China's farming population is dwindling.
According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, by the end of 2017, a total of 287 million workers from the countryside had taken up jobs in Chinese cities. In the next 20 years, it is estimated that 500 million former rural citizens (over 70% of the rural population) will have completed the rural-urban migration. Official observations carried out by the Ministry of more than 20,000 rural families have concluded that the average age of China's front-line agricultural labor force is somewhere around 53, with those above 60 accounting for more than 25%.
Earning enough money to survive in their new urban environments is the most common dilemma faced by rural-urban migrants. Zhiming Xue, 48, chose to return to the countryside from the city.
It is now five years since Xue came home to his village in Gansu. He has since realized he is now one of the last generation of traditional farmers, even though, by planting honeydew, he now earns more money and suffers less mental stress than when he was working in the city.
In recent years, in Xue's village of Lizhi, located in Minqin county in China's western Gansu province, 140 out of 320 families have left, reducing the total population from more than 2,000 to now just over 1,000. Zhiming Xue told TMTPOST Image that he is now one of the very few working-age residents remaining in the village who are under 50. He works each day from dawn to dusk, plodding away in his honeydew field of around 2.6 hectares, named Minqin Melon after his county of the same name.
Xue would like to apply modern agricultural equipment and machinery to scale the farm. Yet his desires appear relatively pale in comparison to the meagre collection of primitive farming tools he has at his disposal.
In this small village, surrounded by desert on three sides, farmers like Xue must face the constant challenges of sandstorms, drops in underground water levels as well as desertification of the land and alkalization of the soil, all of which bring a climate of uncertainty to the fate of Lizhi Village. The far more unsettling unknown for Xue, however, is the market price of his honeydew melons, being the most important and practical measure of the value of his labor.
In this issue of TMTPOST Image, we showcase scenes of life on the farm in China's northwest. In them are depicted this last generation of traditional farmers who utilize the most traditional of farming tools and methods, under the ongoing impacts of sandstorms and the blistering sun.
Minqin in Gansu Province, with a total area of 15,900 square km, is one of the four major points of origin of sandstorms in China. Apart from Minqin Oasis, 90% of the rest of the region consists of either desert or desertified land.
Quicksand once eroded the oasis of Minqin at an annual rate of 8 to 10m, with the population living on it having plummeted from over 400,000 to around 200,000. Finally, following the unremitting efforts of several generations over the past 60 years, the desertification problem is now under control. At the end of 2017, the speed of the advancement of quicksand had been reduced to only 1m per year and the deterioration of the local ecosystem effectively curbed.
"Trees on the sand dunes will not survive long without water. The sand is drifting every year, so these straws are our only defense," one melon farmer told TMTPOST Image. His field lies adjacent to the desert, so he resorts to this makeshift solution to protect it.
Honeydew is the area's most famous specialty and the growth of the fruit a local pillar industry. In Minqin, it grows in an environment that must fight a constant battle against the menace of desertification.
Zhiming Xue used to work outside of his village, but returned home five years ago to work back on the farm. He has done all kinds of jobs, he says, but nothing beats the money he earns from farming. Prices of all varieties of honeydew melon have enjoyed an upward trajectory. Last year, Xue's 2.6 hectares of melons brought in more than 150,000 RMB per hectare at their highest price, and 60,000 RMB at their lowest.
Besides a better income, another important factor behind Zhiming Xue's decision to return home was stress. "In the city, the brain cannot rest for a moment," he says. Xue has learned the lessons of working as a migrant worker in the city: "You have to stay mentally alert all of the time. Just one slip-up, and your income is lost, you will have no food to eat." At the peak of his income, he could make approximately 100,000 RMB a year. However, he prefers the more relaxed nature of working on the farm compared to the mental stress he suffered in the city. "Farming is easy as long as you have the physical strength and are willing to work hard in the field. You don't need to suffer the stress of worrying," Zhiming Xue told TMTPOST Image.
"Lizhi Village used to have more than 320 families and around 2,000 residents; now there are only 180 families with a little over 1,000 residents. Fuzhi Village used to have more than 60 families, but now there are less than 30 and only about 200 residents," one local villager told TMTPOST Image. Except for those houses built with the support of the local government, farmers' income is no longer being used to construct new homes, since most residents are now leaving the village.
The dream of planting honeydews at scale using modern agricultural equipment and machines appears pale in the face of reality.
For locals, gusts of sand like this are nothing. From March through May each year, the busiest time in the farming calendar, windy and sandy days are frequent occurrences, with occasional fierce sandstorms.
"In the last 30 years, the annual average number of days of sandstorms and strong winds reached somewhere around 27," explains an engineer who works for the Meteorology Bureau of Minqin County in an interview with TMTPOST Image. "In comparison, recent years have seen this number drop significantly."
