Amid Climate Chaos, China’s Small Farmers Go Back to the Roots
Editor’s note: Amid soaring temperatures, droughts, and torrential rains, extreme weather events frequently made headlines in 2022, leading more and more in China to consider the consequences of rapid climate change.
To understand how climate change affects farmers, and how they can adapt, sustainable food and farming NGO FoodThink teamed up with the environmental NGO Friends of Nature this year. The joint project, Investigation into Climate Change and Ecological Agriculture, carried out field studies across many ecological farms in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and southern China regions.
Participants documented these farmers’ experiences in adapting to extreme weather, which, too often, have been excluded from mainstream climate change discourse.
At a seminar in September, Wang Hao, an editor at FoodThink, summarized their findings.
The Sanhe Yushun Farm is located in Luanzhou, in the northern Hebei province. In 2021, this area recorded its heaviest rainfall in 50 years, only for that record to be broken again in 2022.
In August, Luanzhou witnessed another downpour of 280 mm — the equivalent of half of the annual rainfall for an average year.
Farmers often say that their livelihoods depend on the heavens. The droughts and floods reported in the news have all had devastating consequences for agriculture. As extreme weather events become more and more frequent, farmers have become increasingly conscious that something is wrong. And they are more inclined to attribute such events to climate change.
According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), following a one-degree increase in average global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, extreme weather events witnessed once a decade now occur 2.8 times in the same period.
Should the temperature rise by four degrees, they would occur 9.4 times per decade — in other words, virtually annual events.
With no end to climate change in sight, we can reasonably predict that such extreme events will only become more frequent in the near future. At the same time, rising temperatures have led to extreme droughts and rainfall.
The IPCC’s sixth assessment report, titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, presents agroecology as a revolutionary means of adapting to climate change. Many international scholars also agree that it has great potential both in this regard and in terms of reducing carbon emissions.
But what does its current implementation tell us?
In the summer, FoodThink investigated 19 farms in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi as well as across the outskirts of Beijing. It also carried out online and offline interviews with 29 farming households.
By observing small-scale ecological farms, we attempted to gain insights into the relationship between agriculture and climate change.
First of all, the weather has become unseasonable and unpredictable.
One farmer was blunt: “When it should be hot, it’s cold; and when it should be cold, it’s hot.” Some believe that climate change results in hotter temperatures all around. But in certain areas, the very opposite has occurred: temperatures have dropped to unusual lows.
In Xianniangxi Village in Conghua District on the outskirts of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, small farmer Yang Guoxing says that temperatures were low during the transplantation of rice seedlings this year. It meant his paddies grew poorly in April and May.
Deng Lifei, a young farmer who cultivates rice in Shaoguan, also in Guangdong, says that each year, southern China experiences “Cold Dew winds” — which marks the beginning of the 17th solar term on the lunar calendar, corresponding to early to mid-October on the Gregorian calendar.
During this period, cold winds from the north cause temperatures to plummet, which can potentially damage paddies. Normally, the paddies turn yellow before the Cold Dew winds arrive.
Last year, however, the winds came earlier than expected, while the paddies were still green. As a result, the fields didn’t produce any rice grains.
Second, not only are the temperatures abnormal — they also change abruptly.
This August, amid an unrelenting heat wave in Beijing, a sudden wave of frost struck the Kuaile Fanxiang Qingnian Farm in Zhangjiakou close to the capital.
With this premature drop in temperatures, many of the farm’s potatoes withered away in the ground, leaving farmers with no choice but to dig them up earlier than planned.
Zhou Ciyu, who plants roses in Guilin, Guangxi province, reported that though the typical blooming season for their flowers is from April to May, a sustained cold front prevented them from blooming during that period this year.
One afternoon, the weather suddenly cleared up, the temperatures rose, and many bloomed all at once. However, this pleasant surprise didn’t last long: The temperatures then dropped just as suddenly, leaving many roses badly frostbitten.
Third, the duration of droughts and floods has increased.
This year, Guangdong first experienced a deluge of biblical proportions, shortly followed by an equally catastrophic drought.
Yu, a farmer in Conghua District, says that “both droughts and floods drag on for months.” At the end of July, the months of incessant rain finally let up, only to be replaced by an equally unrelenting month of drought which prevented farmers from planting their sweet potato crops.
In keeping with climate change trends as described by meteorologists, shorter, lighter rainfalls are becoming infrequent, and violent storms are taking their place. Certain regions may not receive a single drop for a whole month, but once the clouds burst, the downpour is relentless — in other words, it never rains but it pours.
Dai Yunyun, another farmer who cultivates rice in Guangxi, says that before the harvest, the paddy generally needs to dry in the sun for a while.
But because the incessant rain last year made that impossible, the ripened ears of rice began to produce new sprouts, making them unfit for harvest. About half his harvest was lost — an extremely rare occurrence.
Fourth, climate change has had an impact on pest populations.
The state of infestations has changed both for the better and the worse. Zhao Fei of the Pingren Farm in Beijing witnessed the dichotomy. He says that because the local weather was relatively warm, flea beetles emerged earlier in the year and thus reproduced over a longer period, creating larger populations that were more difficult to control.
