Digital agriculture, the practice of integrating advanced technology into farming, is driving China's rural vitalization, according to experts.
Huang Jikun, a member of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs' rural vitalization advisory committee, said that digital technology is bound to play a bigger role in the country's steps toward rural vitalization and agricultural modernization.
"The digitalization of rural industries is key to developing the countryside, and it is a new driver of a sustainable rural economy," Huang said.
Integrating new technology like big data, artificial intelligence and the internet of things with crop and livestock production will be central to developing smart agriculture.
"The involvement of digital technologies across the supply chain will help increase efficiency while reducing costs," Huang said.
The push toward digital agriculture is the result of a plan released in January last year aimed at improving smart agriculture and providing support for rural vitalization in the years leading up to 2025.
Jointly released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Cyberspace Administration of China, the plan proposed building a basic data system for rural areas to facilitate targeted management and services.
The topic was initially proposed in 2018's No 1 Central Document — the name given to the first policy statement released by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council, China's Cabinet, each year－and was reiterated in this year's document, which also highlighted research into and the use of intelligent agricultural machinery as well as the development of smart agriculture based on the internet of things, sensors, location systems, and robots.
Xu Lijun, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Institute of Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning, and her team used digital technology to promote a new oat variety in Huize county, Yunnan province.
Since she began working on digital agriculture in Huize in November 2017, oat cultivation has become central to poverty alleviation and rural vitalization in the county.
The team had access to the most comprehensive database of grass varieties as well as related cultivation methods and field management strategies for pest prevention, which provided technological support for agricultural development.
Due to its high altitude and cool climate, Huize regularly faced shortages of forage. The county was trying to find a crop that would grow well and boost the rural economy when Xu's team arrived.
After analyzing natural resources through remote sensing data and conducting experiments, the team settled on oats as the most suitable crop and began to explore the adaptability of different varieties.
Their experiments led to an average yield of 4.5 metric tons per hectare, with the highest yield hitting 6.75 tons per hectare, five times that of the variety previously grown in Huize.
"We were finally able to select a suitable variety, and then we promoted it across the county. We were responsible for smart agriculture management in the oat fields, such as indicating through data when to weed and when to control pests," Xu said, adding that the digital center they built in Huize also supports the cultivation of tomatoes and other crops.
As a result, Huize is now considering turning to e-commerce platforms to expand the market for local agricultural products.
The national development plan mandates boosting agricultural digitalization and making breakthroughs in key technologies and equipment, including automated packaging lines and intelligent temperature-control systems.
Companies in Zibo, Shandong province, have been encouraged to apply automated, mechanical, and intelligent equipment to develop agricultural production and management and boost the agricultural chain through digital technology.
Shandong Qihe Biotechnology, China's biggest mushroom log exporter, uses numerical control, big data, sensors, and 5G technology at the smart factory it built to cultivate shiitake mushrooms.
Hu Zhengpeng, director of the company's information office, said the smart factory has automated production procedures including bagging, sterilization, and stacking, and it has promoted digital technology in logistics and marketing.
Few employees are visible in the smart factory's plant.
"We used to have 20 to 30 workers in each plant operating machines, but now we only need two or three to inspect machinery, which has greatly saved on labor costs," Hu said.
Daily capacity is now 10 times that of traditional plants, reaching 60,000 bags a day. Smart technologies are also used to operate high-temperature equipment that can ensure 100 percent sterilization — vital to the uncontaminated growth of mushrooms — double the efficiency of traditional boilers.
Intelligent settings have not only reduced manpower, but also ensured the best indoor environment for mushroom cultivation, Hu added.
The company invested 200 million yuan ($30.85 million) in the smart factory. Since it began operation in April last year, it has produced 30 million mushroom logs worth some 200 million yuan.
The company has a production base covering 133 hectares and produces 75 million mushroom logs a year, with a total annual production value of 600 million yuan.
"We plan to build a big data platform to collect figures across the entire supply chain of edible mushrooms around the world," Hu said.
Huang said digital infrastructure is laying the foundation for boosting rural vitalization through digital technologies.
"China should promote the construction of remote-sensing facilities in rural areas and improve the service and management of agricultural production driven by big data," he said.
Yu Qiangyi, an expert at CAAS who participated in the formulation of the development plan, said his team is working on a smart sensing system that integrates data gathered from satellites and drones and on the ground. Such data can produce an overall picture of the environment and agricultural production.
"The system not only collects data from multiple sensors, but also acts as a decision-support system for precise farm management by monitoring the growth of crops and environmental stress in terms of water, soil and air quality and the ecosystem," Yu said.
"Moreover, the application of AI technology helps the smart diagnosis of crop health, so farmers know how and where to apply products like pesticide."
The use of fertilizers and pesticides on wheat-corn rotation fields in North China was reduced by up to 10 percent thanks to the application of the system, while yields increased by 10 percent.
The integrated system has also been used at a smart orchard in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.
"It enables the management of each fruit tree, providing targeted information for farmers," Yu said, adding that they are planning to promote the system in a rice field in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.