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    Chapter 269: Night Visitors

    When Shen Lie and Shen An returned home, it was already pitch black. Two guests followed behind the brothers.

    It was safe in Daxing Village, as everyone knew that the next day was the 15th of the first lunar month, the day the provincial school would reopen. Knowing they would return tonight, the family had left the door unlocked for them.

    At this hour, the two guests didn't proceed further into the courtyard after entering.

    "One sudden visit. You should go in first and inform Lady Xiang. We'll follow later."

    The visitors were none other than Zeng Sanlang and Chu Qichang. It wouldn't do to make guests wait in the outer courtyard at this late hour. Shen Lie said, "No worries. Come with me to the reception hall first. I'm not sure if A’Luo is asleep yet. You might have to wait a little."

    Upon hearing Shen Lie's words, Zeng Zixuan didn't refuse. The four of them entered the inner courtyard together.

    Perhaps the sound of the courtyard door opening had stirred Shen Yin. She emerged from her room in her undergarments, peering out to investigate. Upon seeing Shen Lie and Shen An, she exclaimed with delight, "Big Brother, Second Brother, you're back!"

    Just as she was about to ask if they had eaten dinner, she noticed the others. "Are there guests?"

    She quickly retreated and fetched her outer garment. As she tied her sash, she stepped out of her room.

    Amazed by his swift action, Shen Lie said, "It's chilly at night. You should go back to sleep. Your second brother and I will take care of the guests."

    Spotting a dim light in the main bedroom but hearing no sound, she wondered if Sang Luo and the child were asleep or not. She then asked Shen Yin, "Has your eldest sister-in-law gone to bed?"

    Scratching his head, Shen Yin replied, "Yaoyao and Qianbao were just being rowdy a while ago, and it hasn't been long since they quieted down. They must have just fallen asleep. Perhaps Eldest Sister-in-law hasn't slept yet?"

    Nodding, Shen Lie led Zeng Zixuan and Chu Qichang into the hall and sat down. Seeing that Shen An and Shen Yin were already boiling water to make tea, he informed them before going inside to find Sang Luo.

    The conversation among Shen Lie and the others was soft, and the house was well-built with good soundproofing. Nonetheless, Sang Luo could still hear some noise, guessing that Shen Lie had returned. Qianbao was already deeply asleep, but Yaoyao had a habit of lying on her mother's chest when being rocked to sleep. At this moment, a finger was in her mouth, and every now and then, she would suck on it, probably dreaming about something nice as she smiled, revealing her toothless gums.

    Sang Luo found it amusing. Worried that Yaoyao wasn't fully asleep yet, she remained still for a while. Glancing at the door, it wasn't long before it was gently pushed open from the outside. Who else could it be but Shen Lie stepping in under the moonlight?

    As their eyes met, Sang Luo placed a finger against her lips, signaling him to be quiet.

    With his wife and child on his mind, Shen Lie approached the bedside, where Sang Luo was leaning against. He took a look and saw that Qianbao was sound asleep. Yaoyao was cuddled in her mother's arms, sucking her finger in a cute, drowsy manner, making all the exhaustion from their journey fade away instantly.

    However, there was no time to gaze at their child for longer. He whispered to Sang Luo, "Prefect Zeng and Inspector Chu have come over. They're in the main hall, asking to see you."

    "See me?" Sang Luo was surprised.

    In this trip with Governor Zeng, Shen Lie accompanied him not only because the governor wished to inspect the people's livelihood, but also because the provincial office needed to purchase grain on behalf of the imperial court. The officials had already visited the Xizhou region the previous winter. However, due to the scarcity of grain in several counties, shortly after the new year's seal was stamped, Governor Zeng, accompanied by Chu Qichang and a group of clerks, personally went down to the counties to assess the situation.

