How a Week of Extreme Weather Sowed Chaos in Central China. Again.
HENAN, Central China — Du Yingke runs his fingers mournfully through the wheat in his fields in Zhulou, a village in central China’s Henan province. The crops are a sorry sight: spiky, wilting, and spotted with black mold.
“Now this can’t be eaten,” says Du, gazing into the distance. “It’s probably worthless even as animal feed. We waited for a year, and in the end gained nothing.”
Until a few weeks ago, the 61-year-old was anticipating a bumper harvest. But like many farmers in this region, he is now facing crippling losses after being hit by what local media have described as “the worst pre-harvest rain in more than a decade.”
In late May, a sudden deluge struck Henan as the wheat harvest approached. While not as severe as the 2021 floods, which claimed 33 lives and caused widespread destruction, this rainfall proved particularly devastating to local crops.
Known as “China’s granary,” Henan has 85 million mu (5.6 million hectares) of wheat fields that produce one-quarter of the country’s total output. But the grain is highly vulnerable to pre-harvest rain, which causes it to sprout prematurely, lowering its quality or even rendering it unusable.
Over the following weeks, Henan launched a frenzied effort to salvage its rapidly deteriorating crops. Farmers harvested through the night, illuminated by overhead drones. Local officials fought to secure access to scarce machinery. Two hundred million yuan ($30 million) of emergency funding was released to help farmers dry their waterlogged grain.
Yet the impact was still severe. Chinese authorities have yet to publish estimates of the damage to the wheat harvest, but Mysteel — a commodity data provider — said telephone interviews with farmers in southern Henan indicated that over 30% of the grain in that region had sprouted early.
Some farmers have been wiped out. Du says most of the wheat on his 500 mu farm was completely ruined, and that his losses are likely to exceed 800,000 yuan.
Moreover, the crisis has exposed how vulnerable Chinese agriculture remains to the effects of climate change. Farmers were left unable to access harvesters and drying equipment during the downpours, as a system built for an era of predictable weather proved brittle when placed under stress.
Freak weather events are becoming a new normal in this region. This is the second time in three years that summer rain has disrupted Henan’s wheat harvest — Du also lost hundreds of thousands of yuan during the 2021 floods. Experts say more needs to be done to prepare China’s wheat farms for a more unstable future.
“We need to pay more attention to this issue, which is being driven by climate change and extreme weather,” Zhang Xingju, a wheat breeding specialist at seed company Shandong Shofine Seed Technology, tells Sixth Tone. “It will affect our national security, and also our seed security.”
For Du, the rains arrived at a particularly cruel time. A few years ago, he had invested in a new variety of wheat known locally as “space 8” — a high-tech strain first bred inside a Chinese laboratory in outer space. His space 8 fields had flourished, producing an astonishing quality of grain.
In Zhulou, which is located in southern Henan, wheat typically sells for 4 yuan per kilogram. But Du was confident his latest batch of space 8 wheat would sell for as much as 20-30 yuan per kilo. Then, those hopes suddenly evaporated.
Henan is traditionally dry as a bone in May: The wheat growing season is usually hit by “nine droughts every 10 years,” according to Guo Tiancai, a professor at Henan Agricultural University. But on May 26, a downpour started that drenched nearly every farm in the region.
“This was the largest rain disaster in a decade and affected a huge area, especially in central and southern Henan,” says Zhang, the wheat breeding specialist. “There was a similar disaster in 2019, but not as serious as this one.”
Du immediately knew his crops were in danger. The rain was incredibly fine, like flour, meaning it lingered on the ears of wheat for hours, he says. Under those conditions, the wheat seeds would start to germinate within three days, with disastrous results.
In June, researchers at Chinese flour company Jinshahe Group published a report on the effects of sprouting on wheat crops. It showed that the grain quickly declined in quality: 10 hours after germination, the wheat produced 9% less flour, and the deterioration became increasingly severe as time went on.
But Du was powerless to prevent this happening. Like many farmers in southern Henan, he was unable to access a combine harvester for several days, meaning he could do nothing but sit and watch his crops slowly rot in front of him.
In central China, most of the wheat is harvested by a network of contractors who rent out their harvesters by the day. The contractors travel the country each summer, following the natural rhythm of the harvest. They start in southern Henan — where the wheat matures earliest — before gradually moving north through the rest of the province and into neighboring Anhui.
During normal periods, it’s a highly efficient system. But it quickly descended into chaos after the rains started. Harvesters were unable to enter the waterlogged fields in southern Henan for several days. Once the fields had dried, many were already due to head north to begin their next jobs, as they had signed contracts with farmers elsewhere.
A tug of war between regions began. Sixth Tone witnessed villagers and township officials in southern Henan begging contractors to stay, offering to pay higher-than-normal rates. The Henan government also joined the effort, promising to borrow 10,000 harvesters from other provinces. But some areas still experienced shortages.
