For over 60 years the Bingtuan has been developing arid areas and making life easier for rural workers through technology and machinery
A machine sows cotton seeds at a field of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps' Second Division in the Tarim Basin, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. (DU BINGXUN / XINHUA)
Editor's note: As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary on Oct 1, China Daily is featuring a series of stories on regional roles in the country's development and where they stand today.
Huang Jianjun was only 9 years old when he first tried cotton picking more than 30 years ago, a two-week "nightmare" that many people in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region experienced during summer vacations.
He had to be in the field at sunrise. With the exceptions of a few rest breaks and time to hastily consume a lunch of naan bread at noon, he worked until dark.
"When we were in the field we carried a basket. As a student volunteer I had a 20-kilogram quota and would be rewarded with half a yuan for each kilogram I picked," he said.
"Every student was required to take part in the picking as the vast cotton area had a severe labor shortage."
Growing up in a farming family is nothing special in a rural region like Xinjiang. For rural folk such as Huang, endless farm chores have tied them to the land for generations.
But over the past decade, modern technology has taken hold in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or Bingtuan, sparing farmers the hard physical work of the past.
The corps are a special social organization, integrating the functions of the Communist Party of China, military, government and enterprises. They were established in Xinjiang in 1954 to develop frontier regions and consolidate border defenses, a historical practice of China dating back centuries.
By the end of last year, the corps consisted of 176 regiments of 14 divisions, covering an area of 70,600 square kilometers under its administration. The area includes 1,244,770 hectares of farmland and a population of more than 3.1 million, accounting for 12.5 percent of Xinjiang's total population.
In line with the principle of never competing with local residents, the corps cultivate both fertile land and harsh terrain.
Serving as a pioneer of agricultural development, the corps have also developed new farming techniques such as automated irrigation.
Two cotton harvesting machines work at a field run by the Bingtuan. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Farmers of the Second Division of the corps dry tomatoes at a farm. (DU BINGXUN / XINHUA)
Zheng Chunlin is a 56-year-old farmer at the Communist Youth League Farm in Wujiaqu, a city built and administered by the Sixth Division of the corps.
He has recently had his hands full with family and work, looking after his sick 8-year-old daughter and hammering out a deal on farm machinery.
He couldn't physically irrigate his cotton fields, but they were tended to nonetheless.
A moisture sensor placed in the soil, along with temperature and humidity sensors, are activated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When the sensors detect a deficit in soil moisture, they send a message to Zheng.
"Now with a simple click of my mobile phone I can feed in the time and duration I want the cotton saplings to be watered by automatically activating the water pump," he said.
Huang Jianjun, deputy director of the city's economic development office, said the system, which began in 2009, is able to decide the amount and duration of water needed, based on the information it has gathered on the soil condition.
It can adjust irrigation requirements for various crops and complete comprehensive analysis of weather conditions, soil dampness, evaporation and rainfall.
"If the farmer has to leave the farm on urgent work, he doesn't have misgivings on whether the plants will be tended to properly in his absence. The automatic irrigation system will aid farmers throughout our region in making decisions that enhance both on-farm efficiency and cotton production," Huang said.
According to the corps' statistics bureau, total cotton output reached 2.05 million metric tons last year, up 20.7 percent year on year, which accounted for 40 percent of the region's total yield and 33.5 percent of the national yield.
A bird’s eye view of Wujiaqu, a city built and administered by the Sixth Division of the corps. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Xinjiang is one of the most arid regions in the world, yet it still manages to be a major cotton and grain producer.
A majority of the corps' regimental farms sit on the edges of deserts or areas with severe water shortages. As a result, water-saving irrigation methods have been the main focus of the corps' development of agriculture.
In 2002, the corps' farmers adopted drip irrigation. Unlike traditional flood irrigation, which uses canals and ditches, drip irrigation takes place under plastic sheets and involves injecting water gently into the roots of crops through holes.
Using drip irrigation, 42-year-old cotton farmer Zhang Fanghua feels more in control of her cotton fields. Before, she had to stand by with a spade at the ready to make sure the water flowed in the right direction when released from an irrigation ditch. "Now with the automatic irrigation system and drip irrigation, I can irrigate my 100 mu (6.7 hectares) of land in less than three hours on my own," she said.
Huang said drip irrigation can reduce water consumption by 60 percent and fertilizer use by 70 percent, when compared with traditional irrigation methods. Drip irrigation also helps control diseases and pests, which in turn increases yields.
Decreasing fertilizer use also protects the environment as less pollutants from fertilizers reach lakes and underground water sources, he added.
More efficient farming methods free up farmers to earn income from other jobs.
Zhang has taken a part-time job at a clothing factory, which earns her an extra 1,000 yuan (US$142) per month.
Last year, the average disposable income of residents in the region saw a 7.1 percent increase to 31,513 yuan, beating the national average of 28,228 yuan, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Rise of the machines
Since 2009, machinery has played a greater role in growing and harvesting cotton.
Tractors and agricultural equipment now prepare the ground for planting, sow the seeds, spray, spread fertilizer and reap the annual harvest - jobs once done by manual laborers.
Xinjiang Yinfeng Modern Agricultural Equipment, administered by the Communist League Farm and set up in 2012, has over 150 cotton harvesting machines and 40 technicians. It harvested 45,333 hectares of cotton crops last year using the machines.
Liu Xunzhang, vice-president of the company, said in 2014 each machine harvested 167 hectares of cotton land during the monthlong picking season. With improvements in efficiency, the number has risen to 300 hectares today, further reducing the farmers' costs.
"To harvest 100 mu of cotton fields, for example, takes less than three hours with our equipment," he said.
"In the past, the farmers would need to hire more than 20 people to pick for more than one month by hand. The saving (using harvesters) is about 200 yuan per mu."
Farmers can also receive free training to operate the harvesters, a job which can earn them 20,000 to 30,000 yuan a month, Liu added.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, agricultural machines now do 94 percent of the corps' farm work, 26 percentage points higher than the national average for mechanization rates. The corps also uses 43 planes to help sow seeds and spray pesticides.
During the slow seasons, the farmers are given classes on the latest farming techniques and how to operate equipment.
From what they have learned, the farmers have been experimenting with new ideas such as modifying machinery.
"The equipment and technology not only free your body, but more importantly free your mind," Zheng Chunlin said.
"A couple of years ago we wouldn't dare use a machine to sow seeds. Now we are trying new techniques on our own."
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