China's innovative farmhand

Updated: 2014-12-12 09:12

By Wang Chao(China Daily Europe)

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Steeped in a family tradition of farming in Australia, bayer executive is now lending his know-how to farmers in China

Rob Hulme can only dimly imagine his grandfather's farm life, reliving it by poring over his diary: "At 3 am, I released the 40 horses from the fence, then I fed them before I led them to pull the plough." The diary was written in the 1920s.

The 1,200-hectare farm that Hulme's family owns has passed down through five generations. But of course the days when horses were the busiest laborers in these sprawling fields in southeastern Australia have long since disappeared. They have given way to combine harvesters that spare man and beast the backbreaking work that took weeks, and that can harvest hundreds of hectares of wheat in just a few days.

 China's innovative farmhand

Rob Hulme, head of Bayer CropScience's China division, works with Chinese governments to provide advice on sustainable farming methods. Provided to China Daily

Hulme himself has moved on, too. There is no doubt that the agricultural blood his forebears passed on to him still surges through his veins, but he is now happy enough to call himself "a former farmer" and is more likely to be seen sitting in a company boardroom wearing a neat suit than driving a farm tractor wearing a singlet.

Hulme, 48, is the country head of Bayer CropScience, China region, a role that takes him all over the country. One week he may be sitting in a cotton field in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and the next in a rice field in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, in both cases talking about this year's harvest or about the effects of pesticides.

The seeds of his relationship with China were planted nearly 50 years ago in Holbrook, in the state of New South Wales. With its 2,000 residents, Holbrook was what Australians call a town, but which Chinese would regard as a mere village. And like many towns just like this all over Australia, it was endowed with a pub, a fish and chip shop and a Chinese restaurant. So from a young age, kung pao chicken, Sichuan beef and honey fried prawns became almost as natural to Hulme as the quintessential Australian school lunch, a Vegemite sandwich.

As is befitting for a man of the land, Hulme was born in the year of the horse, which, according to Chinese culture, was destined to make him passionate, independent and likely to leave his hometown at an early age. That is exactly what he did, leaving the farm as a small child, spending six years in a boarding school, and then going to the University of New England in the town of Armidale for five years to study rural science.

Hulme has three brothers, two of them older than him, who still work on the family farm. They grow wheat and canola on one half of it and let 4,000 sheep and lambs graze on the other half. So that nutrients in the soil can be replenished, the two halves are rotated once a year.

This practice has become so ingrained in Hulme that he has become a strong advocate of sustainable farming, especially minimum tillage. With this farming method tilling is avoided after harvesting in favor of spraying herbicides, and grass is allowed to degrade naturally. The aim is to keep nutrients in the soil, sustaining it for the use of many more generations.

That practice is problematic in China for geological reasons and because of the many methods that are used in tilling.

"This is also what I love about China - the huge diversity," says Hulme, wearing a blue-checked cotton shirt, and smiling broadly.

"When I sit in the middle of a vast farm in Northeast China and close my eyes, I imagine I'm sitting in the Midwest of the US or in the middle of Australia. There they use $3 million air tractors to spray pesticides and a 12-meter harvester to harvest crops."

In Sichuan, farmers cultivate plots of land of as little as a tenth of a hectare and grow both wheat and pepper on it, he says.

As China head of Bayer CropScience, part of the multinational research-based Bayer Group, whose headquarters are in Leverkusen, Germany, Hulme has to bear this diversity in mind and adapt to methods accordingly.

The company plans to introduce 22 new products such as new-formula pesticide and herbicide over the next five years, he says, and to put between five and 10 of them on the market in China over the coming year.

There is at least one exception to the huge national diversity Hulme so admires in Chinese farming: all provinces have a common ill in that they use huge amounts of pesticide and fertilizers - in fact three times as much as in developed countries.

In keeping with that, his brothers' farm uses 10 to 20 liters of pesticide for every hectare a year, while in China the equivalent dose is 40 to 60 liters a year.

The Chinese government is well aware of the problem and is trying to do something about it, and the Ministry of Commerce plans zero growth in pesticide use over the next few years.

"Bayer is working with the government by giving professional suggestions, and we can use the model in North America and Europe for reference," Hulme says.

Traditional pesticides that used to be effective are much less so now because insects have developed immunity over the years, he says, and bigger doses are needed, which is detrimental to the health of farmers and to the environment.

"Our focus has switched to more targeted needs during a specific time, such as protecting seeds from diseases for 40 to 50 days after the seedling season, or to extend the storage time of tomatoes so they last longer in transport and in the shop."

As a manufacturer of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, Bayer CropScience, like other multinationals, is often challenged over the price of its products.

"Generally it takes eight to 10 years to develop a new product, and it costs 400 million euros to develop a product from the beginning," Hulme says. "Actually, the cost of chemicals is a small part of farmers' overall costs compared with the cost of seeds. Where a smaller dose is much more effective it is actually more cost-effective than using cheaper products."

On Dec 1 Hulme marked the third anniversary of his arrival in China, and in his time in the country he has stepped foot in 24 provinces; he has seen the red, acidic soil in the South and the black, fertile soil in the Northeast.

He drinks Baijiu, is prepared to try exotic foods and never asks about what is being served to him, he says.

Bayer CropScience has set up five bio-agri solution centers across China, and Hulme leads a team of 1,200 scientists. Half of them work in fields, training farmers in the proper and safe use of the company's products.

"It's a good investment for us, because previously we innovated well, but got no chance to integrate what we were doing into real farming practice."

His work is becoming easier with the proliferation of the Internet and people's increasing awareness of food safety, he says.

In a way China reminds him of Australia because both have fertile coastal land and large inland areas of sandy desert. However, one stark contrast is that China has a farm population of 300 million, about 30 percent of the work force, while less than 3 percent of the Australian work force is in farming.

Hulme's sense of achievement in China shines through in his tale of a farmer he worked with in Guilin, the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

The farmer reported that after working with Bayer technicians his land's yield was much improved.

"If I keep getting this yield, I can afford to send my children to university," the farmer told him.

The words resonated with Hulme, taking him back to his childhood.

Growing up on the family farm, he remembers his father having to forgo entering college because the family business needed his full attention as the only son. The 1,200-hectare farm could sustain only two or three families; after working in the farm for a year, he had to go out and look for an additional job because the land was not productive enough.

"As a former farmer, I empathize with Chinese farmers," Hulme says.The challenges they face are much more serious than those of Australian farmers, he says.

With urbanization and soil erosion, ensuring that China maintains its 120 million hectares of arable land is a difficult task.

"Meanwhile, the rising middle class is demanding more quality and safe food, and more protein such as pork, beef and poultry; all these are pushing the government to transform to more sustainable farming systems."

(China Daily European Weekly 12/12/2014 page28)