Simultaneously, he noticed a decrease in pests that normally pose a threat to his asparagus crops.
Pollination has also been affected. One farmer in Guangxi says that because of prolonged rain, bees were unable to pollinate flowers during April and May, causing many of them to die from a lack of nectar.
Moreover, according to farmers in southern China, abnormal weather has led to an infestation of oriental fruit flies. Not only do these flies feed on oranges, tangerines, and tomatoes, they can also even chew their way through the hard outer shells of pumpkins and wax gourds, with disastrous consequences for local crops.
There are many ways in which farmers can adapt to climate change, but ecological agriculture stands out as a unique approach.
For example, the crops of the Lianxiang Farm in Chengde, Hebei province, were severely damaged by unexpectedly heavy rainfalls in the summer last year. Rather than resorting to pesticides and fertilizers, farmers brainstormed to cultivate a sturdy, auto-regulating ecology capable of withstanding more extreme weather in the future.
This is what distinguishes ecological farmers from regular farmers.
Liu of the Xiaoliushu Farm in Beijing remarked that during last year’s deluge, most farmlands suffered from flooding. However, because he had devoted much time to cultivating the soil, his crops proved to be far better at absorbing the rainwater than the surrounding fields.
Meanwhile, Yang Guoxing of Xianniangxi Village used bundles of rice straw to create a roof that protects his crops against the blistering sun during droughts. After this roof proved effective, many other farmers in the vicinity emulated his approach.
In Guangdong, the production of lychees is spoken of in terms of “big” and “small” years. This year was “small”: Because of the continual rain, the lychee trees developed mould and were assailed by Caloptilia hemidactylella, a type of moth.
But the Yinlin Farm in Conghua District managed to fend off plant diseases and insect pests — largely because its plantations comprised diversified tree species that are well spaced out. This prevents diseases from spreading, which allows the lychee crops to remain healthy.
These are all benefits of improving farmland ecologies.
In low-lying areas, the improvement of basic infrastructure has little impact on the soil’s ability to resist extreme downpours. Guo Rui of the Yinlin Farm says that farmers in these areas would be better off planting more flood-tolerant plants, such as rice, water spinach, and sweet potato leaves.
Permitting diverse plantations and expanding the selection of crops can increase farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change.
Similarly, as Pingren Farm’s Zhao Fei explains, because the region of Lingqiu County in Shanxi province experiences unseasonably cold weather in early spring, cultivating apricots there has become unsustainable, so local farmers have switched to other crops.
Planting stress-resistant species is another way to fight extreme weather. Dai Yunyun says that amid the severe drought last year, his field in Yangshuo became so dry that the ground cracked open. Unable to irrigate his fields, he was forced to switch to dryland farming.
Although his output of rice was greatly reduced, his crops fared much better than the hybrid paddies in surrounding farms, which completely failed. What set them apart was Dai’s use of the old seeds that most farmers generally discard, which tend to be more resilient.
Wei Guanghai, a farmer in Guangxi province, plants an heirloom variety of Shatian pomelo, which produces stable harvests and is particularly resistant to diseases and pests. In contrast, many nearby farmers use newer varieties that have the potential to produce larger harvests, but have shorter lifespans and aren’t as good at withstanding extreme weather.
Moreover, farmers must be able to adjust their plantation plans and adapt to sudden changes. Although there are general long-term trends in climate change, its current impacts are highly unpredictable.
Zhao Fei says that planting late-season varieties of corn is a “gamble.” He plants one batch in July and another in August. Since there’s no predicting when the frost may descend, planting larger crops is really the only way to increase the chances of yielding a harvest, however small.
The Lüshouzhi Farm in Guangdong says they adopted a very rustic approach to determining the correct planting periods. The annual rainfall has remained steady, so if one crop received more rain than usual, it’s safe to assume that the next will receive less.
To sum it up in stockbrokers’ terms, they either “open high and close low,” or “close high and open low.”
The way forward
The success of ecological agriculture is dependent on the right support and external challenges.
If farms switch from monocultures to polycultures as a means of adapting to climate change, they will require assistance finding distribution channels for their various crops. In our interviews, FoodThink discovered that farmers who maintained a stable revenue benefit from networks that support the diversification of their crops.
There are also certain challenges, such as the impact of abnormal weather on the agricultural workforce. In Guangdong, many employ farmhands in their fifties and sixties.
But as rising temperatures increase the risk of heat stroke, such workers are increasingly unwilling to jeopardize their health through farmwork, and farms themselves are sometimes less willing to hire them.
Other challenges come from external ecological environments and regional infrastructure, as well as difficulties rolling out climate insurance and extending its coverage to include small farming households.
Ecological agriculture offers many methods of adapting to climate change. Not only are these solutions identified through academic research but also more often, they are the fruit of farmers’ experiences in the field.
It is important to underscore the importance of ecological agriculture when it comes to adapting to climate change, as well as amplifying the voices of farmers so that their independent observations and practices receive greater recognition.
A version of this article originally appeared in Shiwu Tiandiren. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; Editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Villagers pick persimmons in Chayuan Village, Dazhou, Sichuan province, Oct. 14, 2022. Deng Liangkui/VCG)