'Father of hybrid millet' cultivates a success story

2023-11-27 13:10:40China Daily Editor : Li Yan ECNS App Download

Zhao Zhihai works at an experimental plot of hybrid millet in Hainan province. (Photo provided to China Daily)

Autumn is an important time of the year for agricultural researcher Zhao Zhihai because it is when he can harvest what he has planted and also sow seeds in new experimental fields.

Hailed as the "father of hybrid millet", 65-year-old Zhao is the chief expert at the Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, and a veteran of more than 40 years of research on foxtail millet.

The team he leads made a breakthrough in research on the utilization of hybrid millet's advantages, something that had been pursued for three decades, Xinhua Daily Telegraph reported.

Born into a farmer's family in Zhangjiakou's Huailai county in 1958, Zhao grew up eating millet. As a child, he watched family elders calculate how much land to plant, what yield could be expected, and whether it would be enough to support the family.

"At that time, I often thought about whether we could harvest more crops," he said. "And this idea has accompanied me throughout my agricultural career and inspired me to firmly embark on the path of millet research."

Millet used to be a major grain in northern China. However, the regions where it was grown were often drought-prone and impoverished, with very low yields.

In the past, farmers in some mountainous areas who relied on millet farming for their livelihoods harvested around 1 metric ton of millet a hectare and often worried about meeting their basic food needs, the newspaper reported.

In 1982, after graduating from Hebei Agricultural University in Baoding, Zhao volunteered to return to Zhangjiakou to work at an agricultural institute.

While most people there were working on major crops such as wheat and corn, Zhao turned to millet research, believing that small crops also needed some attention.

However, agricultural research takes a long time, with the birth of a superior variety requiring the selection, hybridization and combination of thousands of germ plasm materials, as well as several generations of selection, testing and cultivation.

To accelerate the process, Zhao's team began conducting some experiments in the much warmer province of Hainan in 1984.

Every winter, they would migrate like birds, spending half a year away from home.

In Hainan, Zhao and his team members plow the soil on their experimental plots and sort seeds in November, sow seeds in December and January, see their millet pollinate in February and harvest in March and April. The second cropping in Hainan helps speed up their research.

"This transfer has become our routine," Zhao said. "After harvesting the millet in Zhangjiakou in October, we immediately rush to Hainan to sow and make the most of the farming time."

They then return to Zhangjiakou in May.

In his study on the utilization of hybrid millet advantages, he broke away from research methods that had been used for more than 20 years and boldly adopted a new one that looked promising.

"Millet has its own characteristics," he said. "Applying the research methods used for rice or sorghum would probably lead to failure."

After years of effort by his team, the world's first hybrid millet variety cultivated by the newly adopted method was born in 2000. Zhangzagu 1 — or Zhang Hybrid Millet 1-yielded over 30 percent more than conventional millet varieties on average and even achieved a record-breaking yield of more than 9 tons a hectare.

Then in 2004, the world's first herbicide-resistant hybrid millet, Zhangzagu 2, was successfully cultivated, followed by the development of many more varieties.

"Through years of unremitting efforts and twists and turns, my team and I have successively cultivated a series with independent intellectual property rights," Zhao said.

He added that their millet varieties were high-yielding and drought-resistant, with yields ranging from 6 to 9 tons a hectare. They also set a world record yield of 12.18 tons a hectare.

The varieties have been grown on more than 2 million hectares of land across the country.

After achieving success in China, Zhao set his sights further, aiming to help more countries improve yields.

In May 2008, he traveled to Africa for the first time and initiated successful millet-planting trials in Ethiopia.

Hybrid millet has since become an important agricultural aid project in Africa, with more than 10 countries having conducted successful trials.

"Although we have achieved some accomplishments, we are far from reaching my ideal goals," Zhao said. "I will continue to devote myself to millet research and promotion."


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