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From Kaarimba to China

China, with 1.4 billion people, is home to 20% of the world’s population, but has only 9% of the world’s arable farming land. 800,000,000 farmers work the land in China to help feed this population.

I was lucky enough to join a team of 5 young people from the Australian agricultural industry on an exchange to find out what China and its army of farmers are doing to boost sustainability and productivity of their farms. With the help of National Farmers' Federation, Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs, Austrade in China and the Australia-China Council we set of for this fabulous opportunity to learn about this vast country. 

Impressions of China

I was surprised at the broad variety of agricultural production in China. It is such a large country, it is possible to grow just about anything here. Rice, wheat, maize, potato and vegetables to name a few of the major ones. I was also surprised to find that water conservation is one of the biggest challenges and areas for research and development here - much like Australia.

There were three distinctly different levels of farming we studied, each with very different limitations.

  • First was the village farmer of rural China, on tiny plots of less than a hectare. These farmers are likely to be living a very hard life with much manual labour and poor income. Improving the sustainability of their operation is extremely difficult when they are already struggling to make a living.
  • Next were the larger scale, ~ 100 hectare farms, sometimes with government ownership or as co-ops. These farms are much more efficient with the greater scale, and have the capability of investing in newer technologies and making more individual choices. More efficient irrigation infrastructure and fertigation are two major areas.  
  • Lastly was the spaceship-like urban agriculture Smart Farm ventures based in the city to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to these inner city dwellers. We visited the COFCO Smart Farm community which produces huge volumes of produce off tiny areas of land using green houses, hydroponics and rotating beds to maximise light distribution to several layers of plants. These smart farms had highly sophisticated monitoring systems to help maximise productivity.

Establishing relationships with China to share ideas is a tremendous step, and I would like to thank all those who made this fabulous opportunity possible.
Ellen Grinter, NFF's essay competition winner and an agronomist and farmer from Kaarimba in North Central Victoria

Challenges Facing China

We found China’s challenges to agriculture to be very similar to Australia. Water shortages. Farm size and losses of arable land to cities and degradation. Profitability for farmers (especially smaller, village farmers). Young and skilled people are leaving rural areas in droves to try for better life in the city. Slightly different but also far too familiar!

The road to success-managing the challenges

We were hosted by the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Ministry of Agriculture to discuss China’s approach to the challenges they face in agriculture. Much work is going into improving irrigation infrastructure and efficiency with concrete channels and pipes, irrigators/sprinklers, drippers, improving drainage and fertigation technology. Water is such a huge limiting factor and it is a top area of research. The government is providing subsidies to farmers to implement these technologies.

Land management and protecting farm land is another major focus. There are policies to protect farmland from urbanisation. The Government is encouraging landholders to consolidate land into larger areas with other farmers if they leave farming or establish co-ops. This doesn’t come without a sacrifice- modernisation and bigger farms means less jobs for the large population.

Agronomic practices to improve soil structure are also coming into focus such as using legumes for green manuring, retaining stubbles, using organic fertilisers where possible, using soil testing, limiting the use the other fertilisers and chemical to requirement. The commitment is to stop any increases in use of pesticides by 2020. The Ministry of Agriculture together with the Academy of Agricultural Sciences are working together to provide annually information and recommendations to farmer on what varieties to grow and how to grow them. They also recommend practices such as reducing the number of crops grown per year to reduce water consumption.

The issue keeping young, skilled people in rural areas in China is still a major problem. Maybe an Australian model of support organisation like the Future Farmers Network (who we had a representative from on our trip!) or Young Farmers Clubs may be a strategy for them to adopt.

Many of the strategies being investigated and rolled out in China are similar to in Australia. To delve deeper into the uptake of these recommendations, we would need many more meetings and farm trips- which hopefully will happen in the future!

Next time

I would love to explore many aspects further- being from a cropping agronomy background, varieties, herbicides, fertiliser, pest pressures and how they manage such tight rotations are of great interest to me. Also what else the Chinese government has in progress to improve environmental outcomes and improve farming in the small farming communities.

The biggest surprise

The most surprising element of the trip for me was actually the pollution around Beijing. The smog absolutely blew my mind. The water is also not suitable for drinking out of the tap. This in a city of 22 million it is totally unbelievable unless you see it with your own eyes. This really brought home the damage our society can do to the planet. As a whole world community we need to work together to try and reduce the pollution and impact we are having on the environment. This is not just an agriculture problem or a Chinese problem: It is something every person must remember in our choices every day. The mantra to ‘Reduce, reuse and recycle’ is not something to be taken lightly.

Was it worth the trip?

Of course!! This exchange was extremely valuable to me. It shows where Australia fits on a global scale, and that the challenges we face are similar so can be faced together. We are all aiming for a happy life with enough food, water, clean air and a healthy environment to live in. These are basic human rights that everyone in the world should enjoy. Farming is the most basic foundation to ensure there is food on the table, and we have a responsibility to help others to achieve this. Establishing relationships with China to share ideas is a tremendous step, and I would like to thank all those who made this fabulous opportunity possible.

Ellen Grinter won the NFF's essay competition. Ellen is an agronomist and farmer from Kaarimba in North Central Victoria and a passionate member of the Victorian Young Farmers Club. Ellen’s essay focused on how innovation is “finding a way to make more from less and leaving a lesser footprint on the earth”.

L to R: Brent Finlay (immediate past NFF President), Louisa Cameron (finalist), Ellen Grinter (winner), Timothy Lo (finalist), Tony Mahar (NFF CEO)
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