Lishu County: Protecting the Treasure Land for Agriculture
Lishu County in Jilin Province is a pearl of the Songliao Plain. It ranks among China's top five grain-producing counties and has been designated a model for the protection and use of chernozem soil, a type of highly fertile black earth.
On July 22, 2020, the day of Great Heat, one of the 24 solar terms in China's traditional calendar, President Xi Jinping paid a visit to the county to learn about the protection of chernozem soils, the R&D and use of agricultural technology, and the development of specialized farmers' cooperatives. Entering a cornfield, he trekked to an observation point with a chernozem soil cross-section to examine protection of the black soil up close. President Xi strongly endorsed the county's innovative practice of keeping corn stalks to the land as mulch. He also underscored the need to adopt effective measures that will and precious that it has been dubbed the "giant panda of farmland."
President Xi's praise and encouragement helped fortify confidence and provide an additional boost to the county. In the two years since then, local residents have done what he asked of them. They have scored new achievements in protecting and using chernozem soils, made fresh progress in integrating science and technology with agriculture, and pushed the development of specialized farmers' cooperatives into a new phase. As a result, agriculture in Lishu is advancing steadily and embracing bright prospects for the future.
Reinvigorating chernozem soil
Professor Li Baoguo, a chernozem soil expert from China Agricultural University, has been conducting scientific research in Lishu County for over a decade. During President Xi's visit, Professor Li directed the president's attention to one cross-section of soil exposing the chernozem layer. He explained the layer, which was originally at least 60 centimeters thick, had been shrinking by about 3 millimeters per year since the land was brought under cultivation in the final years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This process had been aggravated by wind and water erosion. "This has been happening for over 100 years," noted President Xi with concern. "If we don't act today, perhaps there will be nothing left several decades from now." "We have already come up with a solution," replied Professor Li. He then proceeded to introduce to Xi the details of Lishu County's solution to the problem, namely the Lishu model for protecting chernozem soil. Under this model, corn stalks are left to the land as mulch, which functions as a protective quilt for the soil. Not only does it defend against wind and soil erosion but wards off drought and ensures moisture. As they decompose, the stalks add to the organic matter in the ground, which makes for loamy soil that allows the corn roots to penetrate the earth more deeply, thus boosting the lodging resistance of plants. President Xi gave the model his full approval, remarking that "It would be worth summing up the Lishu model, so that we can apply the experience more broadly." After persistent efforts, the model is now being implemented on all suitable land in Lishu County and in 46 other counties and districts in Jilin.
The core demonstration area of the vast national base for standardized and environmentally friendly production of corn in Lishu County, Jilin Province (drone photo). XINHUA REPORTER XU CHANG
"This model both cultivates and nourishes the land. The stalks stop the soil from drying out when they decompose and maintain both fertility and moisture, while also keeping off diseases and pests. As the chernozem layer thickens, the plants grow deeper roots. In dry years, this method yields 10% more corn per parcel of land than traditional methods. It's a sustainable way of farming," said Zhang Wendi, chairman of the Lishu County Hongwang Mechanized Farming Cooperative. "Two years ago," he continued, "President Xi came to our cooperative and urged us to properly protect what has been dubbed the 'giant panda of farmland.' Our method is scientific and effective and boosts farmers'incomes. It is a method that we will most certainly be sticking with."
New techniques to complement new machinery
During his visit, President Xi pointed out, "Agricultural modernization must rely on modern science and technology. We should promote stronger integration between these two as well as cooperation between agricultural bases and scientific research institutes. Experts and scholars should focus on publishing work that truly addresses practical issues and enables farmers to grasp advanced agricultural techniques, so that the best techniques are applied to produce the best grain." This year, the China Agricultural University experimentation base at Lishu County brought in new machinery for the spring plowing season. This impressive piece of machinery is an all-in-one stalk collector, subsoiler, rotary tiller, and strip-tiller. It can perform multiple operations in one go, including collecting and processing stalks, loosening and crushing soil, fertilizing, flattening, seeding, and furrowing, as well as single-seed planting, compaction, covering, and re-rolling. It also automatically controls the precise amount of fertilizer and seed required, both of which can be applied even when there is a mulch layer in place.
"During corn planting in the past, farmers had to repeatedly work the soil, rolling it up to four times, which damaged the structure of the chernozem layer," explained Wang Guiman, head of the main station for promoting agricultural techniques in Lishu County. "In addition, large amounts of fertilizer, exploitative cultivation, and the absence of soil protection caused the thickness of the chernozem layer to decrease by almost 40 centimeters in 30 years." Now farmers are using non-tillage seeders and carrying out multiple operations in one go, thanks to major breakthroughs in the development of key tools for protective cultivation.
"All of the 1,000-odd hectares contracted out to our cooperative are cultivated with protective plowing and planting methods, using a blend of agricultural machinery and techniques. The result has been a striking increase in output. As we now have the multi-function non-tillage seeder, planting has become more efficient, and we are in a much better position to protect the chernozem soil," said Han Fengxiang, chairman of the Lishu County Fenghuangshan Mechanized Farming Cooperative.
Upgrading agricultural cooperatives
Modern science and technology are vital for agricultural modernization, and that is also true of innovative production and marketing models. President Xi visited Luwei Mechanized Farming Cooperative in Balimiao Village during his tour of Lishu. In the coop yard, members vied with each other to catalog the benefits they had enjoyed since joining the cooperative. By leasing land to the cooperative, they had scaled up and mechanized their operations. This had significantly boosted efficiency, giving members time to take up employment in the cooperative or a sideline occupation, thus boosting their incomes through a variety of channels. President Xi noted that it was important to encourage the development of cooperatives nationwide based on local conditions and to explore more paths for developing specialized cooperatives.
Over the past two years, mechanized farming cooperatives in Lishu County have further upgraded their operations, with the establishment of the Lishu County Boshuo Federation of Specialized Farmers' Cooperatives. This federation represents much more than just an expansion of scale. It specifically targets the pain points of individual cooperatives. These include financing difficulties, poor bargaining power for machinery and supplies, passivity in grain markets, a slow pace in adopting new agricultural techniques, and poor risk mitigation capacities. By bringing many cooperatives together, the federation can drive the development of modern agriculture and safeguard the interests of farmers. It currently has 20 members, covering all areas of Lishu County, and over 100 service locations, which cover a total cultivated area of 12,000 hectares.
In early summer, the land under non-tillage cultivation stretches into the distance, perfectly flat. Neat rows of strong spring seedlings stand upright and cover the black soil of the Songliao Plain in a coat of lush green. It looks as though this year is set to bring yet another bumper harvest for Lishu County.
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 11-12, 2022)