Graduate students living in Quzhou county of Handan, Hebei province, are technically not farmers — but they do spend a lot of time in the fields.
They might be best described as consultants, part of a program to help local farmers work more scientifically to increase yields.
Driving an electric tricycle on a recent afternoon, one of the students, Hou Yulin, 25, went to a dark green experimental field about 10 minutes from his dormitory. Carrying a bucket of nitrogen manure fertilizer, he walked around spreading it over wheat sprouts, accompanied by several farmers, over about 6,000 square meters in Quzhou.
Hou is one of the newest graduate students to arrive from China Agricultural University in Beijing — part of the Science and Technology Backyard program launched by the university in 2009. Under the program, students conduct research in experimental fields and use the acquired knowledge to help the local farmers solve various agricultural problems.
A major in resource utilization and plant protection, Hou came to Quzhou in February after completing studies in Beijing for a semester last year. This is the first year of his postgraduate work.
Over the next two years, he will continue to research the effect of organic fertilizers on crops in the nearby villages, working alongside the farmers.
"I divided my experimental field into three parts, which will receive organic fertilizer in different amounts. Then we'll wait to see the results," Hou said, adding that the project was started by another student who has since graduated.
"The influence on the soil will accumulate over several years," he said. "We need to keep the research going to discover how to achieve higher yields."
Quzhou, which is about 400 kilometers southwest of Beijing, has more than 1,100 farms with some 9.5 million chickens. The chickens, in turn, generate about 300,000 metric tons of manure annually, according to the local government.
"We use organic fertilizer made of chicken manure to help improve the crop output. We help facilitate the production of high-quality feed for the hens," Hou said.
Six students currently live and work in the "backyard". In Quzhou, there are five such projects running concurrently with different research subjects.
The students were hailed by President Xi Jinping in a letter to those taking part in the program. He praised them for their work on the front line of agricultural production.
In the letter, which was published on Wednesday, Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, encouraged the students to make greater contributions to rural vitalization.
So far, the university has developed 139 Science and Technology Backyard projects in 24 provincial-level regions across the country.
"The backyard model combines theory and practice, scientific research and extension, as well as innovation and service," said Shan Jiguo, the university's deputy Party secretary, at an inaugural ceremony of the Science and Technology Backyard on April 22 in Quzhou.
The model has also been introduced in Laos and eight countries in Africa, Shan said.
Another 780 "backyard" programs will be established across the country, according to a notice released last year by central government departments, including the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.