Spearheading sustainable agriculture

Veronica Ludaka in a greenhouse in Gansu Province during a visit in July (COURTESY PHOTO)

In late July this year, I participated in a field trip organized by the China Agricultural University (CAU) for both African and Chinese students. I was fortunate to be one of the 11 African students selected for this enlightening experience.

The first day of our field visit left an indelible mark on me. We had the privilege of visiting the Shiyanghe Experimental Station, nestled in the tranquil landscapes of Wuwei City, Gansu Province in northwest China. This station, operated by CAU, served as a National Field Scientific Observation and Research Station on Efficient Water Use of Oasis Agriculture. It is a shining example of innovative agricultural water-saving technology, paving the way for sustainable farming practices. Its establishment was crucial for addressing the water and ecological challenges faced by the Shiyang River Basin. Situated at an altitude of 1,580 meters, the station is surrounded by the Tengger Desert to the east, the Badain Jaran Desert to the north, and the Qilian Mountains to the south.

Pioneering water-saving agriculture, the station endeavors to achieve a harmonious equilibrium between contemporary irrigation methods and environmental preservation. Over the course of two decades, 66 scientists and 236 postgraduate students have engaged in research and collaborative endeavors. Through the combined efforts of professors and students from CAU, innovative techniques such as canal lining, enhanced surface irrigation, water-saving irrigation scheduling, intercropping, and drip irrigation under mulch have been developed, revolutionizing the field.

The students have worked to identify the most suitable seed varieties for optimal crop growth, determine precise water requirements for different plant types, and effectively manage water levels to conserve this valuable resource. Their system of drip irrigation and mulching utilizes two types of plastic sheeting as mulch—black and transparent, which are used during summer and winter to regulate temperature. Different crops have specific mulching strategies. For example, maize is mulched throughout its growth period from late April to late September, while mulch is removed from around potato plants once the potatoes start to grow.

The students’ utilization of technology was closely observed, with one student employing an underground pipeline robot system to monitor soil water content and root growth. Equipped with a camera, the robot captures images of the roots in different soil layers, transmitting the data to a computer via WiFi. Additionally, the students utilize drone technology to assess crop growth status, particularly in detecting water and nutrient deficiencies. Another innovative method is fertilizer irrigation, which combines water and fertilizer application to reduce labor and optimize resource usage. This method, widely adopted by local farmers, was a novel approach for me.

Additionally, the students implemented intercropping, an agricultural method where different crops are grown together in the same field simultaneously. This technique involves planting crops in a mixed pattern, such as in alternating rows or intermingling plants within the same row. The purpose of intercropping is to optimize the use of resources like sunlight, water and nutrients, thereby enhancing crop production.

These young innovators are dedicated to cultivating a brighter future that prioritizes environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability. Collaborating closely with farmers, they provide training in technology use, mulching, greenhouse practices, carbon control and water use efficiency. After consolidating their research, they formulate a comprehensive conclusion that is utilized by the local agricultural technology extension department for implementation in demonstration farms. The impact of the students from Shiyanghe Experimental Station extends well beyond their campus. They actively engage with local communities, sharing knowledge and collaborating with farmers to promote sustainable practices on a broader scale.

The power of knowledge unites academia, research, and socioeconomic development, enabling nations to overcome agricultural challenges and adopt sustainable practices. The students from CAU Shiyanghe Experimental Station exemplify this transformative impact on agriculture.  –The Daily Mail-Beijing Review news exchange item