But how did this young agricultural expert bring out such a tasty product without using chemical pesticides and fertilizers?
Hao explains that anti-pest devices installed around the crops are sending no-go zone signals to the pests through light reflections and emitting matrine—a kind of plant extract repulsive to pests.
The improved soil also provides healthy nutrients for the plants so that their immunity is enhanced.
"At the same time the soil must be improved to help the plants avoid being harmed by the pests. After the soil is improved, the immunity of the plants will improve," says Hao.
Hao Qidong and his team use bacteria to make the soil fertile. He points out that soil is key in cultivating organic and green agro-products:
"After bacteria are used, the hardened soil will decompose and its fertility will be restored. The hardening of the soil is caused by excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The soil is actually a living system. If you use chemical pesticides that permeate the soil, the earthworms and bacteria in the soil will be killed. As a result, the soil is dead. So to restore the fertility of the damaged soil, you have to first stop using chemical fertilizers and pesticides."
With improved soil and environment-friendly anti-pest methods, Hao says his greenhouse is cultivating not only quality products, but also experimenting with new kinds of vegetables.
Hao introduces to us one of his new products, which has yellow skin and is in the shape of a zucchini:
"This kind of vegetable originates from central America. We've made some improvements on it. It's actually a hybrid of squash and zucchini. We call it banana-zucchini, which sells well on the market."
Hao and his team go to the greenhouse every day to record agro-data, including temperature, humidity, yields and pests.
The team belongs to an agro-company Hao launched at the beginning of 2018 in the Yuting Agricultural Park. It's in cooperation with Nanjing University, a renowned higher learning institute in China.
Being chief executive of the 11-member startup, Hao says they are exploring a new agro-business model:
"Our company focuses on two ends of the agricultural chain: the first is the testing of farming technologies, the other is the marketing and agricultural brand. Through these two arms, we connect the agricultural production process. If you only sell technologies to the farmers, how will they sell their end products? If you only sell the products, then how can you control the quality of the products? So our model is to connect these ends of the agricultural chains."
Hao says his time is split between office work scouting for business partners and investment and farm work attending to his vegetables in the greenhouse.
He says it takes three to five years to gather adequate agro-data before they can be analyzed and applied to develop a mature and marketable agro-technology.
But the young entrepreneur sees great market potential along with Chinese consumers' increasing demand for quality farm products.
Though in the early stage of development, Hao says his company is committed to contributing to China's agricultural innovation while tapping into the expanding agro-market.
Lin Yaping, a strawberry grower, is the forerunner in terms of going back to work and live in the villages of Wangting after receiving a university education. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
Decades of urbanization and an outflow of migrant workers from the countryside have left many Chinese villages drained of working age young people.
A revival of rural life and vitality calls for both an upgrading of farming practices and a stream of young, well-educated people back to the countryside.
In the town of Wangting, the northwest suburb of Suzhou, signs are emerging of a dynamic rural life created by a growing number of such people, starting with Lin Yaping over a decade ago.
Lin is the forerunner in terms of going back to work and live in the villages of Wangting after receiving a university education.
In 2008, she graduated from Yangzhou University in Jiangsu Province, where she majored in plant nutrition and soil science.
The then fresh graduate came to Wangting to work as a technician at a local vegetable production base.
She earned just 2,800 yuan a month, a low wage compared with what a fair job in the city could offer.
No wonder, one year later, the young woman wanted to change her job.
But she was persuaded by a local village official to stay. To create new sources of income for her, Lin was encouraged to lease about one hectare of land to grow strawberries.
Although the young woman had an academic degree in agriculture, she had no experience of planting. Her first try failed.
The strawberries barely grew at all. Those that did grow didn't even make it off the vines, as she didn't know how to get them to market.
Lin recalls that the setback dealt her a blow:
"I borrowed the money from my farther to start my strawberry undertaking. In the next year, I suffered a loss, amounting to some 60-thousand yuan. So I was in urgent need of money. At that time I thought I was just a common farmer and hadn't reached the level of starting a business. Fortunately, township officials noted my difficulty and said that my undertaking qualified for government support as it was a business-creation. So they arranged a bank loan for me."
With local government support, Lin got a 50,000 yuan bank loan to help her survive her failure.
Lin's strawberry farm later gradually came on track. Now over ten years old, her family farm has grown to about five hectares.
Lin Yaping has established her own strawberry brand called Linmeimei, and it sells well on the market.
