Despite the effectiveness of conservation tillage practices, farmers were suspicious and reluctant to try it.
According to Lin Xiangzhi, farmers in Bingzi Village in Songyuan City have followed farming practices passed down for generations. After the autumn harvest, the field residue, which includes straw, stubble, leaves and roots, is dug out to make the land look as clear as possible. Conservation tillage requires farmers to leave field residue to cover the land. Leaving fields this way goes against everything farmers were taught. “It makes the fields look messy from afar, and the farmers don’t want that,” Lin said.
To persuade farmers in the village to try conservation tillage, Lin promised them that if production per hectare dropped below 5,000 kilograms, an average yield for the area, he would compensate farmers himself. This pledge persuaded some farmers to start conservation tillage in 2015. In 2015, conservation tillage was used on 180 hectares in Bingzi, and the following year, the corn harvest reached 6,750 kilograms per hectare.
By 2018, conservation tillage was in wide use. In 2021, corn production in Bingzi had almost doubled, reaching nearly 10,000 kilograms per hectare.
But in the wider region of northeastern China, conservation tillage is unlikely to have such a dramatic effect. “In the long run, conservation tillage can improve soil quality and organic matter content, but in the beginning, it’s probably only enough to produce around 90 percent of average yields in the past,” Wang Jingkuan said.
There are plans and programs to promote the protection and sustainable use of black soil land. In July 2017, several ministries issued the Outline of the Northeast Black Soil Land Protection Plan (2017-2030), which clarified that 250 million mu (170,000 square kilometers) of black soil land should be protected in northeastern China by 2030. The Implementation Plan for the National Black Soil Land Protection Project (2021-2025) issued in 2021 proposes that 100 million mu (70,000 square kilometers) of black soil arable land should be protected and utilized from 2021 to 2025. This means using measures such as conservation tillage.
But executing sustainable soil management practices on the ground is difficult. It is not easy to motivate farmers. Liu Jie said that the implementation of the household contract responsibility system for over 40 years, where farmers are allotted and manage their own plots, did increase productivity and rural prosperity. However, as far as the protection and utilization of black soil land is concerned, the system has drawbacks.
According to researcher Zhang Xudong, farmers still do not own the land they farm under the system. They are more concerned about whether they can see quick returns, rather than the long-term sustainable use of the land.
“Farmers quit practicing new techniques if annual production and income plateau. Only when they see increased production and income will they truly accept new techniques,” researcher Guan Yixin said. “So since 2018, we developed conservation tillage techniques to ensure high yields.” Guan and his team are working on upgrading the Lishu Model. “We expect to increase production and income in all different scenarios,” Guan said.
Zheng Tiezhi, deputy director of the Jilin Provincial Agricultural Mechanization Management Center, has been in charge of promoting conservation tillage in Jilin Province since 2006. Zheng said that if farmers do not pay attention or take the initiative to master new technologies, it will be hard to popularize conservation tillage and other black soil land protection measures.
Zheng added that local authorities attach great importance to banning the burning of stubble that causes air pollution.
“Village officials just do the easiest thing. They remove field residue and have it sent it away [for disposal], and this prevents us from promoting conservation by retaining greater field residue cover on the surface of the soil.”