Jim Hoorman and Gia looking at weeds in a soybean check plot. The Chinese fields have marestail, lambsquarter, giant ragweed and pigweed similar to those in the United States. (Photo submitted)
Jim Hoorman and Gia looking at weeds in a soybean check plot. The Chinese fields have marestail, lambsquarter, giant ragweed and pigweed similar to those in the United States. (Photo submitted)

OTTAWA — Like the United States, China is facing issues related to deterioration in the environment, notably air pollution, soil erosion and water pollution. However, with a population of 1,355,692,576 (July 2014 estimate), the world’s largest population in a country that is the fourth largest country geographically, China’s water, air and land are in much worse shape at their space on the globe. And China is reaching out for help. Jim Hoorman, Assistant Professor with Ohio State University Extension and Putnam County Extension Educator, is one of the specialists to which the country has turned.

During the last week of July, Hoorman was working with farmers in Heilong Jiang, a northeast province of China.

He and two other Ohio State University professors were there as part of an intercollegiate, international agricultural program with the Heilong Jiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences. They were there through a recommendation by another OSU professor, Dr. Larry Brown, a water table management, drainage specialist who has worked in the province, an area which has many wetlands. Area farmers mentioned their interest in “no till” farming to Jones, as well as a desire to reduce their herbicide and pesticide use.

“Larry recommended myself, Rafiq Islam and Alan Sundermeier,” Hoorman said. “This was our first trip.”

For 12 days, Hoorman, Islam and Sundermeier talked with farmers about how to get no-till started, how nutrients are cycling and how some of China’s soil compaction issues could be solved by using cover crops. Hoorman said they drove six and half hours one day to visit some sites and drove back the next day.

“Very, very intense agriculture there,” he said, adding that Heilong Jiang province grows as much as 40 to 50 percent of China’s food supply. “In China, only about 10 percent of the land is used for agriculture. This is kind of their bread basket. We drove for 100 miles and all we saw was corn. We drove another 200 miles square and it was just rice and then we drove for another 150 miles and it was just about all continuous soybeans. Everything there is managed. Everything is in a straight row, including every tree.”

Hoorman said there are no family farms in the province. “In other parts of China, there may be smaller farms (five to ten acres). [In Heilong Jiang] you can drive through the country and you won’t see a house for miles. Then you’ll see a village, and that village farms 10,000 to 15,000 acres in a community or corporate farm. We’d see 15 to 30 tractors all lined up. They farm as a group and everybody has a job. They spray the fields several times. You don’t see insects, birds or wildlife. It’s a very controlled environment.”

When the farmers go home, adds Hoorman, they may have one half to three acres of home garden. “There are no lawns, every inch of ground is planted in vegetables and some fruits. That is the family’s significant food source.”

The soils in the province are very productive, black soils, said Hoorman, very similar to the Hoytville or Pewamo soils that we have in Northwest Ohio.

“But they’re tilling their soils and have been for hundreds of years, so the soils are becoming very hard and dense and they’re becoming concerned about that,” he said. “They’ve only been no-tilling for about two years. Two years ago their soybean stands were really good. This year, they weren’t.”

Another issue the farmers faced was amusing to Hoorman and his fellow Americans. The Chinese said they were having trouble driving in a straight line and following it as they were using a drill.

“We said that we never have that problem. They asked how we rig up a marker. We looked at their marker. It was broken, so we said, ‘Well, get rid of this,’” laughed Hoorman. “We showed them a very simple way of putting a bar on the tractor and dragging chain the width of the drill. You can see it from the tractor. As long as that chain’s dragging right over the last row that was being planted, you should be right on target to plant your next row. Very simple things. They were amazed and very happy.”

The Americans spent much of their 12-day trip designing a new research program for the Chinese. Hoorman said they signed a long-term agreement in which four or five Chinese students will study in a PhD program at Ohio State University. These individuals will take what they learn back to China to teach others to make farming more sustainable there.

In turn, Hoorman said a study similar to what is happening in Chinese agriculture will be undertaken on the OSU main campus “so that we can contrast how it works there in China to here.”

“We’re working together and we’re finding that if we can have live plants growing year round, we can protect that soil and enhance it, making it more productive — over time. That also solves a lot of other issues. Just like us, they have a lot of water runoff, nutrient losses. Their rivers and streams are full of silt, just like ours are, maybe a little worse. They’re also losing a lot of nutrients, just like we’re losing nutrients to Lake Erie and causing some of the phosphorus issues. Every waterway was either brown or pure green.”

Still coughing during this interview as a consequence of his visit, Hoorman said one of the best parts of coming home to Ohio was accessibility to clean air and water. He and his fellow travelers insisted on drinking bottled water in China. He noted row upon row of trees in Beijing, the Chinese capital, planted to combat the country’s air pollution. He said the tree leaves were coated in soot. China is the world’s largest single emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

“The pollution was terrible,” he said. “People still wear masks in the cities.”

Aside from his appreciation for the hospitality that he experienced in China — “They treated us like kings,” were his words — Hoorman valued the thrift of the Chinese people.

“They don’t waste anything,” he said, recalling that not only did his hotel room key card get him inside his room, it was used to turn on the electricity and air conditioning. “If the United States ever gets that populated, we’re going to have to really change. We waste a lot of materials.”

Hoorman does feel lucky to live in this country. He recalled the intensity of being in China, the sights, the sounds, and, with all the people, the smells.

“It was very humid, everybody is packed together,” he said. “They have over 1.2 billion people; I think we ran into about half of them.”