She says the farm can earn 700-thousand yuan a year with her strawberry business—a fairly handsome income.
Now herself a successful strawberry farmer, Lin says growing the fruit is still a delicate job:
"The strawberries planted by inexperienced farmers will die easily. For example, the roots of the fruit have to be properly buried in the soil and the soil on top of the roots must be pressed a little bit. Otherwise, any strawberries with their roots exposed outside the soil will die after being watered and baked by the sunlight. Each strawberry seedling costs us some 80 cents. So if one dies, it costs us about one yuan if we take into account worker's wages. Growing quality strawberries needs delicate work, experience and technology."
For years, Lin Yaping had been one of the few and even only young people to have a college degree and work as a farmer in Wangting.
The situation has changed in recent years thanks to her example and local government efforts to attract young talent.
In 2012, four years after Lin Yaping came to Wangting, officials in the town established the Yuting Agricultural Park to upgrade local farming and attract entrepreneurial young people.
Wangting now boasts scores of young people deemed a new type of farmer, working for various agricultural undertakings.
Lin says she and her peers are helping create an environment for other young people aspiring to try their luck in agriculture:
"Agriculture, as a career, can also be decent. In Wangting, the local authorities have given us a lot of support. As a new career farmer here, we all feel life is good. More than 40 young people here share this identity. We feel hope and strength and no longer a sense of inferiority compared with non-agriculture careers. So the key for the countryside to attract talents is to create an environment for them to work and live happily here."
For anyone who wants to jump into agriculture, Lin offers her heartfelt and hard-won advice:
"You have to first get familiar with and learn about the actual farm job you plan to take. While aiming to start your own agro-business, you should first work for a farm or agricultural company for a year to gain actual farming experience. With such experience, you might face fewer difficulties when you start your own business."
Now with her farm well on track, Lin sets her eyes on promoting rural life among urban residents, especially children:
"What my farm aims to do is to promote knowledge about agriculture among children. Since 2017, we have been teaming up with a rice farm to let children from the cities find out about farm-work, such as harvesting rice, as well as experience life on a farm. For example, I personally take them to my farm. When they come across a caterpillar or other little wild insects or animals, they are very happy. At this moment, I'll tell them some things about farming."
Lin herself has a son and a daughter—both in primary school. She says they often have fun in the open air against the backdrop of beautiful scenery and promising farmland.
In her leisure time, Lin may go to a newly opened café near her farm, chatting and hanging out with friends.
The café's owner is Lu Fengying. Though Lu is a native of Wangting, she previously worked in the city, not thinking of returning to the dull and stagnant hometown of her memory.
It's only a year ago that she launched a 300-square-meter café in Wangting after she found the dynamics and attraction of the revived rural life.
"I came back because of the attraction of Linmeimei strawberries. I heard that Linmeimei strawberries were very good. So I brought my family and friends here to buy and eat these strawberries each year. During these visits, I got familiar with my hometown again and found it's different from how I remember. At the same time, I thought there should be a café to serve tourists and local residents. So I opened a café here," says Lu.
Lu Fengying’s café, a rare presence in China’s countryside, is popular with tourists coming from the cities during the peak tourist season. [Photo: courtesy of Wangting Town]
With Lin Yaping's strawberry farm and other farms, the café is contributing to and benefiting from a booming local rural tourism.
"During the peak tourist season in March and April, our café is fully occupied with customers. People even have to wait for a vacant seat," Lu Fengying says.
The three-story café has a capacity of 100 customers at one time.
At peak travel times, some 30,000 tourists come to Wangting every day. Considering the population of Wangting is no more than 80,000, this is quite a few!
Chen Yongming, who is responsible for overseeing Wanting's modern agricultural and rural tourist development, says more efforts will be made to entice urban tourists:
"We'll continue to improve the infrastructure here. While we preserve the original farm landscape, we'll revamp the irrigation channels. We'll build more asphalt roads and put up more street lamps. By doing this, we aim to create a scenic spot centered on agriculture and farmland. It will be like a city at night. But you can see farmland, which you can't see in the city. While there are high-rise buildings in the city, here are one-story or two-story well-decorated, villa-like farmhouses. You can breathe fresh air and enjoy wonderful views here beside the Taihu Lake."
The development of Wangting is part of a national plan to modernize agriculture and revitalize the rural regions.
Chinese officials have promised that farming would become an attractive profession, while rural areas would become beautiful and prosperous.