CHINA: Volvo excavators help battle the elements and strengthen a growing agricultural community
by Cathy Smith
Part of Xinjiang province in China’s far north-west is on the same latitude as the south of France, which means that in summer the fields are filled with succulent grapes, melons, peaches and sunflowers. The region was once an important trading post along the Silk Road, but is prone to extremes of weather – both drought and flood – so water management is key for this large agricultural community.
On Tou Tun He Farm, north of the regional capital Ürümqi, an EW145B Volvo wheeled excavator is clearing silt and overgrown weeds from irrigation channels to improve the flow of water into the fields from a reservoir in the Tian Shan Mountains towering above.
The driver, 23-year-old Tao Xue Feng, has been operating excavators for three years now and much prefers this job to working in the fields. “My main job is to clear sand and soil from the irrigation channels and flatten the earth,” he explains. “The cabin is clean and when I’m working in a space like this the machine feels a bit like a friend.”
This huge 40,000-hectare farm is one of more than 170 agro-businesses owned by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which employs more than 900,000 workers. It is difficult to comprehend figures on such a scale, but the XPCC is a state-run organization which, alongside its agricultural and construction role, also guards the long frontier with central Asia.
Tao’s whole family is employed by the XPCC. His father is in charge of water management on this farm, his mother – now retired – used to be a planter, and his older sister is an accountant for this huge agri-business.
The young operator’s old home is about to be demolished as part of a plan to liberate more agricultural land and his family is now living on the tenth floor of a 13-floor tower block in the newly built Tou Tun He District at the edge of the fields where he works. Ten thousand families, all XPCC workers, are moving into the brand new tower-block development – Tou Tun He District – which has shot up in just two years.
XPCC also has a social function of maintaining unity amongst the region’s many ethnic groups – the largest being the Uyghur Muslim minority.
Tao is Han Chinese, the predominant ethnic group in China, although around 60% of Xinjiang is populated by various ethnic minorities. On the edge of the new high-rise development, their golden domes glinting in the sun, two separate mosques have been built, one for the Uyghur community, the other for Hui Muslims, and Tao says that everyone seems to get along quite well.
The irrigation channels being dug out on Tou Tun He Farm are on newly cleared land that is being prepared for planting. Gradually, most of the old houses in this area are being demolished to free up more land for agriculture and to accelerate China’s urbanization program.
Because of its scale, the XPCC has become an important customer for Volvo Construction Equipment in China. Last year alone, 31 Volvo excavators (EW60C, EW145 and EW205) were sold to the XPCC for agricultural water-management projects.
The farm’s equipment manager Li Kelei watches the wheeled excavator scooping out soil from a silted up water channel. He says he had heard good things about Volvo equipment from XPCC colleagues and that, despite the higher price tag, he is impressed by its performance. “Compared to other machines, Volvo equipment is more efficient and powerful. The most important strength is low fuel consumption,” he says.
What Li particularly likes is the Volvo Customer Support Agreement which gives free on-site inspections of both hardware and software in the first year of ownership, as well as the regular maintenance call-out service: “Their service is really good. They monitor our equipment remotely using a GPS system,” says Li. “If we have a problem, they come immediately.”
It is that service which the chairman of the Xinjiang Volvo CE dealership is convinced makes all the difference to his customers, who are scattered all over the province – an area as big as Western Europe. He Dong Sheng built up his business, the SCO Construction Machinery Co Ltd, from scratch in 2002 and now has a 3,000-strong customer base with Volvo, commanding 15% of the excavator market in Xinjiang. He Dong Sheng says he has a good relationship with the XPCC and that, since 2003, it has bought 300 Volvo machines. “The XPCC is a unique and very big company,” he says. “The reason they want to buy our products is because of the high technology and also the service.”
But he adds that simply having a good product is no longer enough: “Since 2012, the Chinese economy has been gradually slowing down and we know that by paying more attention to our service our customers will stay loyal.”
The Volvo service workshop in Ürümqi is one of two in Xinjiang province and there are plans to open two more. Smart, uniformed engineers are hard at work in a bright, airy hangar where they service 20 machines every month. The whole place exudes order and discipline as a small band of cleaning staff, wearing Volvo safety helmets, energetically polish the windows.
Engineering training is important and the dealership provides places for six trainees from the Volvo Competence Center in Ürümqi, one of four such centers in China working with local schools to develop internship opportunities.
Alongside the irrigation work in Xinjiang, the next big XPCC project is a major flood-relief program. Over the years, China has experienced devastating floods and the XPCC is planning to buy many more wheeled excavators to dredge river beds to protect against future natural disasters.