Handan is a city of several million people about 4 hours south of Beijing by fast train. Over an hour’s journey away by car is Quzhou country. Here, staff and students from China Agricultural University’s Centre for Resources, Environment and Food Security have been working and living since 2009 to promote more efficient resource use in farming and high yields. It is an unusual project that took me back to my days working in agricultural extension projects
Small groups of 2-3 students are living in village houses creating ‘science and technology backyards’. The aim is to use the techniques from the Quzhou Experiment station (pictured below) to reduce the environmental impact of farming and improve crop production efficiency. The students aim to teach farmers methods and techniques that these farmers pass on to others. They have also established farmer field schools.
It took a while for the farmers to trust them as, at first, the farmers thought they were sales people coming to sell them things but as they saw improvements in yield, closing the yield gap between what was being got and what was possible, trust levels grew.
Before the university staff and students came to begin, they had found that there were problems with irrigation and very low efficiency of water use, with ground water levels falling 1/m year recently and now at 50m below ground. There were also problems with the reliability of the fertiliser, so they introduced soil testing to assess the needs and monitor the effects. They also advised on timing of applications to reduce waste and increase uptake.
The groups of usually three students live in villages, often an outbuilding in the leader’s house. Each group focuses on the different types of farming practices locally. In one village, a focus is on mechanisation and reducing the drudgery in the wheat / maize production system, introducing deep ploughing techniques.
In another village, they have a winter wheat, summer maize, watermelon cropping system giving three harvests per year, intercropping the watermelon with the wheat, as this is more profitable than the wheat / maize system. The students found they were learning from the farmers about the watermelon techniques and were able to then help with advice on the overall system. They also helped organise the farmers into a cooperative and create a registered trademark to market their produce.
In yet another village, the focus is on fruit production and using the concept of circular agriculture to improve the quality of the fruit, yields and to improve the soil through mulching techniques.
There is one women’s science and technology backyard served by three female students. Here the focus is not just on agriculture but also social life, such as dancing. They opened a women only farmer field school with classes every one to two weeks. Numbers are up from 24 to 40 and the women sit an exam at the start to assess their needs. The aim is both agricultural and self-development and according to the women I met it has been a considerable success.
I was invited to dinner in this village in the house where some of the teaching happens – a meal of steamed bread, millet porridge with pumpkin and peanuts, shredded turnip and a couple of greens. Slowly others joined us and by the end of the evening they had me up dancing to current popular music in China.
What was missing, though, was a look at both what farmers themselves might be doing to change their practices and more agro-ecological approaches to farming systems, as seen elsewhere in China and reported on in earlier blogs. In the future, perhaps, there is room for much greater inter-change between the different groups – all of whom are working to improve China’s food and farming.