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Field of Dreams
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By Lan Xinzhen 

In northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, there is a region known as the "Great Northern Wilderness." Rich in natural resources, Beidahuang, as it is formally known, once attracted numerous prospectors in a Chinese gold rush. Ancient Chinese emperors yearned to develop the land there, and, in the first half of last century, Japanese occupiers brought 300,000 immigrants to settle the region with similar goals in mind. Yet many years passed and the region remained wilderness. 

Since 1947, the wilderness has gradually changed. Around 100,000 retired service people and hundreds of thousands of civilian youths met the call by the Chinese Government to resettle this land. Since then Beidahuang has become the bread basket of China. It is now the country's largest soybean producing area and one of the major producers of rice and wheat. The agricultural modernization level there not only ranks first in China, it is also among the most advanced in the world. In the summer of 2007, this region in Heilongjiang will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its reclamation.

Cultivated with lives

From Harbin, the provincial capital of Heilongjiang, stretching to the east, west and north is fertile black-soil farmland interspersed with belts of forest. Upon seeing this land, you know you have stepped into the reclamation area of Beidahuang-in China such characteristics only exist here.

"These are all fertile lands with yields of nearly 7,500 kg per hectare," said Sun Dong, an employee of Puyang Farm.

Man and machine: Beidahuang has been transformed into China's major agricultural region through the efforts of its first farmers and by adopting the most advanced farm technology in the world

In Beidahuang, there are 115 farms administered by the Heilongjiang Land Reclamation and Cultivation Bureau (HLRCB). Puyang Farm is one of them.

"The cultivated land here was once either swamp or covered by scrubland," Sun told Beijing Review. "Getting to the present situation took several decades of cultivation."

According to Xie Zhenhua, Section Chief of Information of the HLRCB, the Beidahuang reclamation project commenced in June 1947. Li Zairen and Liu Cen, army men at the time, led 16 others in the first cultivation of a piece of land 150 km away from Harbin. In their efforts these pioneers developed 100 hectares, thus launching the reclamation of Beidahuang. Later the group transferred to Ning'an and set up their first farm. In November 1947, they broke ground on Tongbei Farm. From 1947 to the 1970s, all the depopulated wastelands in Beidahuang were cultivated and farms sprouted one after another.

"Developing Beidahuang was of great importance for ensuring China's food security," Xie said.

By the mid-1900s, successive wars had almost destroyed China's industrial and agricultural systems. There was no grain surplus to support the country's industrialization process. Since there were large areas of deserted land in Beidahuang, the Chinese Government decided to set up a "grain factory" there.

"Beidahuang was cultivated by three generations of people," said Liu Na from the Heilongjiang Land Reclamation and Cultivation Museum. In this museum, various artifacts and pictures documenting the reclamation of Beidahuang are displayed.

Comparing the scenery now-high-rises are everywhere-with the scenes shown in the museum's pictures, it is hard to imagine how people survived in the poor conditions at the time the reclamation began. The lowest temperatures can reach 50 centigrade below zero in winter. Two thirds of each year the land is frozen, with the depth of frost in the soil stretching 2.5 meters below the surface.

According to Liu's introduction at the museum, 100,000 soldiers came to reclaim Beidahuang between 1947 and 1958. At that time, they lived in A-frame huts made of branches and standing just 1 meter high. Some even lived in shelters they dug under the ground. Most were retired soldiers who had fought in the war in Korea against the US-led allied forces.

"The soldiers who set up our farm were from the unit in the famous Battle of Sanggamyong," said the Puyang Farm's Sun.

The Battle of Sanggamyong in 1952 is known by almost all Chinese and has been turned into a film. Soldiers from this battle are considered national heroes.

They could also be considered heroes a second time. When they put down their guns, they picked up their hoes.

According to Liu, between 1959 and 1963, 60,000 young people from Shandong Province came to Beidahuang to reclaim the land. They are the second generation of exploiters. Since 1968, the government had called upon urban secondary school graduates to work in the countryside. By 1972, over 500,000 youths had come to develop Beidahuang from large cities such as Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai. They are the third generation of exploiters.

By the time these young people came the living conditions had improved. They lived in houses built with lumber and clay.

"To those youths from cities, production was the largest challenge," Liu said.

A wood plow measuring 3 meters long and 1.5 meters tall is displayed in Liu's museum. According to her, such plows had been used for quite a long period during the Beidahuang reclamation. "On many farms there was no modern agricultural equipment and the number of livestock for plowing was minimal. Men were the main power for plowing and sowing. Three or four pulled the plow ahead and one would control the direction from behind the plow," she added.

In 1954, with the help of experts from the Soviet Union, a mechanized farm was established and named "Friendship Farm." After the relationship between Beijing and Moscow became strained in 1956, Soviet experts left and the mechanization of the farm became stagnant. Wood plows continued to be used on other farms.

During reclamation, more than 12,000 people sacrificed their lives. Some of them died of illness caused by exhaustion, some drowned in the swamps, and some gave their lives in dealing with emergencies or providing disaster relief. The HLRCB carved the names of these people on a wall of the museum for visitors to commemorate.

