Farmers in China are expecting to see fresh opportunities emerging for new family farming. [Photo:CNTV]
"Who is going to feed China?" was the alarming question raised by Lester Brown in his 1995 book. The question is still hanging in people's minds around the world today. In recent years, since the rural labor force has increasingly moved to the cities for jobs away from the farms, agriculture production makes declining proportioin of farmers' total income, therefore a tendancy of non-agriculture and non-grain is appearing.The Chinese government is now worrying about who will be the main body of workers for agricultural production and guarantee food security for China in the future.
Rapidly developing family farms have therefore caught the attention of authorities in China. Compared with the farms of the past, new family farms are larger in scale, more productive, have more stable crop-related income, and more importantly, they are run by better educated or specialized farmer couples who are main labor force as well as managers of their own farm. They are entrepreneurial, so they are more open-minded and could adopt new technology more quickly than other farmers.
Zhang Fengliang, who farms almost 1,000 mu (equal to 67 hectares) of farm land at "Hongliang Farm" with his wife and son in Haiyan County, Zhejiang Province, is recognized as typical new family farm owner. It was registered in 2007, with initial funds of 1.5 million yuan, and there has now been a total investment of over 3 million yuan in the form. As its size has increased, Hongliang farm is now equipped with 16 pieces of farm machinery, a 350 square meter storehouse, a 1000 square meter grain sunning ground, a 300 square meter center for growing seeds, a 400 square meter grain drying center, and other facilities.
Zhang also grows hybrid rice, and new higher yielding species of wheat and rape. He hires a number of crop specialists, as well as a seasonal labor force when needed. Through good management and hard work, he harvested 1,000 tons of grain last year, worth almost 2.6 million yuan. The farm produces two crop brands and was given a "model family farm" award. Besides, Zhang has registered two brands for his grain products, which are promissed as green food appling with non-toxic pesticide and resonable fertilization. With higher profit and better reputation came from these two brands, Zhang is encouraged to adopt this way of crops production in the future.
With more and more new family farms appearing, many now believe that the second golden period for agricultural development since 1978 has arrived. The first came about five years after the household responsibility system was established and while agricultural productivity was booming. Experiences abroad have shown that family farms are an effective way to increase agricultural production and management. They play an essential role in agricultural development and modernization. Land use becomes more efficient, using pesticide and fertilizer in a more environmentally friendly way, in the hope of guaranteeing food security in China.
However, there are also difficulties in developing family farms.
Firstly, if government subsidies are cancelled, farmers will make only a little profit. The price of crops has remained quite low, whereas production costs are climbing, including land transfer, storage cost, fertilizer, pesticides and labor costs. Growing crops, and in particular producing grain, is not very profitable. Government subsidies only cover a small number of crops and are quite low, much lower than in many developed countries. This has discouraged farmers from producing grain, some of them may switch to other crops.
Secondly, land transfers are costly and have not been standardized. Many migrant farmers would rather leave their land uncultivated than transfer it to somebody else. In other cases, land is transferred without a formal legal contract. This means that farmers who want to increase their scale pay more. Even if they acquired more land, it would be spread out, split up by land still held by farmers who are not willing to transfer it. This problem may result in low efficiency and waste of land resource, due to difficulties of mechanery operation and irragation system construction, ect.
Thirdly, new family farms get little financial support from banks as they do not have sufficient collateral. Farm land and houses constructed on rural land cannot be used as loan collateral, farm machines are not accepted as assets or are devalued. Loans are small and difficult to apply for, because farmers lack a personal credit record. This problem may hinder the growth of new family farms and prevent them from adopting new technology, two factors which are crucial for the development and sustainability of agricultural modernization.
Therefore, the government should consider urgently and seriously how to help new family farms solve these problems. Rural land and crop subsidies policies should be incentives rather than hindrances; strengthening of rural finance policy should be put at the top of the government agenda. Only if policy makers find a way to reconcile benefits for farmers with macro development goals will new family farms be able to guarantee food security in China.
The author is PhD student from the Rural Development Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Science.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.