Agriculture Helping Develop Culture
Only the top five to ten inches of soil on the face of the earth can support agriculture. A variety of factors influence whether even that is useful: soil compaction, water supply, erosion, minerals in the soil, and more. When one or more vital components are removed, soil viability collapses. Like agriculture, culture exists in only a thin layer: healthy families, supportive community, employment opportunities, provision for material needs, and more all combine to support the complexity of culture. When vital components are removed—the parents move away to work, there is not enough food, there are no educational opportunities—culture deteriorates.
As the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” If you flip that saying on its head, the more you want to preserve, the more changes you have to make. Technological adoption facilitates the complex changes necessary to support modern agriculture. Implementation of electricity, smarter use of water and improved pest control, and new markets for agricultural products represent whole revolutions in the life and work of farmers. However, in Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, in northern China, these radical changes are working together to preserve family, community, and cultural life in rural areas.
Electrification of Farming
Electricity is basically magic. The kinds of enhancements it allows in farming are on the order of magical transformation. Guo Jiangmin, a 40-year-old man from Xicun Village in Xinjiang County in Yuncheng, is able to take temperature and humidity readings from his greenhouses by an app on his smartphone, with which he can also adjust air flow and watering schedules. Electricity powers the control devices, sensors, irrigation valves, and security cameras—even his five-minute scooter ride from home to his greenhouses is electric. Guo does not just sit back and let the good times roll: he uses the time saved to expand his farming operations. In 2019, he had two greenhouses built for vegetables. He plans to build two more this year.
Electricity helps farmers take advantage of the “80/20 rule,” according to which 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of the causes. They can focus on the most productive parts of their crops’ growth processes and achieve better results.
Irrigation and Pest Control Enhancements
Pesticides are a low-tech, well-proven tool for suppressing pests. However, spraying pesticides literally covers everything with poison, killing helpful insects as well as pests, potentially harming birds, and remaining in the soil and on fruit and vegetables. In Yuncheng, one can see yellow flypaper in growing areas (which are grim census forms filled out with the bodies of pestilential insects themselves), not to mention bug zappers. Wu Zhongding, 63-year-old chairman of the Zhongding Apple Planting Cooperative in Linyi County, explained the advancements the cooperative introduced in pest control and irrigation to increase environmental friendliness, successfully control pests, and increase water use efficiency.
In the apple orchards, flypaper and bug zappers were deployed, coupled with pheromonal traps that kill male insects. Biological controls kill the pests (or prevent them from being born) without leaving poisonous residue. Birds do eat fruit, but they also eat insects harmful to the crops. Bird repellants hanging on the apple trees keep the birds away from the fruit but do not harm them. Wu further explained tree-spacing and advanced pruning techniques, an increased use of organic rather than chemical fertilizers, and no-tilling methods to reduce degradation of the soil while enhancing the yield of fruit. The most interesting thing was the advanced irrigation techniques being employed in the orchards.
Over the apple trees, irrigation hoses run water along the rows of trees and individual tubes run water directly down to the base of each tree. Wu stated that this method, an upgrade from open-ditch irrigation, cut their water needs in half. They water their trees three times a year. Less water is lost to evaporation or soil not supporting an apple tree. Pressure on water resources makes efficiency of agricultural water use a priority, and agriculture is the biggest allocation of water resources in modern economies. Savings there benefit the whole country.
Expansion of Markets
The Hawthorn Planting Specialty Cooperative in Wenxi County in Yuncheng displayed a series of consumer products derived from hawthorn berries: cosmetics, liquor, sweets, hawthorn leaf tea, hawthorn honey, and even hawthorn toothpaste. The cooperative developed their products with the assistance of the Shanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Li Yuxian, the cooperative’s 53-year-old president, told the story of how things started in 2009 when she was the director of Qilipo Village. Few households were willing to switch from planting wheat and corn, and only a few hundred acres were planted at first. Nevertheless, they pressed on. In 2015, Li went to Poland to participate in an international agricultural fair, and the products from Wenxi County stood out as the only hawthorn products at the show. In 2019, the sales of hawthorn products exceeded four million yuan (US$587,000).
The cooperative’s products are sold all over China through e-commerce platforms. It is no longer a matter of taking crops into town on a wagon for market day. E-commerce allows the entire shopping public to learn about a product, payment platforms move the money, and modern logistics delivers the product. According to Li, the farmers participating in planting hawthorn trees are all over 60 years old, though some young people in their twenties have returned. Almost every family involved in the cooperative has built new houses or bought cars. As China develops and more people rise into the middle class, there are more potential customers for products like those of the hawthorn cooperative in Wenxi County. It creates a virtuous cycle in which increased income creates more potential consumers, which supports more businesses to meet the increased demand.
Preserved Cultural Topsoil
Electricity gives farmers more techniques they can use on a variety of fronts and increases their overall efficiency. Enhancements in pest control and irrigation help preserve the quality of the environment and the availability of water. Increased market access ensures that farmers will be repaid for their efforts. Yuncheng is only a small part of dry northern China, but it shows the greater picture of agricultural innovation in the country. In every part of China’s diverse topography and climate zones, methods adapted to local conditions are being implemented for ecological preservation and agricultural enhancement. As China’s already sophisticated economy continues to increase in sophistication, pushing value-added processes product refinement out to the countryside develops rural economic opportunities and therefore supports cultural development.
Culture is not just going to the ballet, seeing paintings in a gallery, or listening to a professional play—one special kind of music. Culture is what families do together, how friends and colleagues live out their lives, and what people do to observe holidays and celebrate or mourn major life developments. It is hard to properly celebrate Chinese New Year without everyone in the family being able to be there. Children lose their culture when their parents have to work in other cities for most of the year. Cultural losses can be somewhat moderated by the “chemical fertilizer” of TV programming and educational institutions, but it isn’t in any sense organic. Careful technological adoption in all facets of agriculture help preserve the “human topsoil” necessary for China’s culture to flourish and develop.