Two Men Conquered China’s Wild with Cotton

Is it possible to cultivate 3,000 mu (1,843,200 m²) of cotton with merely two people? Two young Chinese men, who arrived in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region three years ago, boldly provide an answer: Yes. How did they do it? The following article is a translated and edited version of an interview conducted by news media outlet Guancha with the manager of this “super cotton field”.
April 26, 2024
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Top picks selected by the China Academy's editorial team from Chinese media, translated and edited to provide better insights into contemporary China.

“We learned that in the United States, where the cost of cotton cultivation is low, one person can manage 997 mu1 of land on average. When we started our project we wanted to challenge it, and from the results, two of us have shown capable of managing 3,000 acres.”
– Ai Haipeng, Manager of the Super Cotton Field Project

Guancha: Can you walk us through the management process involved in unmanned agriculture, based on the order of “cultivation, sowing, management and harvesting”?

Ai Haipeng: First, cultivation includes plowing, leveling, harrowing and other land preparation work.
Every spring, cotton farmers need to choose a period of suitable temperature to sow. In our “super cotton Field”, our two managers can use soil monitors to know the scientifically accurate date for sowing. At the same time, we use remote sensing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and self-propelled farm machinery to improve land preparation and execute accurate, high-efficiency automated operations, which reduce manpower.

Second, sowing.
We mainly monitor environmental information through agricultural IoT equipment to confirm the timing of sowing; after automated sowing, we use remote sensing drones to check the seedling rate and take high-resolution digital maps, analyze the basic seedlings of cotton through AI, and take replanting measures in the areas with seedling shortages.

Third, management. This step is mainly about the work of crops from sowing to harvesting, for instance irrigation, fertilization, pest and weed control, chemical control and regulation.
We have a set of intelligent agricultural solutions to execute the unmanned management of “super cotton field”, which involves a water and fertilizer irrigation system, agricultural IoT equipment, remote sensing drones and agricultural drones. The drone are used to perform fully automatic plant protection operations such as dosing and spreading of fertilizer, and we use AI mapping technology to achieve pesticide reduction as well as disease and grass control. We also use it to guard the cotton’s growth. During this period, we do not need to go to the fields, but could understand the condition of the cotton through smartphones and computers.

The last part, harvesting.
The use of remote sensing drones and agricultural drones can improve the efficiency and quality of cotton harvesting. For example, when harvest season arrives, our agricultural drones will carry out precise and high-efficiency defoliant spraying operations to promote the defoliation and maturation of the cotton, so as to facilitate centralized harvesting by large-scale machinery, thus reducing the impurity content of the cotton lint.

Guancha: Is there any step that can’t be done by technology at the moment?

Ai Haipeng:
At present, there are about 20% of the work that the robot can not perform, such as connecting the drip irrigation pipe and maintenance.
But generally, when the super cotton field project reach its third year, the automation level of robots and the intelligence of the farm management system have been greatly improved. For example, the irrigation robot can automatically adjust the water pressure according to the pressure at the outlet, and the farm management system can also realize one-click irrigation and fertilization.

Guancha: Have you encountered any unexpected situations so far?
Ai Haipeng: Yes, a lot. For example, in April 2021, the “Super Cotton Field” has just begun the sowing process. An unexpected storm attack the field shortly when we finished sowing 600 mu. It lasted 12 hours, completely tearing the plastic film apart. After the storm, we used remote sensing drones to map the farmland and replanted the damaged 200 mu in a timely manner.

Then, by the beginning of May, we completed the sowing of 3,000 mu of land. But then another storm struck the field, leaving a damaged area that reached 1,200 mu. There was nothing we could make up at that point, because it was way passed the best sowing time.
The year 2022 was a relatively good year, in which we developed and debugged the cotton irrigation motorized valve, and successfully completed the irrigation work for the whole period.
Then in 2023, a rare snow occurred in May, causing almost half of the seedling frozen to dead. We had no choice but to replant 1500 mu in early May. After replanting, we spent time adjusting the cotton growth to reduce the impact of late planting on crop yield. The good news is that all the cotton was eventually harvested successfully.

Guancha: Sowing cotton in Xinjiang is prone to windstorms, in addition to the above, what other measures have you taken to deal with windstorms?

Ai Haipeng: The traditional method against winds is mainly the windbreaks, but that only works for smaller lands. For a much lager project like our super cotton field, the effect of windbreaks is limited.
What we do is a innovative method called “wheat and cotton sowing”, which results in a man-made “anti-wind fortification”: we would grow wheat one month before sowing cotton, then the wheat, by the time we sow cotton, will be more than 10 centimeters, forming of a dense wind wall, which helps cotton to reduce wind.

Guancha: From the point of view of costs and revenue, to what extent can unmanned planting compress costs and improve returns?

Ai Haipeng: The third season of “Super Cotton Field” has a total cotton output of 1,191 tons, a total input of 6,215,000 yuan, a total income (excluding subsidies) of 8,871,000 yuan, a net profit of 2,656,000 yuan, and a mu income of 938.9 yuan.
In the third season, the average yield reached 420.9 kg/mu, compared with 403.6 kg/mu in the second season, we achieved an increase of 4.3%; the average cost per mu was RMB 2,196.76, compared with the second season, we manage to get a reduction of 7.6%; in addition, compared with the second season, a reduction of 26% in the cost of water and electricity, a reduction of 18% in the cost of fertilizers, and a reduction in the cost of labor by 29%.

Guancha: What do farmers need to learn if they want to “farm” like you?

Ai Haipeng: All you need is to know how to operate a cell phone, our goal is to “make farming as simple as playing a game”, it must be simple. If we want traditional farmers to manage like us, we can not give them a lot of burdens. If the threshold is very high, it will be very difficult to popularize the technology.

Guancha: Have you considered that if the technology develops further, your supervision job in the Super Cotton Field project will also be replaced by AI?
Ai Haipeng:  Our society is facing the problem of aging labor force due to less birth rate. So the future must be the era of human-machine collaboration. AI will only make the production efficiency higher, it serves the people, it can replace the physical laborers of the agricultural affairs, but not managers.

Guancha: Nowadays, many people, especially young people, are not willing to engage in agricultural production, do you have any message for them?

Ai Haipeng: China’s urbanization is still very fast, and there are more and more mega-cities, so young people are willing to stay in the big cities because they have more opportunities and a more convenient life; whereas in the past, agriculture was more laborious, with high inputs and low incomes, and the occupation of farmers was stereotyped in the public’s perception. It’s not the fault of these young people, it’s the industry that needs to change, and that’s why companies like ours are working hard to make agriculture more decent, with higher incomes and an easier life for those who work in it.
I believe that through our efforts, more and more young people will engage in agricultural production in the future, and Chinese agriculture will become better. I ask these young people to pay more attention to the changes in agriculture, where the opportunities are very, very great.


The China Academy Picks
Top picks selected by the China Academy's editorial team from Chinese media, translated and edited to provide better insights into contemporary China.
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