The New Chinese Farmer

During my trip to Sichuan last week, I met several successful Chinese farmers. The main reason for their success, however, was that they weren’t actually farmers any more. Instead, they were construction contractors, or operated tourism resorts.

It’s hard to run a small family farm anywhere in the world, and China is no exception.

My home is in Massachusetts, where my in-laws used to run a family dairy farm, with about 100 head of cattle on 90 acres of land. They shut down operations quite a while back, to take regular “city” jobs, and the only thing left to remind us of the farm are a couple of baby cows and a barn full of unused milking machinery.

The reason is that it takes either massive economies of scale or a very high-end, niche product to make a living as a farmer these days.

The tiny plots owned by most farmers don’t lend themselves to economies of scale. We could see by the ditches and other obstacles separating fields that there hasn’t been much thought given to bringing in tractors or other mechanized equipment. And everywhere we went we could see people doing manual labor in the fields. Selling your plot to the farmer next door so that the fields can be combined is an option in other countries, but not in China – farmers don’t own their land here, they rent it from the government. And, since they don’t own the land, they can’t borrow against it in order to buy machinery.

And the problem with making a high-end, niche product is that marketing is a bear. The people who can pay for high-end organic produce or gourmet cheeses are on the coast, far from the farmers themselves.

Local governments are doing their best to solve both of these problems. For example, farmers are allowed to sublease their lands to agricultural businesses. They get a little income for their land, and then either work for those businesses directly or go into the cities to find jobs. Other initiatives include farmers’ cooperatives, where farmers pool their lands in order to engage in agriculture on a larger, more efficient scale. Both businesses and cooperatives are able to engage in more marketing activity than individual farmers, as well. There are also marketing initiatives, such as an organic food certification program.

Chinese farmers could use a few million tractors, combines, harvesters, balers, fence post diggers – you name it, they need it. In theory, there should be plenty of opportunities for farm equipment manufacturers and distributors. But it will take a few more reforms before the average farmer in China can afford to buy them.

Eventually, most of these farms will be gone. A few family plots will probably remain, tended on weekends or holidays. The rest will turn into retirement homes, vacation resorts, parklands – or industrial-sized factory farms.

It will be sad to see a way of life disappear. But, like many traditions, family farming looks best from a far distance. Up close, the work is dangerous, grueling, and ill-paid.

Meanwhile, if you want to see rice paddies, hand-tended plots of cabbages, tiny fields painstakingly terraced into hillsides, and the absolute quite that comes from not having any machinery around, do take a trip to western China before it’s all gone.