    Of course, Shen Lie took the opportunity to bring along his brother Shen An for some practical experience. Observing the economy and people's livelihood was an excellent training ground, especially when it involved official duties. After consulting with Zeng Zixuan, Shen Lie also brought Wei Qinghe along.

    How did their mission to buy grain lead them back to Daxing Village and her doorstep?

    Full of questions, she hesitated to ask right away, considering the child in her arms was still sleeping. She sat up straighter, moving cautiously, and placed A Yao gently onto the bed, tucking the blankets around her. The little girl, sucking on her finger, stirred slightly before drifting back into a peaceful slumber.

    Sang Luo then dressed in her outer garment, tidied her hair, and followed Shen Lie out of the room. The side hall was just next door, so Shen Lie decided to wait there and discuss matters together.

    Upon entering the hall, before Sang Luo could pay her respects, Zeng Zixuan and Chu Qichang rose promptly and bowed, "To visit at such a late hour is truly impolite. We apologize for the disturbance."

    Both men were still dressed in their official robes, their boots caked with yellow mud, indicating that they had just returned from the countryside and likely hadn't even entered the city gates yet.

    Sang Luo shook her head, "It's alright. I heard from Shen Lie that you two came looking for me. May I know the purpose of your visit?"

    Although Zeng Zixuan was anxious, he maintained his composure. He first invited Sang Luo to sit before explaining, "I assume Lady knows the reason for our outing?"

    "I have some understanding." But how does this involve her?

    Zeng Zixuan noticed Sang Luo's confusion and explained, "This grain purchase wasn't smooth. Apart from the vicinity of Xi Prefecture, it's difficult to buy much grain from ordinary villagers in the other counties. Most of it is in the hands of the wealthy."

    Sang Luo raised an eyebrow. "That doesn't seem right. The government offers a decent price. If they were afraid of famine due to previous experiences, the imperial court hasn't been stingy. No land taxes were collected last year, so the crops harvested belong entirely to the farmers. Surely they can still have extra food for their families for two or three years, right?"

    The current grain price of 190 wen per bushel was much lower than the 300+ wen per bushel for last year's old grain in January. This price was also more than triple the usual price during a normal year.

    It could be predicted that by the time of the autumn harvest this year, if the government's policy of nurturing the people continued without too many natural disasters or human calamities, the grain price would likely not fall further or rise even higher. It was unnecessary to hold onto too much grain.

    With a three-year exemption from land taxes, it was evident that there would be a shortage of grain. If the government was willing to spend money to purchase it, why wouldn't the people be willing to support the court in return? That was why when the government bought grain and newly harvested sweet potatoes last year, all the households around Daxing Village, who had enough food for their families for two or three years, sold their excess.

    Even though Sang Luo and the Chen family originally planned to use the sweet potatoes to make some byproducts, the government purchased them to distribute as seed potatoes to various prefectures and counties. Moreover, the government offered a fair price, so they prioritized the government.

    Zeng Zixuan chuckled upon hearing this. Shen Lie explained to Sang Luo, "There isn't much surplus grain in the hands of the rural folk in Xi Prefecture's counties."

    This left Sang Luo speechless.

    "Did fewer people come out to farm, resulting in less land being cultivated?"

    This was the only explanation she could think of.

    Shen Lie shook his head. "Yes and no. Some latecomers have less land, but those who arrived early didn't necessarily cultivate all their plots either."

    His words confused Sang Luo.

    Shen Lie continued, "Fields are classified into upper, middle, and lower grades. The fields we received back then were all upper-grade, and despite being abandoned for many years, they still yield decent harvests when cultivated. Those who came later, due to the smaller population, didn't receive any lower-grade fields. They do have some middle-grade fields, but the fertility can't keep up; usually, they need to be left fallow for a year after one year of cultivation. Otherwise, even if they are planted, the yields won't be high. After a few consecutive years, those fields might become barren."

