Remembering the need for global grasslands
May 16, 2013
I had the immense privilege of spending the month of April at Northwest Ag & Forestry University in Yangling, Shaanxi Province, China. My primary activity was presenting lectures twice a week to second-year undergraduate students. It was an important reminder for me about how extensive, and important the world's grasslands are. The University is in the region described as the Loess Plateau. The wind deposited soils are extremely deep and the climate is very favorable. This is the wheat belt of China and because most of the farmland is irrigated, they are able to produce a corn crop following the wheat. Noodles are more evident than rice in the meals. Shaanxi Province is closer to the center of the country, but the environment is rapidly less hospitable as one travels north or west, hence the designation "Northwest."
This was my second trip to Yangling. I continue to be impressed by the evidence of exponential growth around every corner. Older folks remember clearly, growing up in the countryside with less than enough to eat. Today that is the exception rather than the rule. With a population of 170,000, Yangling is a small town by Chinese standards. They do not qualify for funding from the central government because population in not sufficient to achieve the status of "city." Nonetheless, building is going on everywhere.
Another obvious contradiction to my preconceptions about China is how open the attitudes are. I was invited because educators recognize that English is becoming the primary "language of science." They are making great efforts to train their students to communicate in a global community. Chinese students read English very well and most write well also. They are less adept at speaking English, but mostly from lack of exposure, certainly not from effort. My wife and I were housed in an entire apartment building dedicated to provision for international faculty. Many are here primarily as language instructors, but we met scientists from Germany, Spain, Finland, Japan and the U.S.
I spent my lectures trying to convey some basic principles about forage growth and utilization such as structure and function, physiology and patterns of growth, nutrient content and providing for livestock needs. The other ideas I tried to convey made me thankful for the environment where I spend most of my time. My underlying theme for the lectures was "what can we learn from the prairie?" I tried to communicate ideas about the importance of diversity of organisms, flows and cycles of water, minerals and energy and the challenges and opportunities inherent in managing the complexity that comes with production of livestock in forage-based systems, particularly natural grasslands in semi-arid and arid environments.
We are truly blessed by the rich prairies that are so important to the heritage of the northern plains. In time away, I was reminded of the value of that heritage and the resources that are so rich. I was also impressed by how true it is that we are part of a global community and economy. It will be good to be back home, but we'll be looking forward to the next trip.