Beijing pushes for bigger family farms to boost efficiency

Farmland split into individual plots during the reform years is being joined back together with Beijing's blessing, and the results are promising

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 August, 2013, 5:30am

On most days, Li Junxiang can be found walking amid the fruit trees and vegetables he grows on two hectares of farmland in Xinglong county in the northeast of Hebei province.

Li left behind his work of doing odd jobs to rent land from his fellow villagers after learning of a directive the Communist Party issued on February 1 - one that may help ease the mainland's problems with food quality.

Gradually transferring land into the hands of efficient farmers and developing moderately sized operations is the direction of the future
Agriculture Minister Han Changfu

Three decades ago, as part of national reform efforts, authorities split collectively owned farmland into small plots for individual families, in the hopes "ownership" would encourage them to grow food.

But as the mainland grapples with food safety problems, shrinking arable land and an increasing demand for food, central authorities are reversing that earlier move, suggesting that villagers merge plots into "family farms" to allow for higher-yielding agricultural practices.

"Gradually transferring land into the hands of efficient farmers and developing moderately sized operations is the direction of the future," Agriculture Minister Han Changfu told a meeting of national agricultural officials late last month, according to Xinhua.

There is no official definition of family farm, and the ministry is encouraging local governments to arrive at their own standards regarding size and output. Authorities in Hubei , Jiangsu and Shandong have issued regulations, according to mainland media reports, and dozens of lower-level governments have followed with detailed rules.

In Xinglong, Li said registration was easy.

"There were no limitations on the amount of start-up capital or the size of the farm," he said. Li spent about 500,000 yuan (HK$630,000) on getting the project up and running, and although revenue is limited at the moment, Li is confident he's part of a rising trend and his business will make money eventually.

The total number of family farms on the mainland is not publicly available, but a national survey the ministry carried out in March found that 877,000 families had the resources to run, or were already running, a farm that fits the criteria. The families had an average of 13 hectares and earned 184,700 yuan last year.

By comparison, the mainland had about 260 million rural households, each of which worked half a hectare of land on average, Han said last month.

Wei Guofeng , a Shanghai-based researcher on agriculture, said that while family farms were viable, profits could be a concern in the short-term.

"As food safety problems pop up one after another, many family farms stick with environmentally friendly agriculture practices, and generating sales can be difficult," Wei said. Such farms needed time to build up their reputation as a reliable, safe supplier, and costs were high given the preference for a more organic approach to growing food, he said.

Tao Zhengrong , who manages just over two hectares at Dianshan Lake in a western suburb of Shanghai, said he had recently broken even, five years after he rented the land and started ecologically sound farming.

"I expect to make a profit after another three years, but I'm not wishing for an income as high as urban white collar workers in top positions," Tao said. "I wanted to influence other farmers in how they approach this and to be more environmentally friendly. They have acknowledged my approach, but without a profit, it's not convincing."

Professor Zhu Qizhen , director of the Research Institute of Farmer Issues at the China Agricultural University in Beijing, said family farming may help to improve food quality.

"A family has a brand, one that will be inherited by the following generations," he said. "The owners will develop a sense of responsibility for the land they work on, and this helps to motivate them to produce good, safe food."