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Beidahuang (Great Northern Wilderness), also known as Beidacang (Great Northern Granary), is located in the north of Northeast China. The land reclamation started in 1950s used to be the new beginning in the black land's history. Nowadays, the development of science and technology is affecting Beidahuang and the new generation farmers in there.
Together with agricultural technology company XAG, TMTpost Image writer traveled 2,000 kilometers to visit several young plant protection drone operators in Beidahuang. They grew up on this black soil land like their fathers, and returned to their hometown in the need of drone spraying. In this place, we see technology is changing the agriculture and shaping the new generation farmers.
July 21, 2018, a spraying drone works on a paddy field in Baoqing County, Heilongjiang Province.
Drone operator Ren Weixin takes out his drones from a van and gets ready to work. He has three XAG agricultural spraying drones, which are mainly used to spray pesticide for local and surrounding farmers.
Ren is stirring a bucket of liquid pesticide, preparing ingredients for the mixing device. A paddy field needs to be sprayed three to six times from closed pesticide, insecticide, weeding, leaf fertilizer and sterilization.
Ren shows TMTpost how he operates three drones at the same time. Sometimes he has to finish spraying 100 hectares of land a day, so he hired two workers but he's still too busy and the farmers usually need to make appointments two days in advance.
Since the first spraying drone appeared in Beidahuang in 2016, there have been about 10 drone brands in local market, with the service price ranging from RMB 6 to RMB 8 per 1/15 hectares. Ren began to fly spraying drones in 2017.
Ren and his cousin are XAG drone agent in Baoqing. Local landowners and farmers usually have hundred hectares of land. The landowners pay great attention to the quality of spraying. Ren sold over 30 drones last winter thanks to farmers' word of mouth after the work season last year. "A low-equipped drone is priced at about RMB 60,000 and a high-equipped drone is sold for over RMB 100,000. XAG drones are priced higher than other brands but the drones do the best job and enjoy the best reputation among farmers."
Ren's uncle (left) has worked on his own land for 13 years. He has realized that few young people would succeed them to do farm work and none wants to learn agriculture technologies. Before drones appeared, he used to carry a tank to spray pesticide, which was very exhausting and ineffective. "It has to be mechanized in the future and labor costs will be increasing as young people are unwilling to do the hard job," he said.
Ren's father is a retired agriculture mechanist. A Dongfanghong tractor made in 1960s is parked in front of their house. It is the historical witness of Ren's grandfather's generation reclaiming Beidahuang years ago.
33-year-old Ren has worked for years after graduation and married in Harbin. During the several busy months while operating drones, he can barely make time to visit his wife and kid in Harbin. Ren doesn't think he's a countryman although he grew up in the country. His father has hundred hectares of land but he's ignorant of farming and does not intend to live on farming. "I'd rent out the land and never encourage my child to do farm work. There's too much to worry about and it's too exhausting just to make tens of thousand RMB on this land," Ren said.
Tongjiang, Heilongjiang Province, female drone operator Dandan is ready to start her plant protection drone to spray a farmer's paddy field.
Dandan worked in a hotel in Harbin before she started to fly drones. Learning from her family that plant protection with drone is a promising industry, she started to learn flying drones and became an agent, and even spent over RMB 80,000 on a set of drone equipment.
Farmers and drone operator Dandan are looking at the flying drones. During busy seasons, Dandan gets up at 3am everyday and work until 9pm. She sprays about 47 hectares of land everyday. This job is harder than the hotel job and the work environment here is much worse, but Dandan feels her life is much enriched while making much more money.
As one charged battery can last only 13 minutes when the drone flies, normally several batteries are prepared for one drone, so the drone operators always bring an electric generator to the paddy fields. It takes 40 to 50 minutes to fully charge an empty battery.
As a female drone operator who works on the farm field, Dandan takes herself as a real manly woman. She easily takes care of pesticide changing, battery replacement, flying and land measurement. The spraying price in Tongjiang is only RMB 4 per 0.067 hectares of land, some even charge only RMB 2. Some landowners tend to use the cheap ones but later they find the weed is not cleaned out or some places are not sprayed at all, so they have to pay higher to get high-quality drone operators to repeat the work.
