JINAN, June 14 (Xinhua) -- As the huge rolling combine collected wheat, leaving long stripes cut through the golden field behind it, Lyu Yuxiang sighed.
Lyu, 68, is the only, and likely last, blacksmith in his village in east China's Shandong Province.
The family forge, which once generated enough income to support his whole household, is under threat: Not only are new systems and equipment taking work away from blacksmiths, but this once respected profession is no longer attractive to the younger generation.
Despite the wheat harvest season kicking off last week, Lyu only sold a dozen sickles, each costing 10 yuan (1.52 U.S dollars). Two decades ago, he would have easily sold 3,000 sickles.
"Times have changed. No matter how good my sickles are, no one wants to use them," he says.
As China modernizes its agricultural sector, farmers have turned their backs on traditional farming methods, meaning craftsmen, like Lyu, are obsolete.
In Shandong, a major agricultural province, more than 98 percent of wheat is harvested by machines. In Wenshang County, where Lyu lives, this translates into 40,000 machines, which reap, sow and irrigate, doing tasks that were once done with less-sophisticated apparatus.
Lyu has been forging sickles for more than 50 years since his father passed the hammer on to him. The artisan's muscle memory enables him to make a quality sickle in a mere half an hour. He can also craft spades, hoes and farming forks.
At a time when machines were rare, blacksmithing was an admirable job.
"It combines labor and skill, and I could make much more money than other, ordinary jobs," he recalls.
In the 1970s, when Lyu was working for a mechanical plant, he earned 28 yuan a month plus coupons, which he could exchange for over 20 kg of grain. The salary was high for the time, farmers brought home a handful of cents for a whole day's toil in the fields.
In 1986, when the plant was dissembled, he started the family forge with his father.
"We had to get up very early to prepare enough sickles during harvest season," he said.
Their business thrived until 1993, when agricultural machinery first plowed into China. Unsurprisingly, the convenience and efficiency of machines won farmers over.
Although Lyu's customers prefer his handmade sickles as they last much longer, inferior factory-produced products are adding more strain to the blacksmith's already bleak business prospects: A factory-made sickle is half the price of the handcrafted version.
Lyu's son refused to follow his father into the family business, which he saw as offering nothing but hardship for low financial returns. Instead, he works at a construction site in Guangdong Province, earning 200 yuan a day, the same amount his father makes in a week.
"This maybe the end for my smithy," Lyu said as he stroked his chin with the characteristically-burned hand of a working blacksmith.
The situation for blacksmiths in Quezhuang, another village in the county, is no less bleak. There are only two major smithies in the village now, compared with the eight that once lined the high street.
Across Shandong, sickles are now exhibits in museums, their rusted, curved edges conjuring up images of a bygone era. Wenshang County named forges and iron forging skills as an example of one of the county's intangible cultural heritage.
Liu Sixi, 42, said he is luck if he sells a few dozen sickles a year, a tiny fraction -- one-hundredth -- of what he sold 10 years ago.
Instead of farming tools, he now makes kitchen knives. He registered the knife brand, and embosses each item with his trademark and telephone number to attract more customers.
Ma Guanghai, a professor with Shandong University, said blacksmiths should transform their products through branding and customization, which are attractive to urbanites looking for items with cultural and artistic value.