While on a mid-July visit to see Kang Xiaohua, a 17-year-old girl whose education I have been sponsoring, I happened to arrive during the local wheat harvest in her home village of Xihaigu, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Xihaigu lies in one of the most poverty-stricken regions of the province. Her grandfather, 84-year-old Kang Lianquan, explained how in the past villagers harvested the fields on their hands and knees, one handful of wheat at a time.
"The dry and sandy earth here can barely hold the wheat's roots. If we use scythes, the roots - which are normally left in the soil to enrich it - are easily pulled up. So we just gave up on using tools," Kang said.
Due to the dry climate and intense sunlight, the grain often dries out and falls from the stalks easily when cut, making it difficult to collect once on the ground. In order to save work, farmers set out to the fields very early, when the morning dew moistens the wheat's ears.
"This has been the best year in a decade," Kang explained. His rented plot of 22-mu (1.46 hectares) yielded a harvest of 110 kilograms of grain per mu, 35 kilograms more than last year, a relatively large increase that was cause for celebration in the village.
However on the neighboring Guanzhong Plains of Shaanxi Province, an extremely fertile area in the lower Weihe River valley, 500 kilograms per mu would be considered an average harvest, far more than the best year in Xihaigu.
As the Kang family rejoices, extreme weather and hard living continue to widen the economic gap between farmers, which at the same time puts in perspective how environment affects expectations.