"These lives changed this wasteland into fertile land," Liu said.

At present, the cultivated land covers an area of 2.33 million hectares and almost all the wasteland that could be cultivated has been reclaimed.

Major grain base

Beidahuang has become China's most important commodity grain base and strategic grain reserve. The region currently accounts for nearly a quarter of the country's total non-original grain supplies. In 2006, its grain production capacity and commodity grain output reached 11.32 billion kg and 10 billion kg, respectively.

"The 10 billion kg of grain can feed the 70-million population in the four municipalities directly under the Central Government (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing) and in the army for a whole year," said Zhang Yawen, an official from the HLRCB.

The major crops are rice, soybean, wheat and corn. All the grain it produces is green and pollution-free. It is the largest producer of non-genetically modified soybeans in China.

According to Zhang, the HLRCB has established a comprehensive agricultural produce certification system for pollution-free, green and organic food. At present, Beidahuang has four state-level food quality inspection centers, three agricultural produce certification agencies and over 100 institutions engaged in research of green food. An efficient management system and a high-caliber contingent of management personnel for quality and safety of green food have been established.

By the end of 2006, 70 farms and 57 enterprises in the region had been engaged in the production of green, organic and pollution-free food. Moreover, 28 national-level raw material production bases for green food had been established; 470,000 hectares of land for green food production had been put under a unified supervision network; and 220 varieties of green food, 50 varieties of organic food, 692 production bases of pollution-free food and 166 varieties of pollution-free food had been certified. In 2006 alone, the output of green food of the region totaled 1.06 billion kg. Beidahuang has become the country's largest production and processing base of green food.

The Heilongjiang reclamation area also established a quality tracing system for agricultural produce from the field to the dining table, connected to market access. There have been nine pilot farms there for the quality tracing system of pollution-free agricultural produce set up by the Ministry of Agriculture. In 2006, Heilongjiang's quality and safety tracing and warning system of agricultural produce was developed for trial operation in four farms and information related to quality tracing during the production process was sent via regional information networks. At any time and anywhere, consumers can clearly see the details of pollution-free food when they are buying it in stores. If there are problems of product quality, they can be traced to the specific growers and fields that produced the products.

Most modernized agriculture

 "Today, the mechanization level of agricultural production in Beidahuang is 100 percent," said Zhang of the HLRCB.

The region has the most advanced agricultural equipment in the world. In the last decade, it has introduced 530 high-powered tractors from the United States with functions that include satellite positioning, digital remote sensing and information collection. Besides this, there are more than 26,000 large and medium-sized tractors used for farming.

The region has 11,065 combine harvesters, including many harvesters imported from the United States with intelligent detecting systems. When harvesting, these combines can detect soil conditions such as shortage of certain nutrients and during cultivation the following year farmers can spread fertilizers to correct the deficiencies.

Farmers there have also adopted aviation with 31 planes used for monitoring crop growth.

Yielding results: China's dedication to Beidahuang has made it into a leading producer of safe, healthy, green and organic food products

In terms of planting crops, standardized management has been adopted. A whole set of standards have been formulated to regulate every link in the production process.

"Ten years ago, the yield per hectare was only 750 kg, but now, the number has reached 7,500 kg," said Yan Xuegui, a farmer at Puyang Farm. According to Yan, in light of the planting standards of Beidahuang, rice can't be planted after May 25. If rice were planted later, the yield would be reduced.

At present, there are 16 research institutions, as well as 103 farming technique promotion centers or stations in Beidahuang, with a technical staff totaling 84,000. Science and technology contribute 87 percent to the agricultural growth, much higher than the 70 percent in developed countries.

According to Zhang, with mechanized and standardized operation, the per-capita grain output in the region is as high as 380,000 kg every year, higher than the achievements in many developed countries. "Beidahuang has surpassed Canada in terms of agricultural output volume, overtaken the United States in terms of mechanization level and led the Netherlands in terms of agricultural industrialization," Zhang told Beijing Review.

 Global reach

Located 400 km north of Harbin, at the highway entrance to the Baoquanling Farm stands a modernized oil and fat company-Jiusan Oil and Fat Co. Ltd. (JOFC)

JOFC has become a leader in the non-genetically modified soybean processing industry. Its products have been exported to Japan, South Korea, Russia and throughout Southeast Asia.

Besides JOFC, the green rice and organic rice produced by Beidahuang Rice Co. are widely popular in Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia, the Middle East and the Caribbean. The rice exports arrived at 2 million kg in 2006.

By Zhang's estimation, the region has established economic and trade relations with over 30 countries and regions such as Japan, the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. It has established two boundary economic development zones in Hulin and Mishan, which carry out overseas agricultural cooperation with Russia, Kazakhstan and North Korea. Local enterprises have also created representative offices, wholly owned enterprises or joint ventures in countries and regions like the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Macao.

In Beidahuang, there are 150 trading companies, 27 foreign-funded companies and 20 overseas-registered companies.

"Beidahuang is not only a geographic term, but a brand," Zhang told Beijing Review.     

(Beijing Review June 29, 2007)

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