Inside Job: organic rice paddy weeder

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: rice paddy weeder

We’re pushing the envelope to the rice paddies of Jilin province this month. When I get the chance to get in a rice field, I pull on the wellies and wade in. Even if they are way too small.

‘You’d better not use the sickle,’ Zhou Jun, the overseer for the team I’ve joined, suggests kindly. He swiftly takes it off me and throws it onto the embankment to underline his point. This is because I can’t even stand up and just one step into the paddy I’m flailing around with a blade on a stick.

The second step is worse and I lurch into Zhou’s arms. Who knew the water was so deep, the mud so soft and my balance so easily thrown?

The photographer is faring no better and pretty much has to throw his camera to someone on the bund before staggering out to take his wellies off. Barefoot, he re-enters the muck hoping not to drop his livelihood. Or drown.

My arrival at the rice farm had been dramatic in a different way. Approaching at 4.30am, I was treated to a splendid sunrise over the paddy fields and was still having breakfast of rice (in congee form, zhou), mantou and pickles when my colleagues waded into work at 5.30am. They’ve made excellent progress by the time I join them, and I quickly see that with only 97 percent of my body covered up, I’m somewhat underdressed.


‘Stand between the plants, not between the rows! No, don’t stand where I’ve just stood!’ pleads Zhou. Once steady enough to bend over and get hold of a weed, I realise I can’t tell the weeds from the rice. This doesn’t matter for most of it, as anything growing in the furrow between rows is by definition a weed and can be ripped out. Those growing alongside the rice are cunningly disguised, but Zhou points out the differences.

There’s also a right way and a wrong way to grasp the base of a weed, FYI. I was doing it the wrong way. ‘Just use your thumb and two fingers and twist the weed away from you,’ Zhou explains. We throw the weeds onto the embankment. I’ve now been sinking into position long enough for water to start pouring over the top of my wellies, which is concerning as the dragonfly larvae alone look big enough to eat me. I tell Zhou I’m taking on water and he replies, ‘Don’t worry, in this paddy there’s no [Chinese word I don’t know]’. I decide against clarification. It doesn’t matter – right now I wouldn’t be able to get out of the way of an approaching glacier.

The job I’m doing only exists because it’s an organic rice farm. The only one in China, in fact. ‘It’s more traditional as other places use herbicides and pesticides,’ Zhou tells me. Here they employ ladies and ducks.

It’s time to move down the row, and with the grace of a cow in cardiac arrest, I take one step forward. I get a bit overzealous with the weeding. Zhou leans over and we both realise I’ve got a fistful of actual rice plants. He’s too polite to say anything and shows me how if you’re further away from the edge, you tie the weeds into a knot and push them underfoot into the mud. Leaning on Zhou I give it a go, hiding the evidence, by which point the other labourers have worked along the whole paddy and caught up with us. All the workers are women, because ‘men aren’t suited to it’.

We engage in a polite-off about them overtaking and as we review the patch I’ve been working, it’s clear to everyone that I’m trampling rice plants at a faster rate than I’m removing weeds. And then ripping out a few more.

‘I think you’ve got the hang of it,’ concludes Zhou. ‘Maybe you should get out of the paddy now.’ I agree. He helps me out and I wash my boots and feet in the stream on the other side of the bund, sitting among the handbags of the ladies who will carry on all the way to 5pm.

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