Friday, February 26, 2010

A note on farming

A few days ago I realised that I had neglected to describe farming in the laojia. I would like to try to summarize southern China's agricultural practices in order to illustrate the extent of the hardship farmers face.

For thousands of years farming in southern China has barely changed. In the laojia there are two labor-intensive rice harvests per year which call in early spring for irrigation ditches to be repaired and dug and fields to be ploughed. Soil is prepared and turned for planting by huge water buffaloes which pull weighty triangular iron ploughs. Ploughing requires a farmer to stand directly behind the buffalo in order to guide it through the process. Firmly holding the plough handle with the right hand, the left hand holds the buffalo’s guide rope (which is threaded through the buffalo’s nose) as well as a long whip to direct the buffalo. One has to be well trained and strong to complete this arduous task. Most women find this chore too strenuous, so it is usually the men who complete this process.

Rice seedlings are grown in a nursery bed so that once paddies are ploughed and irrigated, the seedlings can be scattered by hand across the field. Once the young rice plants grow around 20 centimeters, they are carefully pulled up, gathered into bundles and then dispersed evenly by hand one by one into neat rows. To replant the rice shoots, a farmer has no alternative but to bend over in shin-deep, leech-infested water for hours at a time. It is nothing short of torture, but it doesn't end there. Later, to weed the paddies, farmers must crawl slowly on their hands and knees between their rows of growing rice. Strapped to their backs are woven bamboo baskets into which they toss the weeds. In addition to weeding, in order to ensure a good yield, the farmers will also need to return to the fields to carefully spread handfuls of urea, a powdery chemical fertilizer. Nothing can be left to chance.

It is also no mean feat for the villagers to grow vegetables. There are normally only simple handheld tools. It is rare to see a tractor and impossible to see any kind of harvesting machine. Watering and weeding are endless tasks all year round, since the climate is mild enough for the land to be constantly in use. Watermelons and peanuts are harvested in summer and it is then the turn of sweet potatoes and sesame crops in autumn. Rapeseed grows throughout the winter and is harvested in spring. Each family also keeps a small garden full of a range of vegetables for its own consumption: chilli peppers, eggplants, onions, garlic shoots, capsicums, Chinese chives, kale...All the crop harvesting is done manually. Although things are changing, farmers main source of fertilizer is animal and human waste. Children are sent to gather buffalo, pig and dog excrement from around the village and families empty out the waste from their pit toilets onto their fields, seemingly unaware of its dangers. Today farmers also use dangerous chemical pesticides which they spray by hand from plastic containers which they strap to their backs.

Crops are hauled away from the fields in enormous bundles. Farmers used – and still do - a crude bamboo biandan upon which they could hook and balance their loads at both ends. Such a pole cuts heavily into each sweating and stammering farmer’s shoulder. When I watch a villager carry one, it seems as if their legs will surely buckle under the weight. Such poles are also used for hauling water from the village wells. If ever I see a biandan lying around a village, I think of the cruel horror it inflicts upon its user at harvest time.

Although some village families now cook using bottled gas, many still rely upon kindling. Children are normally sent to collect it from nearby woods and it is not always easy to find. Families also use crop stalks as fuel, too, although these are mainly dried and used as hay for the voracious buffaloes to eat during the winter months.

There are just the main tasks required of the villagers; there are many, many others. The life of a farmer in my husband's laojia is, without doubt, one of the worst fates I can think of.


  1. Hi Blink Blink,

    I find it utterly embarrassing every time someone mentions the use of human waste as fertilizer in China. Do you know if the food you consume comes from such farms or do you have access to imported fresh produce? Can you tell the difference in taste between a broccoli grown locally and one that was grown in the UK? I hope you don't find my questions rude. I am only curious about how you get on in China.

    On Friday, I watched an episode of a TV show called "Blood, Sweat and Takeaways". Six Brits were sent to Thailand to experience what life is like growing rice. I have to admit that I hardly ever think about the labourers involved in producing the rice I eat everyday.

  2. There is very little regulation of farming techniques and practices. I suppose developed countries must have import standards, so perhaps you are spared from the worst of the worst; then again, who knows... I do know that using human waste as fertiliser is a very common practice, normally for the rice paddies. It's all down to economics - poor farmers cannot afford better alternatives.

    I like what you wrote about how we rarely stop to think about the amount of work which goes into growing rice. The Japanese always say ikatakimas (not sure about the spelling) just before they eat. It's not a prayer, but words of appreciation, I think. I wonder if it is connected to the fact that rice is so hard to produce and they want to remind themselves not to take food forgranted...

  3. Hi again Blink Blink,

    The Japanese word is Itadakimasu.

    As for greedy me, all I can usually think of at dinner time is how best to wolf down my little mountain of rice, bits of meat/fish and greens. I love the feeling of satisfaction when my tum-tum is filled with rice.

  4. This is quite a different view from the stylised, primitive nobility of peasant farmers of Pearl Buck's "Good Earth" books.