This image of an elderly farmer taking a break on the top of a pear tree was taken around the eighth day of my assignment in the mountainous slopes of Jiuxiang. As a photographer I find my work drawn inexorably towards social and environmental issues, where my passion lies in capturing the interaction between people and their environment. As we have become more and more reliant on technology it feels like we have lost something of the inner rhythm that connects us to the natural world, a cadence that was perhaps more apparent to past generations. My hope is that by documenting instances where that rhythm is disrupted, we might take time to reflect and recapture something that has been forgotten.
An example of that disruption is in our relationship with bees, which we have relied on for thousands of years. We now find that this relationship is under threat and nowhere are the complexities of this situation more apparent than in the Sichuan Province of southwest China. It was while researching the nomadic beekeepers of Transylvania that I discovered the topic of hand pollination. One study, in particular, written by Professor Tang-Ya of Chengdu University, outlined how hand-pollination has been practised in China since the late 1980’s. This well-written paper became the core of my research work and was the main guidance for my project.
With the introduction of China's Home Responsibility System in the 1980s, the farmers of Hanyuan County in Sichuan Province found it economically beneficial to replace their rice paddies with fruit orchards. The mountainous slopes of the region lent themselves well to fruit production, particularly pears, for which Hanyuan County is now renowned.
Any crops grown beyond the quotas of China's collectivized farming program could now be sold on the open market and, in order to maximize their yield, the farmers began to increase their use of pesticides. This, in turn, had a negative effect on the population of the natural pollinators, and the local beekeepers were driven to relocate their colonies out of the cultivation areas. With the disappearance of the bees, along with the desire to control the quality and purity of the pear varieties, the farmers began the labour-intensive task of pollinating their crops by hand.
With simple tools such as a bamboo stick and chicken feathers, they embarked on a journey of learning, not just how and when to pollinate, but when to collect the stamens, how to dry them, and which varieties respond to which pollinizer. Additionally, not all the pear varieties are self-compatible, so cross-pollination is needed in order to achieve a desirable crop. With skill and patience, the farmers can produce a high-quality, high yield product, albeit with increased labour costs than if they relied on nature alone.
As industrialization continues to push up the cost of hiring a workforce, the farmers must find an alternative way of cultivating their crops in order for them to remain viable. With pear production accounting for forty to fifty per cent of the household income, the stakes are high and adaptability will be key to their success. The return of natural pollinators is possible, but this is unlikely without a coordinated approach to limiting the use of agrochemicals. What the future holds is uncertain and further work is needed to find a successful solution that balances economy with ecology.
In Juixiang even the oldest are capable to complete physically challenging tasks like pollinating each blossom one by one even in the most difficult and dangerous environments. This old farmer was taking a break on the top of a tree in his pear orchard of 35 trees which he planted 30 years ago. He explained that hand-pollination was getting tiring at the age of nearly 85.
I found the generosity and good nature of the people of Jiuxiangzhen humbling, and I was allowed free reign to explore how the relationship between this community and their environment has changed over the years. The town is situated in a rugged environment that demands energy and purpose, something that the residents have in abundance. The lack of a common language barely needed acknowledgement and was more than made up for by the enthusiasm, friendliness and hospitality shown by the locals.
This story has been published editorially worldwide and will be published as a book by Northern Bee Books, available from this April.
Mariann Fercsik is a Hungarian-British photographer based in London. She started her career as a visual storyteller in 2009 when she received her first assignment from the Hungarian Association for Disappearing Villages to document a disappearing village in Northeast Hungary with its twelve residents. Her work focuses on social and environmental issues; she combines still life images and portraits to depict a particular mood within her chosen stories. Her most well-known series is 'Hand Pollinators in China', which was nominated for the Joan Wakelin Bursary and has been widely published and exhibited.
See more work by Mariann Fercsik