What I actually do

What I actually do

July 5, 2016

Anna Herzberger is an MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability doctoral student doing research in the Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. She hails from the farmlands of Virginia, Ill.

So if you remember from previous blogs, my research project is attempting to find differences is in the soil-microbial community between corn, rice (grasses) and soy (a legume). Global soybean trade, specifically soybeans from Brazil and the USA, are being imported by China; these imports are cheaper than domestically produced soybeans, thus driving out China’s domestic soybean production. Areas that were originally planted with soy are being converted to rice and corn, as they are more profitable crops. In order to identify these changes, our research team is traveling around Heilongjiang, the far northeastern province, surveying farmers and sampling their soil.

We wake up around 6 a.m. Thanks to China having no time zones the sun rises along with the people arouAnna samples soil with a farmernd 3 a.m., so really we wake up between 3 and 6 a.m.

We pack quickly. I only have a book bag of clothes so that doesn’t take long but the soil samples and sampling equipment are awkward, bulky and dirty. After playing charades with the hired Chinese driver who speaks no English, we usually come to an agreement on how the car should be packed. Lastly, we grab some steamed buns or hard-boiled eggs to satisfy our appetites until lunch. Then we are off to drive to the first village that can best be described as a not-so-fun amusement ride. The roads are riddled with potholes, two lanes always serve as three and blaring of horns replace the non-existent traffic laws. Once we reach are destination I am flooded with a sense of relief that didn’t end up in a head on collision or in a ditch.

At the village my colleagues begin to survey the farmers, since my Chinese skills are rudimentary I wait patiently in the car (as I am now while writing this blog). Once the surveys are complete and a few friendly farmers have agreed to allow the tall, pale foreigner with a curly mop atop her head to sample their field we are off to the countryside. I attempt friendly small talk, but it quickly becomes evident that studying Chinese for only a year wasn’t quite enough.

At the field the farmer attempts to explain to me where the boundaries of his field are. This is in serious contrast to the lay out of fields in the U.S. where one farmer owns one field and you can see the boundaries. In China, each field has several farmers’ plots within one field, making it impossible to identify the dimensions of an individual field without the presence of the farmer. After double checking the dimensions, which consist of me walking the perimeter and repeatedly saying “zhege?” (here) and looking to the farmer for approval, we begin the sampling.  The farmers may use old seed bags or large rocks to mark the rows that belong to them, which I often replace with field flags so I can more easily observe the perimeter. I always make sure to offer the farmers the flags that I used to mark their perimeter, which is met with gleeful enthusiasm. They seem to marvel in the idea that their rows now stand out in the large field among some many similar plots. 

Working with the farmers to complete the sampling is easily the most fun part of my day. They tend to approach me with caution at first but soon become excited by the idea that a foreigner is interested in their soil, often grabbing the soil probe from my hand and doing the sampling for me! I always welcome this gesture, first it is a good feeling that they want to be involved in the process and second, the sampling design is supposed to be random, and what could be more random than the farmer choosing the locations of the sample?

The sampling process usually gives way to a small photo shoot of us together in their field, me holding a bag of their soil and if I happen to have worn a hat that day I am asked to remove it, reminding me of what they are actually interested in capturing on film. Once we have completed the sampling process we head back to the village to find the rest of our team. I have more than once been offered a cigarette, which I take as both a sign of acceptance, and a job well done.  

In between each sample we must sterilize the equipment. This is done by first rinsing with pond or rice paddy water, then using bottled water and ethanol for a final wash. Due to poor planning on my part, we ran out of ethanol early, with a week of samples left I improvised by buying Baijiu, a particularly potent type of Chinese spirits. The sampling protocol dictates sterilization must be some with a 70 percent ethanol solution so lucky for me the northeastern Chinese really like hard liquor. After completing our work in the first village, usually taking between three and five hours, we head into a nearby town for lunch and then on to a second village to repeat the entire process. We usually do two villages a day, getting 40 interviews and 10 soil samples before heading for dinner and checking into a hotel for the night. Dinners are fun. It gives me an opportunity to try a wide array of Chinese delicacies: stomach, intestines, chicken feet, chicken heads, silk worms and even dog

Anna drying soil samplesIn the hotel, I spread out and dry my soil samples as it usually takes a couple nights. Finally, I am able to shower the dirt, sweat and frustration off before sliding into bed surrounded by all my microbial friends. While my soil samples may keep me too busy to feel alone, they become problematic if I forget and stumble through them on a sleepy trip to the bathroom. Also, they smell… especially the ones from rice paddies because they are saturated with water. As I drift off I usually am meet with both dreams and nightmares of the outcome of this experiment. Will it work? Will we be able to detect any pattern in the samples? The results may turn out to be just noise, is that ok? What if there is no observable pattern? Maybe I will detect something unforeseen and end up publishing novel results! 

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