The one sandstorm that has left the most indelible mark on the minds of Minqin residents is the historic '4.24 Black Wind' of 2014. The storm lasted two hours with a minimum visibility of 0 meters, and wind speeds reaching an unprecedented 10 on the Beaufort Wind Scale, a magnitude of storm rarely experienced on land and the largest sandstorm in Minqin since meteorological records began. Though efforts in recent years to curb desertification and its impacts have reduced the frequency of sandstorms, problems for the region's melon farmers persist. "This year's wind is a little smaller than in previous years," Zhiming Xue says. "Last May, a big wind destroyed some of the village's honeydew seedlings."
Farmers record the meter readings before and after they switch on the pump in a little black notebook placed inside the switch box of a motor-pumped well; payment for each household's electricity consumption is based on this record. Electricity usage is allocated according to the number of residents and the field size of each household, with consumption calculated using differential pricing.
Motor-pumped wells provide the main source of irrigation for the farmers' fields. Due to unrestricted use of water from the wells, problems such as the excessive extraction of underground water and drops in underground water levels have emerged in recent years. A paper published by the local water affairs bureau on the sustainability of the Minqin Oasis describes the situation as follows: previously, water could be extracted by simply digging with a shovel; now, however, water is hard to find even 20m below the surface. In recent years, local authorities have been trying to shut down the motor-pumped wells as well as reduce the number of plots of land cultivated for growing honeydew melons. The nearby reservoirs now allocate water for irrigation to each village, with farmers paying the costs of their running water and other water-based resources according to the duration of water discharge.
The annual precipitation of Minqin is 110 mm, yet the evaporation can skyrocket to as high as 2,646 mm. The area is one of the most arid regions not only in China but the whole world. Climatic conditions like these make every drop of water a precious commodity. Water needed for the villagers' daily consumption can only be delivered once every five days.
On top of the cost of the laborers he employs, Zhiming Xue pays around 15,000 RMB per each hectare of land farmed that includes more than 100 seeds, over 100 different fertilizers and over 80 kinds of plastic mulch. Other costs include those for water and electricity, though most of his money is spent on water.
Annual average sunshine levels in Minqin exceed 3,000 hours (Beijing 2,250-2,700, Guangzhou 1,650-1,800) and the diurnal temperature range (the variation between daily maximum and minimum temperatures) is high. The combination of these two unique climatic conditions in Minqin produce a honeydew melon with a sugar content of over 18%, far sweeter than others on the market, even as sweet as cantaloupes.
- 1. Use a wooden pole to poke holes in the mulch. Use an iron wire attached to the pole to mark the spaces.
- 2&3. Place one seed per hole.
- 4. Fill up the hole with soil.
Zhiming Xue relies greatly on his experience in cultivation. His experience guides him in selecting the appropriate species of honeydew for the right plot of land, in him knowing when to water the crops, which water to use and what fertilizer to apply. Xue has concluded that honeydews grow differently according to variations in the soil; similarly, different types of water bring out different tastes in honeydews planted in the same plot of field.
The generation gap in the labor force is obvious in this village. Even at Zhiming Xue's age, he is one of the youngest farmers."I'm truly one of the last generation of farmers," says Xue. "Most are too old to work in the field." He believes that in the next five years, in the third commune of Lizhi Village where he lives, there may be only six or seven out of the remaining 100 residents able to work the land. "I can keep farming for another five years. After that, my physical condition won't be strong enough to allow me to go on." In five years' time, Xue plans to hire workers, while staying on as an assistant.
Daybreak comes just after 5am in the summer, and it does not get dark until about 8:30pm. Xue spends all his daytime in the field apart from two hours of rest at noon. During the planting period at the end of May, he wakes up each morning with every muscle in his body aching. All the hard work will ultimately be rewarded in the last two weeks of August when he sells his fruit.
"Honeydews must be sold when they are at their sweetest. Honeydews picked in the field must be transported to the town immediately to be sold. During this time, fruit sellers from all over the country will come to Minqin to buy honeydew melons."
Zhiming Xue cannot predict if this year's market will be as good as last year's. A good price will make the farmers feel that all of their hard work has been put to good end, no matter the toil. Bad prices, however, will bring with it a sense of pessimism that will last for more than half a year, until a new fruit-growing season can again spark new hope. What kind of harvest awaits Zhiming Xue this coming August? TMTPOST Image will be paying close attention.
The phrase "the last generation of traditional farming" vividly sums up all that this village with its unique environmental conditions is undergoing during a wave of mass urbanization in China. If farmers like Zhiming Xue can be empowered with technology and capital, the cost price of honeydews at the end of August may not be the only criterion by which his long-term and painstaking investment can be measured.