Du finally secured a harvester on June 1, six days after the rains started. But his luck was poor once again. After the contractor had gathered just 10% of his wheat, the rain intensified and the harvester was unable to continue. He wasn’t able to complete the harvest until June 11.
When Sixth Tone visited Du’s farm that day, his barn was overflowing with damp wheat, and bundles of sprouted grain were stacked on the ground. Du’s car was crammed with more grain — mainly samples of his experimental varieties.
Over 90% of the grain had sprouted early, according to Du. The moisture rate of most of it was as high as 40% — far too high even to use as animal feed. Du knows he faces a huge financial loss; the only question is how huge.
Like many local farmers, Du only has a basic state-provided agricultural insurance policy that costs 15 yuan per mu a year. After the 2021 floods, he received a payout of 300 yuan per mu, but he still ended up with losses totaling around 50,000 yuan, Du says.
Du has no idea how much compensation he’ll be entitled to this time, but it’s unlikely to match the 840,000 yuan of net losses he predicts he’ll be left with once he’s sold his damaged grain.
In February, Henan raised the compensation level for wheat farms in state insurance policies to 1,000 yuan per mu. In theory, this would provide Du with a maximum payout of 500,000 yuan. Henan regulators published a notice in June ordering insurers to “improve the efficiency of claim settlements.”
The government has also tried to protect farmers’ incomes by forcing grain companies to purchase damaged wheat at above-market rates, though Du’s crops are so badly waterlogged that they almost certainly will not be covered by this policy.
The Henan branch of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of Henan Province, and the National Engineering Research Center for Wheat did not respond to Sixth Tone’s requests for comment.
For Du, the biggest worry isn’t the immediate cost of this summer’s downpours, but the prospect that similar crises will keep happening in the future. He’s uncertain whether he and his neighbors can — or should — carry on.
“Now, even our own survival is a problem,” says Du. “For those large-scale farmers, if they suffer severe losses this year, they may not continue growing wheat next year.”
A murky future
In rural Henan, many locals only have a hazy understanding of climate change science. But they can feel the impact it is having on their livelihoods.
For centuries, Chinese farmers have planned their sowing and reaping using the traditional solar calendar, with its 24 solar terms. That system, however, is becoming increasingly unreliable as the climate heats up.
A few decades ago, farmers in Zhulou Village would plant their winter wheat in early October. Now, they often delay planting to mid-October, nearly half a solar term later. Meanwhile, extreme weather like the recent downpours has become a constant menace.
Sitting in his barn, Du asks: “Why is it like this? Why is our weather behaving this way?” One of his farm workers, a 75-year-old named Wang Jin’an, replies that it’s linked to the huge numbers of high-rise buildings, cars, and air conditioning units in the cities.
Picking up one of his hybrid seeds, Du sighs: “This may be the result of our rapidly advancing technology, but perhaps it comes at a cost.”
Chinese agriculture will have to adapt to a more turbulent climate. The government’s emergency policies helped mitigate the damage in Henan this month, but experts warn that the farming sector needs to be made more robust to withstand future disasters.
“In the future, we need to prepare drying equipment and materials to prevent pre-harvest sprouting,” says Zhang. “Many agricultural experts in Henan and Hebei are doing research in this area and breeding new seeds.”
In a June notice, Henan authorities urged insurers and local officials to work with farmers on disaster prevention measures. This included draining low-lying fields, refining insurance policies to provide better protection, and coordinating the allocation of harvesters.
The damage caused by disasters lasts longer than many realize. If wheat sprouts prematurely, it not only affects the quality of the crops, but also the seeds.
“Local wheat seeds in Henan were seriously damaged, so we’ll have to get seeds from other places for next season,” says Zhang.
A delayed harvest, meanwhile, may also disrupt the planting for the following season. And a bout of extreme weather can affect the nutrient content of the soil, leading to inferior yields in the future, Du explains.
For farmers in Henan, it’s unclear how they can protect themselves from so-called “weather whiplash.” Private crop insurance is not readily available in rural China: “I haven’t even heard of any relevant commercial agricultural insurance,” says Du.
Many experts and policymakers have placed their hope in agricultural technology. If new, hardier varieties of wheat are developed, the threat of unseasonal rain would diminish.
Yet Du believes such predictions are overly optimistic. The sobering truth, he says, is that farmers cannot prosper without a reasonably predictable climate.
“No matter how rapidly new varieties develop, their optimal output relies on stable environmental conditions, climate, and soil quality,” Du says. “Our current challenge is whether we can raise or maintain yields in the face of these unstable factors. Frankly, I’m not very confident.”
Contributions: Fu Beimeng; editors: Dominic Morgan and Apurva; photo editor: Ding Yining.
(Header image: Harvesters work through the night in the rain in Queshan County, Henan province, June 3, 2023. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)