Back to the Farm
Jiang Hui is in a kind of unique situation in his village in Anlu City, Hubei Province of central China. The 38-year-old man is the only one of his generation still living in the village. “I don’t know any adult who is younger than me, not only in this village, but in all the villages nearby,” he told a reporter.
Before getting involved in agriculture, Jiang worked for a construction company in Sudan and then Angola for more than six years altogether. When he decided it was time to settle down back home in China, he used his savings to build a pig farm in the village where he was born. Making such a choice was a rare thing among his peers, almost all of whom preferred to make a living in cities.
Earlier this year, he leased the pig farm to others after running it for around nine years, and started a new program: planting crops. He managed to rent around 50 mu (3.33 hectares) of crop fields, and has finished the construction of the infrastructure for irrigation and transportation, in time for the rice planting season.
His lifestyle is very different from the others in his village, who are basically old people from his father’s generation. They have maintained the traditional self-sufficient way of rural life, managing a few hectares of land and a few livestock.
Jiang’s village is a typical case of rural China. The massive urbanization over the years has drained young people from villages, leaving the responsibilities of agricultural production largely to the old generation. Consequently, this has become a major concern in China as to who will produce food for the world’s 20 percent of population when they retire.
A farmer feeds chickens in his kumquat orchard in a village in Ling-chuan, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on October 28, 2021.
Introduction of New Players
In China, arable land of a village is allocated for use to households who cultivate their share of land as independent contractors. As the result of a crucial reform that took place over 40 years ago, the policy allowed Chinese farmers to feed themselves and the rest of China’s population.
Apparently, this system of farming has lost its appeal to anyone who can find a job in the city. It is often the case that the yield from the allotted land a family can achieve in a year is less than the income of a family member working for one month in a factory. When a household lacks the time or motivation to cultivate their land, it is left uncultivated.
One key solution to this problem is the introduction of the new types of agricultural organization, which include cooperatives, agricultural companies, and family-based farms. According to a document issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in March, incubating and developing these new types of operations is a major task of the year.
The idea is to allow a moderate level of large-scale operation without changing the fundamental policy. Villagers can entrust their land-use rights or outsource certain agricultural production tasks to cooperatives or agricultural companies. This has allowed farmers the flexibility to decide how much they want to be involved in and benefit from cultivating their land.
In the view of Zhu Qizhen, director of the Institute of Farmers’ Issues, China Agricultural University, family-based farms are an ideal form of organization for the sustainable development of China’s agriculture. The term refers to a large amount of land operated on a stable basis by a family whose livelihood and income depend on yields from the land.
What Jiang is doing with the land he contracted can be categorized into an early stage family-based farm. The pieces of land, once allocated to different households for use, are basically located next to each other, and they were leased on a long-term basis, which allowed him to make long-term plans like investing in irrigation and transportation infrastructure there.
Zhu believes these farms enjoy multiple advantages. With the size of the land, farmers can better benefit from the application of modern technology; they are more motivated to join cooperatives to utilize their advantages; they will develop attachment to their land and thus better protect it.
In particular, with the help of machinery and modern technology, the scale of the landholding allows for a profit that is competitive compared to working in cities, thus motivating experienced farmers to focus on agriculture and providing a strong reason for young people who have a passion for agriculture to return to the village and start a career in rural areas. Better still, they can be passed down to the next generation.
Essential for the Future
The migration of rural population to urban areas has no imminent threat to China’s food security – it has actually created conditions for the development of new means of agricultural production such as family-based bigger farms. However, Zhu told a reporter that better implementation of national policies and more support to famers are required to spark the interest of the younger generation in agriculture for the benefit of the future.
“We have no immediate threat to food security right now because these older-generation farmers are still working. But what will happen when they retire?” he asked.
He noted that some famers who try to build big farms face unstable land contracts, which raises their costs when the rent rises. The instability also hampers their willingness to invest in essential infrastructure such as wells. They also face difficulty in getting financing, because they cannot use the rented land as collateral.
The problem for Jiang is that the pieces of land he rented are not at the same level due to the typical hilly topography in the region, which is only suitable for the use of small agricultural machinery. This has restricted the area of land he can manage to 3.33 hectares, instead of several dozen in plain areas.
Zhu believed more exploration is needed to implement the national initiative. “When properly implemented, a family-based farm should be able to permanently sustain a family. This is the prerequisite for full employment in the farm and thus the willingness of the younger generation to take over in the future,” he said.
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