Interview with Professor Zhang, an author in the Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences
One of our authors spoke to the dutch newspaper NRC for a piece on the impact of his research and his journey towards helping communities through his and his students work. Originally interviewed by Marianne Heselmans.
Q: How do you manage to reach so many small farmers?
A: "Through the use of master's students. Agricultural extension workers live in the city and visit a village for two or three hours. After a season, farmers have already forgotten their advice. Our master's students live in a village for two years, between about a thousand farmers. There they set up a farmers' field school with the best twenty men or women for the less efficient farmers, often poor and less literate farmers. There are big differences: the best farmers sometimes get ten tons of wheat per hectare per year, others do not exceed three hectares. The latter learn the most. "
Q: Why do you focus on small farmers, the Chinese government wants large companies?
A: "The necessary land reforms will take a lot of time. Households need to transfer land for this, but they don't just do that. China has 240 million farmer households that grow on average 0.6 hectares of grain and some vegetables. Two to three family members work at each company. There is not enough other work for all those small farmers. It took the small farms in Japan and Korea fifty years to grow to 6 hectares, something we also expect for China. Only the state-owned companies are 20 hectares or more, as in the Netherlands, but that is at most 5 percent. "
"China has 240 million farmer households that grow on average 0.6 hectares of grain and some vegetables."
Q: Do young people want to live in those remote villages?
A: "At the moment three hundred of these agricultural students live in such a village. They live alone or in the case of girls with two. They don't have a family yet and they are very motivated to help the farmers. Local authorities and companies are happy to cooperate in this. From the city it is difficult to reach all those farming families.
"The fertilizer companies that participate (private companies and state-owned companies) are obliged to supply fertilizer granules designed by the universities. The composition differs per crop and region. But the farmers decide for themselves whether they will fertilize more precisely, maintain different planting times, plow, or buy better seeds, for example. Our paper in Nature explains why farmers do not always follow advice. Sometimes the information was too difficult, in which case the researchers looked for 'translators'. Often there was not enough labor to work more precisely because young family members had left.
Q: What do you learn from the Netherlands?
A: "Many Chinese farmers only have primary school. I see in the Netherlands how important it is that farmers are well trained. Dutch farmers and growers look after the soil and run their farm as a company that responds to the market. We would also like to teach our farmers that. ”
Q: You are not a member of the Communist Party. How do you manage to exert so much influence?
A: "I am a member of one of the seven minority parties, and with that our advice comes to the government in three ways. Via that party, because minorities in China play the role of consultant. Via our university: we write an advisory report every year. And through the Chinese Academy of Sciences, an advisory body of which I am a member. "