As one field spraying is to be finished soon, everybody is waiting for the drone to return. Dandan lives in downtown, so it takes her a long time to commute between home and work. Her parents are not farmers, but Dandan takes herself as a farmer who cannot live without land and the countryside. She farms 20 hectares of land and plans to rent another tens of hectares of land next year. She also wants to receive adult education on agriculture technologies and become a new-gen farmer.
Suibin, Heilongjiang Province, 26-year-old Zhang Bo operates an XAG drone.
Zhang's main job is eSports live broadcast. He has settled down in Tianjin. Zhang's family specializes in agricultural implements business and provides rice transplanting and harvesting services for farmers and landowners. This year, Zhang's father suggested buy a spraying drone for him to operate. He finds drone operating is fun and agreed. The operation of a spraying drone has become much easier for this young man who works in eSports.
"I can make more money on eSports and the job is not as hard as working on the fields," Zhang said. But he remains interest in drone operating and regards the drone as a toy although playing the toy is kind of tired and suffering because it's too hot in daytime and there are too many mosquitos at night. I can earn my start-up capital back in two months," Zhang said.
"If it were not for flying the drone, I would not be here now. I will go back to Tianjin after the two busy months." Zhang grew up on the farm but his parents do not own any fields and never farm. "I'm not going to farm in the future," he said. For Zhang, it is temporary to work on the paddy fields.
Zhaoyuan, Heilongjiang Province, Li Wenping is ready to set up a drone base station for the following flying. The base station provides RTK positioning of the drone as accurate as 5cm.
Li takes care of pesticide mixing and her husband Lin Xudong does flying and communicates with farmers.
The couple bought the XAG drone and surrounding equipment for RMB 150,000 last year. Thanks to the emergence of spraying drones in Beidahuang, the couple got their investment back after working for only two months. Lin said they make RMB 80 by flying the drone once. The spray area that a drone finishes in one hour used to be done in two days by manual work.
The operation terminal of drones is similar to a mobile phone. Only those who have received training at XAG schools are entitled to operate their drones. The terminal interface shows the drones' flight altitude, speed, battery life, distance, working area, flight course and pesticide amount as accurate as milliliter. Drones can automatically plan routes through the terminal and ensure thorough spray. Anyone who can use a smartphone can learn how to operate a drone.
Lin always carries equipment to measure the lands whenever he comes to a new field. After measuring, he plans the flight routes within a fixed range. The field is included in the system as soon as the measurement is done, and the data can be retrieved for the next flight on the same field.
The couple replaces battery and pesticide bottle on the drone after one flight. Both of them were born in 1989 and grew up on the farm. They are interested in agricultural implements and run a pesticide and production materials store in the farm.
They work from 5am to 8pm and take a break between 10am and 3pm to avoid the hot weather. Being with their son at home is the most relaxing moment in a day. "I will support our son if he wants to learn agriculture and stay in Beidahuang, because I believe the future of agriculture will be different, and our country always needs farmers." Lin said his father's generation used to take care of about 1.33 hectares of land, while some years later, each farmer can easily manage hundred hectares. The occupation of farmers is essential and will become more and more advanced and relaxed.
When working on this field, other farmers are already waiting to be scheduled. Lin has to finish spraying 53 hectares of land everyday. He works everyday unless it rains. Farmers need to make appointments two days in advance. When a lot of orders are received especially when plant diseases and insect pests break out, Lin would get drones from other places to help.
Before transfer from one field to another, Li carefully maintains the drone by cleaning it up.
Paddy after being sprayed.
Lin's face sweats. From his point of view, there's no high-low difference between farming and other occupations. "We actually work only four months a year, and we are free most of the time and won't be out of job." Since a long time ago, Lin has decided to spend the rest of his life in Beidahuang.
"We grew up on the farm in Beidahuang. We were born to be not afraid of hardship. The older generation reclaimed this land and it's our responsibility to take good care of it," Lin said.
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The article is edited by @Yi LIU (Email: email@example.com; Mobile/WeChat: +86 13911703028). The original Chinese version was written by Zheng Chen (Zack Chen). Photos were taken by Zheng Chen (Zack Chen).