Family farms plant seeds for prosperity


   Cao Xinyun, 59, is the only male worker on his watermelon farm. In a tent he erected for temporary employees, 10 elderly women were drinking tea and eating sunflower seeds.

  Cao Guifan, who has been growing rice most of her life, is the youngest among them. “I know nothing except farming. But my daughter is much more capable. She works in a garment factory in the city,” said the 52-year-old.
  Women are good hands in the watermelon fields, said Cao Xinyun, whose farm covers 2 hectares in Baziqiao village of suburban Shanghai. People have to be patient and careful, especially when working on artificial pollination, a practice that requires deft, skillful fingers. Women fit the bill perfectly.
  But apart from their attributes as workers, one of the primary reasons that Cao Xinyun hires women is that he has been unable to find enough young men in the village. As a result, most of the farmers and workers are middle-aged or elderly.
  About 90 percent of Songjiang's rural residents had non-agricultural jobs in 2007, while only 6.6 percent - 12,500 people - were directly engaged in farming, according to the Songjiang Agriculture Commission.
  A recent study conducted by the Agricultural Science Academy in neighboring Jiangsu province shows the average age of farmers and farm laborers in the province is 58.6 years. Moreover, young people in the rural areas are “not positive” about farming.
  Cao Xinyun has started work on his retirement plan. He earned 300,000 yuan ($48,327) last year by selling early melons, and bought an apartment in central Songjiang district with the proceeds.
  “My son and daughter both work in central Songjiang. I hope to be able to live with them in three years or so,” he said. His optimism was slightly tempered by his belief that no one will take over from him when he retires: “Young people are not interested in this.”
  Attractive option
  However, things may be about to change, according to Xu Aifang, deputy director of the Agriculture Office of Yexie town, Songjiang district.
  “The key point in tackling the (labor shortage) problem remains how to raise farmers' incomes. Once people discover that farming brings a much higher return than working in a factory, it will become a more attractive option,” said Xu.
  A long-running, but little known, pilot scheme called “Family Farms” is starting to reshape the agricultural demographic.
  Under the scheme, a qualified rural family can sign a contract with the village authorities and rent the management rights to a large area of arable land from other families for more than three years.
  “Specifically, a 'family farm' is owned by one family. The phrase also refers to a farm that's quite large, ranging from about seven to 10 hectares, and where family members provide most of the manpower,” said Xu.
  Dang Guoying, a senior researcher with the Institute of Rural Development under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, “Under good market conditions, the main restriction on a farmer's income depends on the scale of agricultural production. In other words, the family manpower on farms outside the program often fails to fulfill the full potential. Increasing each farmer's agricultural scale would put more people to work and could steadily improve the standard of living for rural people.”
  Official backing
  Although the program has been in limited use for several years, it recently won official backing. In January, China's first policy document of the year - known as the No 1 central policy and regarded as a weather vane for the annual agriculture policy - mentioned the term “family farm” for the first time.
  The government will now formulate a wider range of policies to accelerate rural land transfers and grant higher subsidies to large-scale landholders, family farms and rural cooperatives, to encourage the establishment of bigger, specialized farming units, according to the document.
  Meanwhile, during his first news conference after taking office, Premier Li Keqiang also stressed the rapid development of “moderate-scale management” to improve farmers' incomes.
  In addition to Shanghai, where the concept originated in 2007, local authorities across the country are now exploring the family farm model.
  More than 6,670 family farms are operating in 33 pilot land-transfer projects approved by the Ministry of Agriculture, according to Xinhua News Agency.
  For example, around 80 percent of the 9,100 hectares of arable land in Songjiang is operated by about 2,000 family farms.
  Rising incomes
  Sun Hongrong is the youngest owner of a family farm, in Songjiang's Tongjian village. Although his father worked on the land, Sun had no direct experience of farming until he was 35. Having earlier followed his father's advice and attended college, he later worked in a city and severed all connections with cultivation and raising livestock.
