'No man's land' breathes new life into agriculture

Chen Huizhi
The first unmanned paddy field in Shanghai has yielded crops. The farm in suburban Jiading District uses machinery in cultivating and harvesting paddy and benefits farmers.
Chen Huizhi
Shot by Ma Xuefeng. Edited by Ma Xuefeng. Subtitles by Chen Huizhi.

After graduating from university, Liu Bo, who comes from a family of farmers in Jiangsu Province, became a farmer himself due to his love of cultivation and harvesting. But he would soon find out that love for a profession might not be unconditional.

Farming is largely considered to be a low-income job fraught with hard labor and toil. Working as a machinery operator, Liu seriously thought about quitting a few years ago, but then his trade underwent tremendous changes that turned around his business.

The changes have come with advancements in technology, which Liu and his fellow farmers believe could totally change the face of agriculture and their profession in a positive way.

Zhoujing Village of Waigang, a town located in northwest Shanghai, is golden in color now with paddy crops. It's the harvest season. The harvested paddy will be threshed, dried and milled for rice, which is the most common staple food in China.

In a field of about 1.3 acres, or the size of two standard soccer fields, a lonely red-and-white machine is slowly moving across the golden waves of paddy, leaving short yellow stalks behind it. No one is sitting in the driver's cabin. When its load is full, it moves toward the edge of the field, where a tractor is waiting there for it to offload its harvested crops. The tractor also has no driver.

When Liu, 40, who is now director of the professional agricultural machinery service cooperative in Waigang Town, started working here in 2012, this was still a dream.

"We had some poor machinery at that time, but even then we were not able to use it because the fields were uneven," he recalled. "We heavily relied on manual work in applying fertilizer and pesticide as well as seedling planting and harvesting."

The shortage of younger farmers, the inefficiency of the work and the low income in the industry eventually led to the idea of a revolution in rice cultivation in Jiading in 2015.

Now, the future's way to ensure food safety is happening with machinery equipped with China's BeiDou satellite navigation system and smart control technology nearly replacing human labor from sowing to harvesting of 13 acres of paddy fields in Waigang.

For agricultural machinery operators like Liu, unmanned machinery has significantly increased their welfare.

"Since we don't have to sit in the machines anymore, there is no risk of being stuck in the muddy fields," he said. "We're now also able to work more effectively with standardized machine operation, eliminating human error."

Liu leads a team of 45 machinery operators, including a dozen young people in their 30s who have joined in recent years. Most other operators are over 50 years old.

"It's more difficult for the older generation of farmers to adapt to new technology, but it's handy for the younger ones," he said. "Our operators are also becoming more versatile, which will enable us to run our farms eventually with fewer hands."

The young ones are satisfied with their income, which has grown many times from a decade ago, Liu added.

Liu's role as a farmer has also changed in the process. He now offers consultation to the tech company that develops the driverless machinery.

"The company has expertise in electronics technology and programming, but not necessarily in agriculture," he said. "We have advised them on route planning for the harvester to maximize harvests and for the seedling transplanter to work more effectively."

However, human labor has not yet been entirely replaced with the introduction of the driverless machinery. To reduce the wear and tear of the sickle on the harvester, the farmers have to trim the edges of the fields to enable the machine to work smoothly. Also, the machines won't be able to harvest paddy plants that are bent too much after stormy weather. Also, the fields are still manually irrigated.

Gao Hao, director of Shanghai Waigang Agriculture Development Co, the agricultural collective of Waigang Town, said that "Waigang rice" has a widely recognized quality.

"Our loyal customers come to buy our rice right after the harvest," he said, adding that the company sowed 100 acres of top-quality paddy this year, which accounts for about 20 percent of all paddy fields it cultivates.

The unmanned cultivation of more paddy fields in the future and the digital management of the entire cultivation process will further boost the quality of their rice, Gao said.

The company plans to expand the unmanned cultivation experiment to over 100 acres of paddy fields and establish a digital platform to monitor the entire cultivation cycle by the end of 2022.

By the end of 2025, over 600 acres, or half of the paddy fields in the town, will be cultivated and harvested by driverless machinery, which will greatly cut costs for the company, according to Gao.

"We estimate that we can save about 100 yuan for 1 mu (666 square meters) of paddy fields by using driverless machinery and reducing human labor, which would mean 2 million yuan for all of our paddy fields, which is not a small sum at all in agriculture," he said. "The income produced by 1 mu of field will increase by 1,000 yuan with rice products of higher quality, which would mean 20 million yuan for all of the fields."

Waigang Town has an ambition to develop agricultural tourism along Moyu Road, a thoroughfare in this area, which has a pig farm, a rice factory and paddy field, a large wintersweet garden, orchards and a fishing center in a one-kilometer stretch.

The town government believes that it will further improve the life of locals who are moving into new residential quarters from their farmhouses and renting their farmlands to the local collective and family farms for large-scale agricultural production.

The "digital unmanned farm" in Waigang is listed as one of 13 exemplary projects around Shanghai for the period from 2021 to 2025 in forging a high-quality and more competitive agricultural sector. It is the first and only project of its kind. Meanwhile, the city's agricultural innovators have been intensely working on the unmanned cultivation of vegetables, too.

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