A major economic document released recently by China’s central government has made meaningful reference to agriculture. The document, known as Document No.1, outlines several ways to develop what it terms a “modern agriculture.”
Tools instrumental to achieving this goal include plans to rev up China’s soybean production as well as endeavors to tap into smart and digital agriculture.
Experts interpret the document’s highlight of agriculture as a sign of a shifting focus from a quantitative growth model to one more focused on raising the quality of crops.
Take soybean for example. In an interview with Economic Daily, Yin Ruifeng, an information analyst with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said over the past few years net profits of soybean output per mu (1 hectare equals 15 mu) in China have been eclipsed by those for rice and corn.
Predictably, in years to come, China will remain a country where its arable land supply is small in proportion to its huge population. Observers agree that only through technological upgrade can we hope to raise the output and quality of domestically grown soybeans.
Indeed, better growing and harvesting techniques and the enabling technology of artificial intelligence are playing an increasingly augmented role in changing the face of agriculture.
Initial progress is exhilarating. Since the top leadership floated the concept of “digital countryside” in a document in 2018, a growing number of China’s farmers have taken to selling their produce online and seeing their income considerably boosted as a result.
Together, they raked in 300 billion yuan (US$44.8 billion) in online sales in the same year. Embracing the Internet and e-commerce is just one facet of how the seeds of a digital revolution sweeping urban China are gradually being sown and bearing fruit in the countryside.
Changes effected by hardcore technologies like robotics, mobile Internet of Things and deep learning are even more profound, so much so that Liao Xiyuan, an official in charge of education affairs with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, has told journalists that technology lies at the base of efforts to modernize China’s agriculture.
My own reasons for welcoming a bigger role of technology in agriculture are from a demographic standpoint. As many young farmers migrate to cities, the rural sector will have to find better ways to sustain quality growth.
Concentration of arable land will likely lead to wider adoption of industrialized farming methods. This, in turn, creates the conditions for mainstreaming technologies once thought ahead of their time. Years ago, nobody perhaps envisioned the scenario where farmers will one day operate consumer-grade drones to inspect their crops. But now it is fast becoming a reality.
Part of the reason that drone makers like XAG have deployed their equipment to farming is that this is a market where the industrial leader DJI has yet to dominate. In other words, a blue-sea market beckons. XAG has been designing and building drones for user-defined scenarios including, but not restricted to, plant protection and harvesting.
New professional farmers
It was reported that 450,000 hectares of cotton fields in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region received defoliating sprays from XAG drones last fall, in a major campaign that amounted to tremendous savings in human labor and machinery costs.
A more advanced application of drones in the future will be taking photos of crops and transmitting data to a cloud server for pest control analysis. On the next mission, drones will be able to load less pesticide and aim more accurately, “knowing” which plants to target.
The exciting trend is that more and more young people are taking the plunge into agriculture, leveraging their know-how and skill sets to redefine farming.
A People’s Daily frontpage article on February 27 told the tale of how Chen Suchao, a second-generation farmer in Cixi, a city in Zhejiang Province, took to farming in 2015 right after graduation from college, and learned to supply his flower farm with seedlings, fertilizer, soil peat and pots bought online.
Defying popular expectations, his business was profitable the year it began. Better still, Chen said profits accounted for half of the 2 million yuan in sales his farm logged in the past year.
According to the local agricultural authority, he is one of the 1,000-plus “new” professional farmers in Cixi, among whom three-tenths have a college degree or above. As Chen’s story has exemplified, the deeper involvement of the younger generation in agricultural technology, or AgTech, coupled with their choice to earn their bread from farming, have underscored the huge economic potential of agriculture.
What’s more, the image of agriculture being reborn in the tech era as something cool, fancy, trendy and fun will also add to the luster of the industry. For a long time, the perception of agriculture as a backward, stigmatized industry has held it back as a desirable occupation.
But technology promises to change that by brightening the career prospects for young farmers and by making farming a respectable profession again.