University professor dedicates to tech-led poverty alleviation in rural China

By Zhao Yongxin, Cao Lei
“Go find Zhang Zijun for help if you raise sheep!” – that’s a signature phrase of the farmers in Dingyuan county, east China’s Anhui province.
The man in his forties is hailed as a “real friend” and “real buddy” by the locals in Dingyuan county where he leads farmers to embark on the road of poverty alleviation.
Zhang, professor with the School of Animal Science and Technology of Anhui Agricultural University (AAU), heads an agricultural experimental station in the county, a new type of promotion platform for modern agriculture co-established by the AAU and Dingyuan county that aims to explore new agricultural services with the human resource and technological advantages of the university.
Dingyuan county is 130 kilometers away from AAU. Though it is a region that enjoys a long history of sheep husbandry, it encountered obstacles in this regard a few years ago.
To find the problems, Zhang and his team had a research there and investigated many major sheep farmers in 2016, and found the county was bothered by variety degeneration, outdated production facility, low utility of forage and high risk of diseases.
As a result, Zhang prescribed unique “medication” – a standard production system for modern husbandry in farming areas, something that he has worked on for years. It includes key technologies in breeding, forage planting, disease prevention and environment monitoring, and is based on the modern agricultural philosophy that focuses on planting, breeding, processing and distributing.
Zhang selected new breeds for the farmers, and helped them establish standard modern sheepfolds. Thanks to these efforts and the promotion of the technology system, effective results have been achieved. The lambing rate of the sheep for meat production skyrocketed from 100 percent to 210 percent, and the survival rate of the lambs also surged from 50 percent to 95 percent. By adopting a combined production method of both crop planting and sheep farming, the net profit of every 667 square meters has increased by 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($285 to $428).
“Industrial growth cannot be achieved by the improvement of individual links, but through aiming at the ‘target’ of the whole industry’s development and conducting technological services for the entire industrial chain,” Zhang explained.
Zhang’s decision made 4 years ago to work at the experimental station astonished many of his colleagues, as they didn’t understand why a promising professor would go to the countryside. They thought the arduous conditions might affect his research, and this demanding job would also bring little return.
However, the professor has his own philosophy. He believes that as a scientific researcher of an agricultural university, he must bring his scientific results out of the labs and have them benefit the farming industry. Working at the primary level gets him closer to the real production, and thus pointing a direction for further researches –something that can never be done in the labs.
To have a thorough and precise grasp of the agricultural development in Dingyuan county, Zhang carried out detailed investigation on husbandry and crop farming in 22 townships together with his colleagues from different disciplines. He tailored feasible development plans for agricultural mainstay industries, and guided the establishment of 9 industrial alliances, so as to provide all-round technological guidance for the farmers.
Rice planting plays a major part in the county’s agricultural sector, but it was not prospering. Therefore, Zhang invited rice expert Shi Yingyao and aquaculture expert Bao Chuanhe from AAU to the county, and together they made a new plan – to conduct rice-crayfish farming.
Zhang asked Wang Yulang, a major farming household in the county, to set an example for other farmers, and guided him with other experts to select crayfish and rice breeds and carry out green cultivation. Just after a couple of months, Wang made a fortune out of it.
Now, the new agricultural model has been promoted countywide, becoming a new pillar for Dingyuan. The breeding ponds of the crayfish now cover a total area of 147 square kilometers, and the annual production stands at 33,000 tons. Together with the 110,000 tons of rice produced in the ponds each year, the farmers can earn a total of 1.8 billion yuan.
“We had been trying to improve in the past decades, but nothing constructive was made. Little did we think that the expert has totally turned the situation around,” said Bai Chuanyong, former head of the tech bureau of Dingyuan.
Over the years, the experimental station has introduced 376 farming breeds to and applied 92 new technologies in Dingyuan. In addition, it has explored and found 15 new business models and established 66.7 square kilometers of demonstrating areas for the county, serving over 100 agricultural enterprises there.
 “I came here to achieve, so I am a bridge between the university and the county to help local agricultural development and lift local people out of poverty,” Zhang said.
The professor is dreaming that one day, the region can be built into a beautiful modern ranch by returning farmland to grassland and exploring recycling economy that involves multiple sectors such as sheep farming and fruit and vegetable planting.
Source: People’s Daily

Zhang Zijun (left) checks a lamb with a farmer. Photo from Anhui Agricultural University

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