Drones and 5G technology are among the innovations raising both crop yields and living standards
A plow trailing an unmanned tractor powered by 5G technology roared into life and began working a small parcel of land.
Hundreds of meters away, a humming drone lifted off into the air. To the cheers of a group of fifth graders visiting from a nearby school, it sprinkled a mist of fertilizer over a patch of rice crops.
Sensors embedded on the edge of the paddy fields collected a range of real-time data such as soil moisture, incidence of disease and pH levels. Later, the parameters were analyzed to see if human intervention was required.
These were the scenes on a recent workday in Cailu village, a futuristic rural community in hilly Zhejiang province. The once hollowed-out village — following an exodus of farmers as a result of the lack of economic opportunities — has slowly morphed into a poster child for the rural vitalization campaign and stepped-up efforts to curb urban-rural inequality.
The village is tucked away in the rolling mountains of Jinhua, a city of 7 million inhabitants that is known for its ham, smallware markets and the Hengdian World Studios, a sprawling filmmaking base dubbed "China's Hollywood" by the media. However, Cailu is less well-known as a front-runner in the promotion of next-generation farming techniques.
The push for labor-saving and data-intensive farming methods is part of a larger national effort to reform food production in light of the rapidly aging population and the greater demand for quality foodstuffs.
Now, Cailu is home to about 80 hectares of highly mechanized fields of hybrid rice, with each hectare yielding more than 15 metric tons a year, said Xu Xufeng, a local Party official.
To build such facilities, the village authorities have rented farmland via an arrangement known as a "land transfer", a practice commonly adopted to centralize the piecemeal fields previously tilled by individual farmers.
Cailu invested more than 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) to equip the fields with tech-filled machines, and leased the plots to several rice-growing operations.
"From transplanting rice seedlings to field management to the harvest, the whole process can be accomplished with the minimum of human involvement," Xu said.
However, the village's embrace of such cutting-edge technologies is not cost-effective, at least in the short term, he noted.
"We want the land to become a showcase of what grain fields can achieve," Xu said, adding that the system has great potential and could generate astounding profits if applied to major growing areas, such as the expansive plains of the central province of Henan.
An exhibition dedicated to Cailu's history shows that the village saw a severe exodus of farmers in the 1990s, when the coastal regions were urbanizing rapidly. By 1992, more than 85 percent of locals no longer tilled the land and one-third of the paddy fields were deserted. Uninterested in the razor-thin profits promised by traditional rice growing, the young and capable deserted the fields and landed better-paid jobs in cities.
To stabilize food production, Lu Kaiwen, Cailu's Party chief at the time, promoted a simplified approach to planting rice with great success. Rice seeds are usually nurtured in a nursery for more than four weeks before being transplanted to the fields. However, a local farmer accidentally discovered that the direct planting of sprouting seeds could yield almost the same amount of rice.
Lu quickly endorsed the approach and encouraged other farmers to follow suit.
The method greatly reduced the labor involved in rice cultivation, providing a boon to other rice-growing regions that were also troubled by the loss of farmers to the cities. It gained attention from higher authorities, and was promoted nationwide as the "Cailu Practice" in the 1990s.
"Now, the technologies are more powerful and machines have replaced people in rice production. Bumper harvests are inevitable," said Lu, 77, who retired from the post of Party chief a decade ago.
Xu said the success of the Cailu Practice and the early embrace of unmanned food production technologies have one thing in common: the pioneering spirit of the local people.
"When we see obstacles, we do not give up. Instead, we try to figure out a way," he said.
More than fields
One afternoon, Xu showed a group of visitors around the idyllic fields. Waterfowls skimmed over paddy fields in the drizzle, a typical scene during the rainy season in China's more-southerly regions.
The cement roads that cut across the fields were lined on both sides by landscaped flower installations.
Xu noted that the fields are about more than just food production as they also serve as a park for local people to take after-supper walks, as well as an outdoor classroom in which grade school students can conduct field studies.
"With more such spaces for leisure even the relationships of once-quarreling couples are improving," he said as a joke.
Hu Hongmei decided to show a class of fifth graders around the paddy fields after she heard that drones would be deployed to spray fertilizer that day. Several children used drawing boards to sketch the scene.
"My students are intrigued by the drone," said Hu, who is president of a nearby primary school.
"Many students are under immense academic pressure, and a growing number are experiencing mental health issues such as depression. Such outings have many psychological benefits."
She said the school authorities often organize such trips, because they want to make full use of the village's resources. For example, the school organized a marathon race around the fields last year.
An agricultural science museum is being planned in the village to cater to an influx of visitors after the Rural Green Revival Project, a province-wide campaign that started in the early 2000s, greatly improved the rural environment.
"The rural landscape has drawn a lot of visitors, including students and their parents," said Xia Kewei, who works for an educational tech company in Hangzhou, the provincial capital. His company has overseen the facility's design and will supervise its day-to-day operations once construction is complete.
Xia said he thinks it's important for children to know where rice comes from. Such knowledge could possibly nurture a desire in them to work in related fields when they are older and also makes it less likely that they will waste food.
"Rural areas are grappling with the loss of young talents. It's my dearest wish that they will return soon," he said.