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Guided by the ecological agriculture initiative, Tianmen Chujiang Shangpin Agricultural Technology has been developing a rather environmentally friendly agricultural approach named rice-duck-crayfish co-culture farming, creating a symbiotic relationship between crops and animals. This creative approach has positive business, societal, and environmental impacts. It increases financial benefits for the business, improves employee welfare in the short-term and promotes healthy lifestyles, reduces pollution, increases resource utilization, and protects soil and water in the long run.
Tianmen Chujiang Shangpin Agricultural Technology's rice-duck-crayfish co-culture system is an innovation based on the "Qianjiang Model", or rice-crayfish co-culture system. The Qianjiang Model was developed and has been widely used by farmers in Qianjiang City, Hubei Province over the last two decades. It is a reform of the single-crop rice farming approach. This co-culture system mainly aims to create a circular ecological system, where “rice and crayfish could be cultivated either simultaneously or alternately in the rice fields”. In this system, ponds are dug in rice fields to serve as crayfish farming sites. This allows full use of the shallow water environment in the rice fields and the winter fallow period, thereby effectively improving the economic benefits and land use conditions.
Yunsi Cao, the founder of Tianmen Chujiang Shangpin Agricultural Technology, has significantly reformed the original Qianjiang Model with two groundbreaking technological improvements in accordance with local conditions. First, Cao has managed to solve the problem of crayfish density control (a major difficulty in the Qianjiang Model) by separating the breeding and rearing ponds of crayfish. Cao has designed a breeding pond for crayfish seed cultivation, while a rearing pond is used for raising mature crayfish. Second, after rigorous research and experimentation, the company also introduced the duck-controlling method, an original invention, to achieve precision farming. In the production process, after the crayfish are harvested and rice seedlings are transplanted, farmers will put ducklings into the rice fields. Apart from being treated as products, these ducklings can also serve to consume the excessive crayfish seeds, thereby clearing the crayfish rearing ponds. Next year, new crayfish seeds from the breeding pond will be moved to the rearing ponds as input.
The idea of this agricultural innovation can be dated back to a year when Yunsi Cao, the founder of Tianmen Chujiang Shangpin Agricultural Technology, went back to his hometown for the Chinese New Year festival. Cao had been doing business in a big city for twenty years, and he had always dreamed of finding a way of giving back to his hometown, Tianmen City. During the Chinese New Year break, attracted by the living conditions and quality of life in the countryside, Cao started thinking about moving back to his hometown and starting a new business there.
The government of Hubei Province has been promoting the “Qianjiang Model” (rice-crayfish co-culture system) in several cities, including Tianmen City, by holding conferences, inviting experts for guidance, and providing subsidies to businesses. In the middle of 2018, the Municipal Government of Tianmen City issued an announcement, distributing incentives and subsidies to agricultural enterprises that are willing to implement the Qianjiang Model. This created an excellent opportunity for start-ups.
During a field trip back to Tianmen, Cao noticed that the total size of farmland in the countryside was large but each family only utilized a small rice field area. Consequently, the average revenue farmers made from selling rice was relatively small. In addition, a considerable number of young people seemed uninterested in the agricultural industry, and most of them preferred to move to big cities. Viewing a large proportion of land idle and abandoned in his hometown, Cao saw the transformative potential of integrated and large-scale agriculture.
After that, Cao read a lot of literature on the Qianjiang Model and related fields of modern agriculture. Cao also noticed that the current Qianjiang Model suffered from several problems which presented opportunities for making significant improvements. For example, it was still relatively difficult for farmers to solve the problems of crayfish infestation in the rice paddies and controlling the density of crayfish in the Qianjiang Model. As Cao said in his interview, “I like challenges, and I have a passion for agriculture.” Driven by this enthusiasm, he decided not to simply copy the existing system but also to innovate.
During the interview, the directors of the company expressed a strong sense of pride and confidence since they have been able to promote this new model on a large scale after thorough testing. Due to these two methods, the company has managed to realize accurate breeding and circular economy in a rather scientific way.
At the beginning stage, it seemed relatively expensive to transform from the traditional rice planting model to the rice-duck-crayfish co-culture system. This can be attributed to the extra investments in equipment purchases, rice field reconstruction programs and worker training projects. However, since passing this initial stage, this co-culture approach has successfully created business value both in the short and long term.