    "Therefore, even though the government distributed plenty of land, the people can't cultivate it all. Depending on the condition of the land, most only cultivate half or a small part. Besides, I've asked around and learned that last autumn, a middle-grade field yields roughly two hundred sixty to seventy pounds of rice per mu with careful cultivation."

    In contrast, in Daxing Village and its surroundings, where Sang Luo's composting method was applied, the yields of middle- and upper-grade fields were around three hundred ten to thirty-three pounds per mu, a difference of about forty pounds per mu. Moreover, since using the composting method, the fertility of the fields in Daxing Village kept up, and even the middle-grade fields in the hands of neighboring villagers didn't require annual fallowing.

    This was why the villagers from various counties dared not sell their grain. The surplus grain in the hands of the villagers in these surrounding counties was completely different from that of the villagers near Xizhou City.

    "Composting method?" After a momentary pause, Sang Luo realized her mistake and covered her forehead, looking regretful. "I completely forgot about this."

    Shen Lie remained unperturbed. "It's not your fault. You're just too used to it. It took Xianzai, Qinghe, and me a few days following Lord Zeng around the countryside to realize it."

    Zeng Zixuan quickly added, "Yes, it's not your fault. I heard Shen Lie mention that you taught this method to others when you retreated into the mountains back then. After so many years, not only the villagers of Daxing Village but also the mountain dwellers nearby have been using it for several years. Since everyone settled close to you after leaving the mountains, it's only natural that this practice became a habit, and you momentarily overlooked it."

    Especially Sang Luo, Zeng Ziqian was well aware of all the remarkable feats she had accomplished this year. A woman who had carried and given birth to twins, managed the family's fields and businesses, and twice presented formulas for plow improvement and papermaking – honestly, if she were the matriarch of an influential noble family with a capable entourage, her accomplishments wouldn't be considered extraordinary, apart from the plow and paper innovations.

    But for someone from a humble background to handle so much with such efficiency was truly impressive.

    Sang Luo composed herself and replied, "Yes, it's fortunate that it's not too late. If we hurry, we might still make it for this spring. The composting method isn't overly complicated, did Shen Lie not inform the governor?"

    "He did, and he's already taught it in various counties. That's why I returned later than expected. However, after inquiring in detail about the farming conditions in your village from Shen Lie, there are still some matters I need to consult you on, Lady."

    "Governor Zeng, feel free to ask. I'm no expert in agriculture, but I'll share whatever knowledge I possess."

    Not an expert...

    Zhu Qichang didn't dare to comment.

    Zeng Ziqian assumed Sang Luo was being modest. It was late, and considering the presence of the Shen children, he got straight to the point.

    "As per my inquiries with experienced farmers, continuous cultivation on the same plot of land for several years, even with ample manure and green manure, can lead to soil compaction, reduced crop yields, and an increase in pests and diseases. Doesn't this double cropping in Da Xing Village pose any problems?"

    Sang Luo shook her head and said, "Da Xing Village does practice double cropping, but we alternate between water and dry crops. This rotation helps maintain soil fertility and, to some extent, drowns out pests. I'm not sure if they drown, but it definitely reduces their numbers significantly."

    "Different crop rotations..." Sang Luo paused. She wasn't an agriculture student and didn't specialize in farming. Most of her knowledge came from personal experience or observation. In short, she was an amateur.

    Regaining her composure, she continued, "I'm not quite sure how to put it, but different crops have varying demands on the land and offer distinct returns. If you rotate crops appropriately, the soil's fertility won't be depleted by a single type, creating a balanced cycle that can be managed. Thus, the likelihood of soil compaction, decreased yields, and pest infestations would decrease significantly."

    "On the contrary, if the wrong crops are rotated, problems may arise. I don't know many varieties suitable for rotation. It requires someone to invest considerable time in research, experimentation, and observation to determine the best combinations."

    "Crops absorb nutrients differently? Aren't they all just nourished by ash and manure?"

