Machines revolutionize cotton harvest in Xinjiang


On an October day, a giant cotton stripper roars its way through a vast expanse of snow-white cotton fields, leaving behind a long, straight swath. It reliably releases a very large packed roll of cotton about every 15 minutes.

Cotton strippers can be seen in many fields in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, signaling the peak of the cotton-picking season that runs from late September to early November.

The 2.41 million hectares of cotton fields across Xinjiang are being predominantly harvested by automated equipment. The introduction of cotton strippers has revolutionized the industry, replacing the need for large teams of manual labor.

"A cotton stripper can do the work previously done by a big team of farmers," said Zhao Yue, a cotton-harvesting machine mechanic from Xinjiang's Aksu Prefecture.

Official figures showed that for the 2023 harvest season, over 6,900 cotton strippers have been deployed in Xinjiang. Mechanization of cotton harvest in Xinjiang had approached 80 percent, according to figures revealed in June 2022 by Xinjiang Agricultural and Rural Mechanization Development Center.

Xinjiang, with its abundant sunshine and dry climate, is a major cotton-producing region in China, accounting for 90 percent of the country's total cotton production in 2022.

In the past, cotton harvesting in Xinjiang heavily relied on manual labor. To address the seasonal shortage of workers, cotton farmers would recruit laborers from other provincial-level regions, such as Henan, Sichuan, Gansu, and Ningxia.

Zhao vividly remembers the days when a formidable team of cotton-picking workers would arrive in his hometown by train. "Back then, my family's cotton fields spanned 200 mu, or 13.3 hectares, and we had to recruit over 20 cotton pickers from across the country. Their toil would commence in October and last until the eve of Chinese New Year, and they just barely completed the harvest in time."

However, with the advancement of technology and government support for mechanization in agriculture, Xinjiang began promoting the use of cotton harvesting machines. "We can no longer see the seasonal influx of cotton-picking workers into Xinjiang," said Zhao.

This year, Zhao expanded his cotton plantation to 400 mu, equivalent to 26.7 hectares. To his astonishment, the cotton was picked within a mere two days, thanks to the assistance of a cotton picking machine.

The widespread use of machines in cotton harvesting can be attributed to the rise of domestic cotton harvester manufacturers in recent years.

Despite the fact that China is a latecomer in developing and manufacturing cotton-harvesting machines, domestically produced cotton-harvesting machines are accounting for an increasingly larger share in the Chinese domestic market.

China has also begun to export its domestically-made cotton-picking machines. Uzbekistan recently received its first batch of Chinese cotton harvesters, with 18 out of 54 machines delivered in early October and the remainder due to be delivered by the end of the year.

Abdukeyim Rehman, a cotton farmer from Kashgar Prefecture, said the adoption of mechanized planting and management has not only bolstered the income of cotton farmers in Xinjiang but has also elevated their quality of life.

Abdukeyim planted 200 mu of cotton this year, implementing technologies such as drip irrigation, soil testing-based fertilization, and machine-picked cotton planting methods.

"I can single-handedly manage it all. Less than a day is required to harvest the entire 200 mu of cotton," he said.

In addition to an impressive level of mechanization, agricultural planting cooperatives and agricultural machinery service cooperatives have emerged in the villages, offering support and guidance to farmers.

"The residents have worked diligently to create a happy and prosperous life with their own hands, and we reject any attempts to defame or discredit our achievements," Abdukeyim said.

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