In the short term, the rice-duck-crayfish model has helped Tianmen Chujiang Shangpin Agricultural Technology to grow rapidly by improving sales and profit conditions. According to Cao, after adopting this model, the profitability of his company has raised from 800 yuan to approximately 1500 yuan per mu on an annual basis. One major reason for this is that adopters of such an innovative model can often provide crayfish of better quality, which leads to increased revenues. In addition, this method can significantly decrease the pesticide and herbicide procurement cost (i.e., both costs dropped by around 70%). This is because weeds and pests can often be naturally consumed by crayfish and ducks.
In the longer term, apart from profit accumulation, this creative model may also help to create two extra advantages from a commercial perspective. After years of effort, the company has become publicly recognized for its continued devotion to the development of the rice-duck-crayfish model. In 2018, the company was honored as a model of excellence for crayfish and rice farming in Tianmen City. In addition, it has also been named as a production, learning, and research base of Yangtze University. This not only can contribute to further innovation, but also help the company build its brand image.
Cao and his company have created societal values in four aspects.
Firstly, because of the reduced use of harmful chemicals, rice-duck-crayfish co-culture farming can help provide more natural and healthy products, and protect the soil and water quality in farmlands. By providing products less contaminated by pesticides and insecticides, the company has shown respect for SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) by pursuing target 2.1 of ensuring access to safe and nutritious food.
Secondly, the success of the innovative co-culture approach enables the firm to improve the welfare conditions of their employees and other stakeholders. In addition to paying dividends to its employees, the firm also regularly educates low-income farmers about advanced farming techniques through extensive on-site teaching and technical training. These endeavors have strongly supported target 1.1 and 1.2 of SDG 1 (No Poverty) by improving the living quality of low-income groups to fight against poverty.
Thirdly, the adoption of the rice-duck-crayfish approach has also helped to promote local employment. Currently, more than 70% employees in the company are local people. In this way, the loss of the local labor force to urban areas has been reduced. Therefore, it can be argued that the company’s co-culture farming innovation is also in line with Target 8.5 of SDG 8, which is to achieve full productive employment and decent work for all, including young people.
Finally, as an excellent demonstration unit, Tianmen Chujiang Shangpin Agricultural Technology can help to drive industrial-level transformation and development. These followers may keep reforming the co-culture farming model in various ways. Under such conditions, Cao suggested in the interview that the overall industrial level of innovation may further increase to a large extent. Therefore, the co-culture farming innovation is consistent with Target 8.3 of SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), which is to encourage innovativeness, start-ups and micro-firm development.
Apart from social benefits, the innovative use of rice-duck-crayfish co-culture farming can also lead to several positive impacts from an environmental perspective.
First, if collectively adopted by many other firms, this co-culture farming approach can help to slow down the global warming process to a certain extent. Traditionally, the emission of greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane) tends to be prevalent in the farming industry. In the case of rice farming, this can be attributed to the excessive practices of rice straw burning among farmers. In contrast, such an unsustainable method has been avoided in the rice-duck-crayfish co-culture farming model, which protects the atmosphere. In this way, Tianmen Chujiang Shangpin Agricultural Technology has supported SDG 13 (Climate Action).
Second, the innovative co-culture system also could offer an effective solution to the problem of agricultural water pollution. As mentioned previously, compared with traditional farming methods, this approach requires fewer synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Hence, it can reduce the number of harmful substances that seep into groundwater which can decrease the contamination of the ecosystem. Thus, by alleviating water pollution, the company is also supporting both SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and Target 6.3 of SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation).
Third, the rice-duck-crayfish co-culture farming model can manage land and other resources more efficiently. Thus, it can help to reduce the pressure of agricultural land scarcity by increasing the level of land utilization. In addition, numerous types of waste can be collected and reused in an environmentally friendly way. According to Cao, instead of getting accumulated as waste pollutants, crayfish feces can be reutilized as manure to improve soil quality for rice cultivation. Concurrently, the wasted plant stalks can also be reprocessed and used as raw materials to provide nutrients for crayfish farming. This shows the company’s contribution to Target 12.4 (Environmentally friendly management of wastes and chemicals) and Target 12.5 (Reduction of waste generation) of SDG 12.
Lastly, this profit-generating and sustainable approach can be easily replicated in rice growing areas in other regions and countries, which means it has significant potential for scaling up. With widespread adoption, the cumulative impact of this innovation would be truly great.
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Yunsi CAO, Founder and CEO