    Zhu Qichang looked puzzled, but it didn't stop him from mentally jotting down every word Sang Luo said, not daring to miss a single character.

    Zeng Ziqian, with his exceptional memory, grasped the general idea after hearing it once. He then asked Sang Luo, "What crops are you aware of that can be rotated for cultivation?"

    "As of now, no issues have been detected in my manor with rice, beans, rapeseed, wheat, and alfalfa. I'm uncertain about any others beyond these."

    Sugar cane is also a possibility, but she has yet to come across it in Shexiu, nor has she tried cultivating it. Hence, she kept quiet about it.

    Even though Zeng Ziqian had a general idea from Shen Lie's previous account, he couldn't help but clench his hands slightly on his lap as Sang Luo elaborated on the mechanics.

    Though little grain was procured, the introduction of Shangluo's composting methods and crop rotation techniques prove even more beneficial than securing ten thousand shi of grain for the imperial court.

    He barely managed to restrain himself from immediately rising to express his gratitude. Instead, he turned to Sangluo and asked, "If we were to promote composting and crop rotation, what suggestions do you have for our county?"

    Sangluo pondered for a moment before responding, "I'm unsure if the court has agricultural officials. If I were to suggest something, I would propose that the court establish a specialized position for agricultural officials, focusing on farming and animal husbandry. Additionally, the foundation of composting is having ample fertilizer, which human waste alone cannot provide. In rural areas, I would recommend that households, if possible, raise not only chickens and ducks but also a couple of sheep."

    "Sheep are different from pigs; pigs require bran and soybean residue, whereas sheep have relatively lower demands for concentrated feed. They can thrive with or without it, as long as there's grass available. As long as people work diligently, raising sheep can be a profitable endeavor. Moreover, sheep manure, after fermentation, makes for excellent fertilizer."

    Upon hearing this, Zeng Zixuan chuckled and glanced at Shen Lie, saying, "You two truly deserve to be a couple; your suggestions are in sync."

    Shen Lie, who had some understanding of Sangluo, picked up on the first part of her suggestion, which pertained to rural areas. He asked, "Do you have any recommendations for the cities as well?"

    Sangluo smiled lightly and nodded. "Yes, public toilets could be established in the city and county towns, separate for men and women, spaced appropriately. This would benefit the residents and contribute to a cleaner environment, potentially reducing the spread of diseases. Furthermore, the collected feces could be used by rural farmers for fertilization."

    In Sangluo's previous time, the filthiness of streets during medieval Europe was notorious. However, China in that era wasn't much better, and this issue persisted even in the Ming Dynasty.

    She recalled reading somewhere a phrase about the state of the roads in Chang'an—two grievances on the pathways: hats worn by all, and the stench of excrement... Occasionally, one would find oneself squatting by the roadside to relieve oneself, only to encounter an important official approaching, causing the attendants to chase and drive one into alleys, nearly resulting in an embarrassing situation.

    ②Translation note: The original quote is from a poem by Yuan Mei, a famous poet and scholar from the Qing Dynasty, criticizing the societal norms and conditions of his time.

    In this particular spatiotemporal realm of Great Qi, the main thoroughfares remain relatively unscathed; however, should one venture into the recesses of lesser alleys, the risks appreciably escalate, necessitating a keen awareness of one's footing.

    Zeng Ziqian, upon hearing this final point, pondered the present state of the provincial capital. Let alone Shexian Prefecture, even the imperial city itself was no different in this regard. The suggestion, he concluded, was undoubtedly one to be adopted.

    No, all of Sanglut's suggestions.

    He rose and bowed solemnly to Sang Luo. "I thank you on behalf of all the farmers in the world."

    Author's Note:

    ①The author isn't quite familiar with the appearance of rice and wheat; the agricultural knowledge was acquired from Baidu, and proper citation is provided.

    ②Found during research on Baidu, the specific source is yet to be identified. It is not an original creation; hence, it is explicitly marked.

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