Farming in the North China Plain
On a recent trip to China, at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) Yucheng Comprehensive Experimental Station, we were able to observe the agriculture of the North China Plain, a flood plain about four times the size of the state of Tennessee, up close and personal, thanks to our hosts, Professors Ouyang Zhu and Li Yunsheng of the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research of CAS.
The Yucheng station has been conducting agricultural research for 43 years. The focus of the work has included the issues of soil desalinization and water management in the Yellow River watershed. Because of these problems, crop production levels in the Yucheng area were very poor when they started their work.
Today their work has expanded to include varietal field trials, integrated pest management, fertilizer and crop residue tests, and the use of no-till techniques in the crop rotation between winter wheat and soybeans.
The climatic conditions in the area are such that farmers can harvest the winter wheat crop in June and then plant corn into the wheat stubble. In the fall when the corn is harvested the land is replanted to winter wheat.
With double cropping the total production is significant. We usually evaluate a farming operation in terms of yield crop by crop, but given the situation in the North China Plain it makes more sense to look at the yield per acre not the yield by crop. In one village that we visited, the farmers reported a ten-fold increase in yield since they started working with the experiment station.
As we rode between the city of Yucheng and the experimental station we saw a cropping system that astounded us. We saw poplar saplings intercropped with winter wheat.
Some of the wheat fields contained poplars that were well beyond the sapling stage. In fact, we saw winter wheat planted under poplars with five-inch or so trunks. The larger the trees, the thinner the wheat stand, but there was wheat to be harvested.
We have heard about agroforestry cropping systems, but this is the first time we saw it anywhere but on the pages of books. The poplars were planted and harvested on a regular rotation in conjunction with the production of field crops.
We are unclear about the details, but from what we could see this cropping system provided a sustainable supply of wood and supported many very small, but thriving, wood processing operations in the community.
On one of our tours of local agricultural operations we had the opportunity to look at a cooperative dairy. The organization consists of a system of cooperative buying and marketing with individual family-operated production in the middle.
The dairy has 86 dry lots built right next to each other. Each lot is operated by a different farm family. The family is responsible for their lot and their two dozen or so cows and calves.
The cooperative owns the milking parlor and each farmer is responsible for the twice daily milking of their cows. We were told that there is a waiting list of farmers who would like to become a part of the cooperative.