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By Katie Taft

“It’s like Disneyland for agriculture,” one of the participants in the South-South Cooperation Workshop commented to me as we left the Fengrunze Agricultural Technical Centre in Shanxi Province, China.

A member of a farmers’ cooperative in Shanxi Province
checks on tomatoes that are soon going to market.
© IFAD/Katie Taft
In more than an hour at the centre, we had seen food being grown in unusual ways. From a small planter with little soil, cherry tomatoes were growing on a vine hanging from a wooden gazebo. Lettuce was growing inside Styrofoam pots without soil, fed by liquid nutrients in a small amount of water. We saw chilies being grown in a simple, homemade incubator. Pumpkins and gourds were growing large and numerous, suspended from the ceiling and walls.

The Disneyland comment reflected my own thoughts during a four-day field visit that ended yesterday. At times, it felt more like a package vacation than work.

The visit was a part of the south-south workshop on rural development and poverty reduction, which opened today in Beijing – the fourth meeting of its kind supported by IFAD and China’s Ministry of Finance. For the past four days, workshop participants from 12 countries were shuttled around Shanxi Province, which sits south-east of Beijing and is home to more than 35 million people. Known more for its coal mining than farming, the province still produces much of the country’s maize and small grains, such as millet.

On paper, that doesn’t sound much like a tourist attraction. But during the visit we saw amazing achievements in modernizing and, yes, even attracting people to agriculture.

Intensive agriculture
Mao Zedong once honoured Dazhai village for its intensive farming methods. By creating a cooperative, and pooling funds and human resources to improve irrigation schemes, the village’s then 500 farming households were able to increase their yields and incomes at a time when most small farms were struggling. Now, Dazhai is a historic attraction, which sees up to 300,000 visitors from around China each year.

Students make liquid plant food in lab at the Jinzhong
Technical Institute. © IFAD/Katie Taft
As we toured the village and accompanying museum, workshop participants took photographs of themselves with monuments and displays highlighting how, through intensive agriculture, the villagers went from owning donkeys to owning cars in a 30-year timespan.

At the Jinliang Agriculture Development Company, which contracts with local smallholder cooperatives to breed and raise pigs, we watched in amusement as the pigs played and ate in their well-maintained pens. Sitting in the clean and odourless comfort of the company’s conference room, we learned about their breeding system through a computerized system of remote-controlled cameras.

And at the agricultural institute in Jinzhong city, we toured the college’s pristine classrooms and laboratories, and heard how many of the graduates go on to support rural communities around the country. At the end of our tour, we were treated to an ice cream social – with ice cream made by the students in the food lab.

A clear understanding
But all this fun was underlined by a more serious issue.

IFAD Country Programme Manager Sana Jatta (centre) and
Director of Policy Adolfo Brizzi get more information about
a ‘model village’ in Shanxi Province.  © IFAD/Katie Taft
“As both a donor and recipient of development assistance, China brings a unique perspective on the agricultural development process, as a source of expertise and as an incubator of innovative ideas,” said Adolfo Brizzi, Director of IFAD’s Policy and Technical Advisory Division. “Whatever model each country adopts for itself, it is important to know what is going on in China, because it is such an important player in international markets.”

The gap between the wealthy, located mainly in the cities, and the poor, situated mostly in rural areas, is wide and vast in China. The aim of the field visit, for the government, was to show that when smallholder farmers have the know-how and tools to organize themselves, they can create quality products. And when small farmers have good infrastructure such as better roads, they can connect with markets regionally and, eventually, internationally.

“From the visit, we clearly understand the effective link between policy, research and marketing implementation for the agriculture sector, and the ultimate impact on poverty reduction,” said one participant, Nurjahan Begum, Joint Secretary of the Bangladesh Ministry of Finance.

Beyond sightseeing photos and bellies full of ice cream, I thought, that understanding was the most important souvenir we would take away from our visit to Shanxi.

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