Reaping the Rewards of a Lifetime in the Fields

ByLi Kun and Chen Meiling December 6, 2022
Reaping the Rewards of a Lifetime in the Fields
Zhang stands in front of a field planted with different varieties of wheat in Xiangyang. [China Daily]


As the Chinese saying goes, a seed can change the world; a variety can benefit a nation.

Zhang Daorong, who has spent the last 26 years cultivating 13 new varieties of wheat and contributing to national food security efforts, has done both.

The 50-year-old, who is dubbed the "mother of wheat", is a researcher at the Xiangyang Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Xiangyang City, Hubei Province. Xiangyang is the largest wheat production area in the province, and the yield in the city accounts for more than 40 percent of the provincial total.

The wheat varieties developed by Zhang and her colleagues have been grown on 2 million hectares of farmland and have generated net profits of over 100 million yuan ($14 million).

One of them produces large seed heads and is highly resistant to stripe rust; another is highly resistant to pre-harvest sprouting, which results in a decrease of the grain yield and affects the quality of flour and seed value for the following year.

Some are more suitable for making bread, and some are among the raw materials used to make the distiller's yeast for renowned alcohol brand Kweichow Moutai.

The research into new varieties requires strict standards and rigorous experiments.

"The first step is to find suitable parental types for a specific cultivation purpose. Then we try a hybrid combination," Zhang explained. "After several generations of trial and selection, and when characteristics remain stable, we begin a two-year process of yield testing and disease identification."

After several more rounds of tests, an application for evaluation and approval can be made to provincial or national authorities for market production.

"Generally speaking, a good new variety should produce high yields and stable production, show good resistance to bad conditions and be acceptable to the market," she added.

Wheat is planted in late October and matures in late May and early June. During the fallow period from June to September, Zhang said she doesn't rest because there is so much work to do, including data disposal, seed selection and planning for autumn sowing.

In her office, there is a 2-meter pile of materials related to a variety that has been cultivated for the last 18 years. Zhang said that the team planted 70,000 to 80,000 seedlings each year and were strict about conducting experiments, making records and analysis, before it passed approval in 2015.

"Key and core technologies cannot be taken, bought or begged for," she said.

When she graduated from the Heilongjiang Bayi Agricultural University in Daqing, Heilongjiang Province, in 1996, Zhang did not think she'd be dealing with agriculture for the rest of her life.

When she returned to her hometown in Xiangyang and joined the academy in 1997, she was not entirely satisfied with the job at first because the salary was low.

Over the last two decades though, working conditions and incomes for researchers have improved, and Zhang has also derived a great sense of achievement from studying agriculture.

She said that with the domestic and global economy still facing headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic, it's her responsibility to work hard and contribute to food safety.

"Agricultural research work is hard and complicated. Sometimes your efforts do not pay off. All we can do then is think more, discuss more, ask more questions and find answers on the land," she said.

Today, Zhang's team is developing a semiwinterness wheat that produces high yields.

Zhou Fangju, a researcher at the academy, said that Zhang also cares about villages and farmers and promotes their research in rural areas.

"She also teaches younger researchers. Her spirit of innovation, dedication to work and empathy for people inspires us," Zhou said.


(Source: China Daily)


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