Zhang Runya stunned his family when he uprooted the wheat seedlings in his half-hectare terraced field.
The wheat was to be the family's source of food for six months.
Instead, the farmer from Northwest China's Loess Plateau planted apple trees.
His wife complained that he had destroyed the family's "straw of hope."
Zhang was stubborn. The 41-year-old had tilled and toiled on the grain field, day and night, for years, but he still had to receive food aid from the government. He wanted to end that cycle.
That was in the spring of 1990, and Zhuanglang County, in Gansu Province where Zhang lived, was caught in a dilemma.
To feed its 420,000 people, the landlocked county had to expand food grain sources. But it also had to reforest reclaimed arable land to address the menacing impact of a fragile ecological system.
Unlike China's coastal regions, where seeds may produce crops 100 times greater than what was sown, Zhuanglang appeared to have been haunted by a curse.
Local farmers complained they could not even harvest 20 kilograms of wheat from a field where they spread 40 kilograms of seeds.
Formed by the accumulation of fine wind-blown silt, known as loess, the plateau that Zhuanglang sits on had become cut by vertical-walled valleys, many gullies and sunken roads.
Farmers throughout the centuries have terraced the hills for agriculture. More than 90 percent of the county's 66,600 hectares (164,568 acres) of farmland were dispersed throughout the valleys and gullies in the 1980s.
Leaving little space for woods and grasslands, Zhuanglang had been vulnerable to landslides and water and soil erosion.
Two landslides in Nanping Township destroyed 46.7 hectares (115.4 acres) of arable land and forced the resettlement of 20 residents at a loess hill in 1955. And a rainstorm 30 years ago caused flash floods that killed 667 people in Zhuanglang.
So what Zhang did in 1990 pleased Zhuanglang's county government, which had been seeking ways to reshape the ecologically frail landscape.
"In an area like Zhuanglang, you can't guarantee sufficient food and clothes for farmers without changing the foul ecological conditions. If they are not properly fed and clad, you can't expect them to do anything else," said Wang Haolin, the county's top official.
Zhang's stubbornness paid off. He could later sell his apples for more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,200) each year on average, five times more than his peers who relied only on wheat harvest.
He fed the substandard apples to his livestock, and he used the animals' manure to fertilize the fields. It was a sound ecological system.
Zhang's success, despite being the result of his desire to improve his fortune, has become widely quoted by Zhuanglang officials as an example to persuade other farmers to stop farming the steep slopes.
Ecologically Friendly Farming
They have encouraged farmers to plant more trees and grass and develop ecologically friendly farming practices.
They have also advised the farmers to plant alfalfa and Chinese prickly ashes.
Grass and trees now blanket Zhuanglang's once bare hills and gullies.
The county's green-coverage rate grew from 10.2 percent in 1981 to 35.1 percent by the end of last year. That was nearly 8 percentage points higher than the national average.
"In Zhuanglang, trees and grass have largely led to propitious winds and rains, and farmlands now hold water and see less erosion," Wang said. "The ever-expanding profitable forest has dramatically increased the incomes of the farmers."
In fact, Zhuanglang County has taken the lead in China in reversing fragile ecological systems by reconciling practices to ensure they are in harmony with nature.
Nationwide, the central government launched a campaign at the end of 1999 to have farmers plant grass and trees on reclaimed arable land.
Authorities were determined to curb the worsening of ecological system, especially in China's vast western and northern regions.
Destruction of forests and grasslands and planting crops on steep slopes have been cited as causes for China's eroded soil and deteriorating water supplies.
Experts suggest that one-third of China's land area has already been affected.
The key component of the government's policy is a "food-for-ecology" compensation package for farmers willing to plant grass and trees on steep-slope arable land or on other unworkable crop land.
That policy, piloted in some western areas since 1999, was outlined in a document issued by the State Council, China's cabinet, on June 20.
On the back of the "food-for-ecology" formula is the country's increasing grain production capacity and sufficient grain stockpiles. Between 1996 and 2001, China's per-capita grain availability approached 400 kilograms, exceeding the global average, according to a policy paper issued in June by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Under the new arrangement, each year for up to eight years the State will provide farmers with 2.25 tons of grain, 300 yuan (US$36) in cash and 750 yuan (US$90) to buy tree seedlings, for each hectare of arable land they reforest along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys in South China, the State Council document shows.
For Zhuanglang, the policy will no doubt further inspire the tree-planting spree and help add to farmers' coffers. The county had swapped 8,000 hectares (19,768 acres) of arable land for forest by the end of last year.
For the rest of western China, where the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers find their sources, returning reclaimed farmland will improve ecological conditions and eventually contribute to China's on-going efforts to develop its hinterland.
The State Council's policy, one that promotes ecological agriculture in China, received backing from numerous ministries in July.
The ministries of agriculture, science and technology and the State Forestry Administration pledged to spend money and devote manpower to find the technology needed to bolster sustainable development.
Chinese farmers understand the power of technology. In Zhuanglang, when the farmers had difficulties making larches survive in arid areas, a graduate from the Beijing Forestry Institute, Wang Baoxu, was able to help.
Wang joined the Tongbian Forest Center in 1971 and developed seedling techniques and tree-planting methods that helped larches survive and reproduce in the dry land of Zhuanglang County.
No one can predict exactly what will become of China's unprecedented emphasis on ecological protection and its technological input - involving tens of millions of US dollars and 64 institutions - in the next five years.
But one thing is certain: China's development will be put on more secure and sustainable footing.
(China Daily August 26, 2002)