This is being written somewhere over Russia on a flight from Beijing to Seattle. I traveled to China in mid-September as a guest of the Rice Research Institute of the Heilongjiang Nongken Science Academy. Heilongjiang is the most northern province in the northeast corner of the country.
I have been to China nine times in the past 25 years. My previous trips have all been to the rice growing regions in the southern part of the country, whereas this was my first trip north of Beijing. Each one of these trips has been educational and eye-opening. However, this trip was unique in that it cleared up many misconceptions I had about agriculture in general and rice production specifically.
The main purpose of the trip was to establish cooperative research endeavors with the Heilongjiang Academy. In Heilongjiang province, rice is produced at the northernmost latitude in the world. I saw rice being produced at a latitude of 48.5, which would be equivalent to growing rice in International Falls, Minnesota. I was told by my hosts that rice has been successfully produced at a latitude of 53, but because of the inconsistency of production, it is no longer produced that far north. Therefore, the varieties produced in the region must, of necessity, have excellent cold tolerance. Through cooperative agreements resulting from this trip, some of these lines will be brought to the Rice Research Station for incorporation into our breeding efforts in hopes of improving the cold tolerance of future Louisiana rice varieties. We also met with several individuals and the CEO of Kenfeng Seed Company, which is the third largest agricultural seed company in China. This seed company markets the rice varieties developed by the Heilongjiang Academy. These interactions provided an excellent overview of the workings of the seed industry in China, as well as the relationships between public research institutes and private industry in the country.
Prior to the 1950s there was essentially no commercial agriculture production in the northern part of the province, and the area was basically a frontier region. In 1954, the Chinese government, under the direction of Chairman Mao, began to move a large number of troops into the region to act as a buffer against any aggressive actions put forth by the neighboring Russians. These troops were told that while their main mission was border protection, they were also given the task of initiating crop production. This they did, and after a few stumbles, this region has evolved into one of the most productive and certainly one of the most highly mechanized and technologically advanced in the country. Many of the current rice producers are the sons and daughters of the soldiers sent to settle the region.
The vast majority of the rice is grown under a transplant system. However, this is not the typical system that comes to mind with several people hand transplanting seedlings into a shallow flooded field. This is a highly mechanized system using sophisticated mechanical transplanters imported from Japan. In fact, I saw a prototype system being tested that had a GPS-guided, auto-steer system on board. Transplanting makes sense in this region because it receives several feet of snow each year. The transplants are started in a plastic covered hothouse. They are typically seeded in early April and by early to mid-May, when it has warmed up enough, the seedlings are transplanted into the field. This system gives these seedlings up to one month’s head start when compared to drill seeding. Yields are typically slightly higher than those produced in Louisiana. For example, the per acre average yield in Louisiana in 2013 was 7,500 pounds, while in Heilongjiang province, it was close to 8,000 pounds. All of the rice is combine harvested, primarily with smaller Japanese designed combines. However, I did see several John Deere and Case IH combines with 30-foot headers. The rice production in the region also makes extensive use of aerial application, which I had previously assumed did not exist in China. There is also large tillage equipment, such as the 60-foot-wide vibra shank cultivator I saw parked at a machinery storage site.
One very interesting part of the trip was a boat ride that we took near Fuyuan Town, which is the easternmost point in the country. We were on the Heilongjiang (Amur) River, which at that point separates China from Russia. We traveled within 100 feet of a small Russian village where a Russian patrol boat was just leaving the dock. We waved to a few people on the beach and the sailors on the boat. The people on the beach smiled and waved back, while the sailors did neither.
Permission granted October 15, 2014 by B. Leonards to republish article on www.lsuagcenter.com