Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Chinese Puzzle

In 1998, my Dad & I went to China—before the outbreak of hideous air pollution. Our on-the bus-off-the-bus tour was misleading because we toured mostly cities—not the rural, farming communities which make up 70 percent of China’s population of over 1.2 billion. Where there are no cities or towns, there are provincial farms—especially during our cruise up the Yangtze River.

What was unexpected was the corn. Rows and rows of corn planted five to eight feet apart, but always planted straight up-and-down the slopes, not on the contour. Our guide Paul remarked that the corn was used expressly for feeding hogs for market. But the steepness of these unmulched slopes with a nitrogen-hungry crop was completely boggling to my gardening experience. With no mulch present on such precipitous hills, it was plain to see why, in part, the Yangtze River was a silty, murky-brown color. I wondered if vertical rows was a time-honored tradition, or a recent plundering of the soil’s fertility before the Yangtze River dam (which is now the world’s largest) inundates the area. The answer wasn’t available from our urbane guide, another enigma in this land of contrasts.

But, in talking with: Mr. Joshua Muldavin, Professor of Geology, Co-Chair of International Development Studies, UC Los Angeles, CA.

(Fluent in Chinese, spent seven years in China, talked directly with farmers along Yangtze river.)

I found out:

“The lower areas near the river have poorer soil and are prone to flooding. So, the farmers don’t want to invest the time and effort required for terraces. The terracing is done higher, above the flood zone. Also, the vertical rows allow the water from a storm’s deluge to go directly into the river. Contour planting collects water in the furrows between the rows of mounded soil where the seed is planted, this often leads to root rot. Sometimes the collected water in the furrows breaks through, washing some of the corn away—along with the soil of the planting mound.”

Who would have guessed it? Not me!

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