Seeds of hope may be gone with the wind
Updated: 2012-03-22 08:12
By He Na and Han Junhong in Jilin (China Daily)
Han Zongqing, a farmer from Dongling village in Fate town, Shulan city, displays corn seeds he bought this year. Han is one of many farmers in Northeast China's Jilin province who have been thrown into a panic by the massive variety of corn seeds available on the market. [Ding Luyang / China Daily]
Nature can be a farmer's best friend or worst enemy and is always unpredictable, report He Na and Han Junhong in Jilin province.
Seeds are high on the agenda for farmers this year. In July, unusually strong winds left a trail of destruction in fields across Northeast China's Jilin province, one of the country's major corn-producing bases, flattening a large area of cornstalks.
July and August are the important growing periods for corn. However, affected by the winds, the harvest in some regions declined markedly last year, resulting in heavy losses for many farmers. Han Zong-qing, 65, who lives in Dongling village, Fate town, Shulan city, is one of them.
"I haven't seen a wind like that before. It was like a scene when the monsters come in a TV adaptation of Journey to the West (a classic Chinese legend where the arrival of monsters is always presaged by high winds). One-third of the corn I grew was beaten down. I only harvested 14,500 kilograms last year, which was 4,000 kg less than in 2010," he complained.
"This year's corn price is much higher than before and recently jumped to 2.1 yuan ($0.33) per kg from 1.6 yuan last year. The wind blew more than 4,000 yuan from my pocket. I could have bought plenty of things with that money," said Han.
Many of his fellow villagers also witnessed a decline in crop yields. When they inspected the fields, they discovered that most of the damaged corn belonged to one specific variety, Pioneer 335, a hybrid produced by the world's largest corn seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred.
"I've planted it for five years, but I didn't know it was so vulnerable to wind. What seeds should I choose this year? We've been thinking about that question since autumn, but still haven't made a decision," said Han, sitting on his traditional brick-heated bed.
"The seeds are our lives. If we buy fake or inferior ones, our whole year's work will be in vain," said Cui Shulan, 65, Han's wife.
"The Pioneer case greatly affected farmers' confidence in the seeds, and they are more cautious in their choices this year," said Zhang Qingshan, vice-president of Yushu Fengze Seed Group, a local producer.
According to Ding Wanzhi, director of the Jilin Provincial Seed Management Center, the demand for corn was slack in 2008, but Pioneer 335 performed well. In 2009, Jilin suffered a severe drought and Pioneer 335's ability to survive the conditions saw its yields remain much the same as before.
The farmers' confidence in the seed increased greatly after that. Meanwhile, the price of Pioneer 335 rose in tandem with sales, generally costing 10 yuan a bag (about 6,000 corn seeds) more than domestically produced seeds. Even though the variety costs more, farmers often still prefer it.
Embarrassment of riches?
Every year, November to April is the peak period for seed sales. "Every shop is full of customers, and business is booming. Recently, our center has seen an average daily sales volume of 10,000 bags of corn seeds," said Wang Haitao, manager of a seed trade center affiliated with Changchun Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the largest corn seed market in Changchun, Jilin's provincial capital.
"I haven't found a chance to sit down and drink any water at all this morning. The farmers were asking lots of questions about seeds and kept me talking all the time," said Han Liang, who has owned his shop in the center for more than a decade.
In Han's village, local seed sellers have visited his house almost daily to show him new varieties, and the local TV channels are also filled with ads for seeds. Even a small town such as Fate has eight seed shops, each selling at least 20 different corn seed varieties.