Frustrated farmers look to skies for relief

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2005, 12:00am

Under the noonday sun, 55-year-old Chen Xiuqin attempts to plant corn seeds in her field in Zhangzhuangzi, a village on the outskirts of Cangzhou .

After an overnight drizzle, the land is glazed by moisture. But the villagers know all too well that the drizzle will not be much help in making their parched land more arable. They call it 'cloth-spraying rain' - the precipitation isn't enough to penetrate clothing.

Nonetheless, Ms Chen is undeterred. She digs down five centimetres with a hoe, sows the seed and tamps the ground with her feet before starting the whole process again. Sometimes she stops and tests the soil's moisture content with her hands.

It does not take long for her to realise that while the water has given the land the appearance of fertile ground it has only penetrated a few centimetres.

Ms Chen said this week's rains had done little to ease the drought as there had been no rain for more than 40 days from early May.

Most farmers were killing time until the clouds broke by playing mahjong but Ms Chen said she had been waiting so anxiously for the rain that she thought she would try to plant a crop.

'But look how dry the soil still is,' she lamented, examining clods of soil in her hands. 'My husband told me not to waste my energy but I insisted. He called me a money-grubber for that.'

If enough rain does not come this month, she said, the sowing season will end and the land would be left fallow until next year.

Ms Chen said the only nearby river was heavily polluted and people who used water from it saw their crops fail.

One option could be to hire a pump to tap underground wells, but pumps use a lot of electricity.

'It costs more than 20 yuan to irrigate one mu (666 square metres) of wheat,' she said. 'And you have to water it at least four times before the crop matures.'

Ms Chen's other option is to switch to more profitable crops, but she said she could not do it on her own. Her three children work in township factories and can only help her on weekends. But they are reluctant to work the land.

'My children hate the toil of farming life, and my husband is very lazy,' she complained. 'I have to do this all by myself.'

With no other choices, she picks up her hoe and heads home for lunch, leaving the fate of the hundred corn seeds she has just sown to the will of the sky.