  But now, the 39 year old is a fulltime farmer. He earned around 300,000 yuan last year, growing rice and raising chickens and ducks on his nine-hectare farm. The sum is several times higher than his annual salary at his previous job.
  Meanwhile, Jiang Yongqiu, 58, an experienced tractor driver and rice farmer, said he earned more than 80,000 yuan by planting rice on his family farm last year. The sum was something he had “dared not imagine before”, having earned a minimal wage for most of his life.
  “I drove tractors for more than 30 years before running this farm. I remember that for a very long time the pay was just two yuan a day. I also had a small patch of land on which I could grow a little rice to feed the family, but that was my total income,” he said.
  Jiang has been renting land from the 40 families in his village since 2007. The rent is 10,500 yuan per hectare, but he receives 9,150 yuan per hectare in subsidies, paid to encourage the growth of family farms. “The cost of the land is almost totally covered by the government,” he said.
  However, when the pilot scheme began, few people were willing to join, largely because of concerns about the relatively large input required for farmland of more than seven hectares and concerns about the stability of the government's subsidy policy, said Xu.
  “But too many people are applying to join the program these days and we have to create a higher threshold to select qualified operators,” she said, adding that young or middle-aged country dwellers with agricultural experience are the preferred applicants.
  Just as the nation introduced the household contract responsibility system in rural areas in the early 1980s, the family farm model could develop and reshape China's agricultural sector at a time when huge numbers of rural residents are leaving the land, seeking higher wages and better social welfare in the cities.
  The introduction of the household contract responsibility system enabled farmers to use the land through long-term contracts and to keep their produce after paying taxes. Before that, each farmer was confined to a small patch of land, which made the use of machinery problematic
  A rough calculation suggests China must reduce the number of agricultural households to 30 million to ensure that rural incomes keep up with those of city dwellers, taking into account the continuous rise in the average urban income, said Dang.
  There are about 200 million rural families in China, but that figure is expected to fall to 100 million when the family farm structure matures and around 50 percent of rural families move to the cities.
  Sun Hongrong hopes the government will extend the length of land-transfer contracts. “A 10-year contract would be ideal,” he said.
  “Furthermore, if we can contract a larger area of land, it is also good for economies of scale, which is more efficient,” he said. Sun is considering employing organic methods on his farm, but the higher added-value requires greater personal input.
  However, the length of leases and the scale of family farms remain controversial issues in the pilot scheme.
  Although the official guidelines clearly state that only families with rural residence permits, or agricultural hukou, can join the program and fulltime employment of non-family members is forbidden, industry insiders said it is not unusual for city-based companies to enter the program.
  “The guidelines are intended to prevent profit-oriented companies from 'stealing' the land by building houses or developing agritourism, and thus threatening the security of the grain supply. However, the laws need to be stringent to prevent unscrupulous companies from finding ways of working in the gray area,” said Cheng Cunwang, chairman of Tianyuan Zhengguo Bio-agriculture, an organization that promotes community-supported agriculture in China.
  Sun said regulation of family farms is essential to prevent the overuse of land and depletion of nutrients in the soil. It also helps to keep the land free from pollution caused by inappropriate disposal of plastics or the excessive use of fertilizers.
  China's grain output rose 3.2 percent year-on-year to hit a record high of 590 million metric tons in 2012, marking the ninth consecutive year of growth. Meanwhile, official customs figures for last year show grain imports hit a record high of 72.3 million tons, providing evidence of an imbalance between domestic supply and demand.
  However, that problem could be largely alleviated if the family farm trials are successful. The system could provide greater security for those who depend on the agricultural industry.
  “There won't be so many people on the land in the future, but there is no need to worry about it because more young people like Sun Hongrong have started to rethink their lives and careers and are willing to return to the villages,” said Xu.
  For Sun, his return to the countryside has been an unqualified success: “No one supported me when I decided to quit my job as a sales manager at a feed company four years ago, but I have now convinced almost everybody that I made the right decision.”