Severe drought forces corn farmers in China's east to delay planting

JINAN, China — After weeks of scorching heat and little rain, farmer Zhang Yunjing had no choice but to collect water from a wastewater pipe to irrigate her parched corn field in China’s eastern Shandong province.

Ms Zhang would normally use water from a nearby river for the half-hectare field, but it dried up a month ago.

Record high temperatures have swept across north-west and east China, a key grain producing region, during the crucial corn sowing season, threatening to curb production in the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of the grain.

“There is no water,” Zhang said. “Look, people are going to other villages to collect water. Seeds are not sprouting without water.”

China, also the world’s No. 1 corn importer, produced a record 288.8 million metric tons in 2023 and aims to grow more to achieve food security, but climate shocks are posing big challenges.

The Agriculture Ministry warned last week that the drought is impacting the sowing and growth of new crops. Beijing has allocated 443 million yuan (S$82.7 million) for drought prevention work such as watering, replanting and adding fertiliser in seven provinces.

Lower grain output in the world’s top cereal importer will encourage higher purchases from exporters such as Brazil, the United States and Argentina, underpinning global prices and food inflation.

The seven drought-hit provinces account for roughly 35 per cent of China’s corn production, although some areas are likely to escape severe damage because they have irrigation capacity.

The heat hit Shandong, a major agricultural province, just as farmers were wrapping up their wheat harvest, damaging some of the ripened grain.

Shandong has planted over 3.32 million ha of corn so far this season, as well as 78,000ha of corn and soya bean intercrop planting. That compares with 3.29 million ha of corn and 79,933ha of intercrop planted by the same time in 2023.

Near the capital Jinan, farmers are finding ways to mitigate the drought as they start to sow corn.

Some growers told Reuters that they are delaying planting to avoid the gruelling heat, but they still expect a poor harvest in 2024.

Despite pushing back his corn sowing from June 5 to June 20, Chen Fuling said his seeds will struggle to sprout due to the dry soil.

“We will not have a good harvest this year,” he said.

Some seedlings that have sprouted are showing signs of heat stress.

Farmer Wang Cuiping said: “There was no water in the river. I can only mix pesticide with tap water.”

China’s Emergency Management Ministry has asked people in the drought-hit regions, including north-western Shaanxi, northern Hebei and Shanxi, eastern Anhui and Shandong as well as central Henan, to protect water and food production.

Analysts said the drought, if prolonged, will impact freshly emerged seedlings, but a bigger concern is the upcoming La Nina weather pattern which typically brings heavy rain to the region and may damage crops.

La Nina is expected to emerge in late summer, usually at the end of September, according to China’s meteorological department.

The summer corn crop is typically harvested around October.

Rosa Wang, an analyst at Shanghai-based agro-consultancy JCI, said: “The drought did have some impact on corn planting, but it is not a big problem now because the irrigation system is very effective in most areas of North China.”

Near Zhang’s farm, where many small plot holders still rely on manual watering, a group of sweat-drenched farmers braved the heat to repair a well that had been unused for over 30 years. They attempted to add a high-pressure water pump to draw water from underground.

Farmer Jiang Xueyuan said: “Every year, after the wheat harvest is done, it usually rains within 10 days. It has been 20 days and the rain has not fallen.

“We have planted the corn too late, even after the autumn, it will not mature in time. The money for seeds and pesticides will be wasted.”

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