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Special Report  

Smart Agriculture

By staff reporter ZHANG XUEYING

PULLING in RMB 40 million of revenue from a 14-hectare block of farmland – that's RMB 2.86 million per hectare – sounds nigh-on impossible in this age of stiff competition and slim margins. And yet in 2010, Beijing Futong Horticulture Co., Ltd. managed just such a feat. How did they do it?

"It's quite hard to earn decent profits by relying solely on traditional planting methods," says Zhang Tianzhu, general manager of Futong Horticulture, affiliated with China Agricultural University. "Due to the high cost of land, labor and logistics in Beijing, strong profits are out of reach unless we get smart with our use of technology."

Going Hi-Tech

Lucheng Town in Beijing's Tongzhou District is about 30 minutes' drive from downtown. Futong Horticulture maintains its headquarters southeast of the town at the sprawling Tongzhou International Metropolitan Agriculture Science and Technology Park.

China Today's visit to the complex is in early spring, a time when Beijing's plant life is only just beginning to stir after the long, cold winter. Browsing the technology park's greenhouses, it was as if we had flown five hours south to the tropics. At every turn, the dense foliage of hydroponic plants burst forth in verdant splendor. Xing Lili, vice director of the park, boasts: "Every facility here contains the latest plant-growing technology – growers don't want to go back to their own fields after trying their luck here!"

Xing runs us through the technological marvels. He points to electric rotavators that automatically turn up soil and sow seeds. Generators increase carbon dioxide density, which helps photosynthesis and increase yields. "Nano water" technology increases water's oxygen content. One grafting machine, which manages 600 sprouts per hour, is not only four times faster than grafting by hand, but also increases sprouts' survival rate to 96 percent.

Sound waves pumped into the greenhouses are adjusted to six different audio frequencies depending on prevailing light and temperature conditions. This accelerates plants' growth. "Maybe you've heard of playing music to cattle to soothe them, but here we play music to plants to stimulate their growth," says Xing. His first experiment with "sound growth" was on a batch of strawberries last year. Compared with a control sample, playing "music" not only increased yields by 10 percent, but the strawberries also tasted better, according to Xing.

All in all Futong Horticulture employs about 100 agricultural technologies on its plot, representing a swathe of breakthroughs from the last 10 years. In the future, Futong Horticulture plans to establish a coordinated production, research, marketing and training service for new technologies in conjunction with several renowned agricultural research institutions such as China Agricultural University and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

"Moving away from traditional agricultural parks that feature sightseeing, recreational areas and hobby picking, China's metropolitan agriculture centers need to get serious and streamline links in the chain linking agribusinesses, new technologies and parks such as the one in Tongzhou," says Zhang Tianzhu.

Zhang has been at the cutting edge of China's agricultural development for many years now. He started out in agribusinesses in 1995, when he worked on local agricultural development plans and did occasional marketing projects for agriproducts. His years of work since have imbued him with extensive experience and unique insights into China's agriculture scene.

In Zhang's opinion, China's current system for realizing scientific innovation in agriculture needs improving. Government-led innovation efforts are not enough. Connections among government, scientific researchers and education establishments need to be beefed up, he says. At present, there are significant delays in bringing new technologies into the production process after they have been perfected. According to related calculations, the majority of new technologies don't even make it to farms – the domestic "conversion rate" of research to tangible results sits at a mere 40 percent.

"In explaining the benefits of agricultural science and technology to lay people, the best way is invite them to fields to see the tangible results," says Zhang. "One of the reasons we established the science and technology park in Tongzhou is to showcase the technology. The plan worked, and we have succeeded in raising interest in hi-tech agriculture among governmental agencies and private agribusinesses alike."

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us