Jiang Junsheng has already pulped a tonne of garlic, turning the unwanted crop into fertiliser, but he still has to work out how to dispose of nearly five tonnes of sweet potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables at his organic farm in central China. Jiang has tried halving prices for his top-quality goods but there has been almost no interest in the products in the last month since transport networks came to a grinding halt because of a deadly coronavirus outbreak. “In normal years, I would have sold 40,000 yuan (US$5,720) worth of vegetables in the three weeks after the Lunar New Year holiday. This year, it’s nearly zero,” the 39-year-old farmer said from his fields near Ruzhou in Henan province. Jiang uses an organic solution from waste vegetables to grow his crops and relies heavily on delivery services to get his products to market in distant, first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai where buyers will pay a premium. But disease control measures have made this impossible. “In the past few weeks, links between most cities have been cut. People and vehicles can’t even get between villages here,” he said. Some of the roads have reopened and more delivery companies resumed business since this week, but it’s far from a full recovery, he said. Beijing-based consulting firm BRIC Agri-Info Group estimates that across mainland China, more than 3 million tonnes of farm produce, mostly perishable vegetables, has been left unsold due to disruptions in the transport chain. Other sectors of the agricultural industry are also hurting as farmers struggle to sell their goods or find enough workers. Poultry breeders are among this worst hit by the crisis, according to authorities and industry observers. In Pingyang county in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Xie Chuanzao said he had lost hundreds of thousands of yuan because he could not sell his chickens. Xie has more than 20,000 birds on his farm and has to keep paying to feed the mature birds until he can find a buyer. “During the past month, half of the flock reached slaughter weight but I have to keep feeding them on the farm. I couldn’t do anything because the roads were blocked,” he said. Xie said he only managed to sell some a few days ago as roads gradually reopened. To recover part of his losses, Xie has increased his prices – before the Lunar New Year, he sold the birds for about 20 yuan per kilogram, but now it is 26-30 yuan. He has also had to pay more for labour, forced to look for more expensive workers locally to replace migrant workers who cannot leave their homes because of the strict controls on movement. China likely to introduce new measures to bolster coronavirus-hit economy, analysts say It all adds up to big losses for the poultry business, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. In Anhui alone, one of China’s top five poultry producing provinces, the sector had lost about 900 million yuan since the epidemic began, the provincial government said on the weekend. “Since the coronavirus outbreak, live poultry markets have been closed, and the transport and feeding of the birds has been disrupted,” said Yang Zhenhai, head of the ministry’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine. “In addition, butcher shops have ceased work, and the consumption of poultry dropped. The entire poultry sector has had a very big loss.” The epidemic is yet another blow for rural China, where incomes are about 40 per cent of the urban average and much of the country’s poverty is concentrated. Off-farm incomes, whether on other agricultural operations or in other industries, are an essential source of money for these people – one they can’t access if they are confined to home. Peng Aihua, an employment agent in Xiamen, Fujian province, said three farm owners had recently asked her to hire more than 60 workers, but she only managed to fill half the vacancies so far. Xiangan, where the farms are located, is one of China’s four main centres of carrot production and fields in the area should be full of people helping pick the crop. Usually migrant workers from the Sichuan prefecture of Liangshan, one of China’s most poverty-stricken areas, arrive for the harvest but this year they haven’t been able to return and three-quarters of the crop is still in the ground. “They are stuck at home because of the epidemic. They are required to apply for a special pass before moving, but they don’t know how as most of them are illiterate,” Peng said. She said few local residents were willing to take the jobs, demanding much higher pay from what already is a low-margin business. “It’s a lose-lose situation. The Liangshan people lose an important source of income, and the farms here risk having the carrots rot in the fields if there are not enough hands to harvest,” Peng said. Professor Zheng Fengtian, from the school of agricultural economics and rural development at Renmin University in Beijing, warned that the effects could be longer term for migrant workers. “Many of them worked in the service industry in urban areas, such as hair salons or restaurants, which have yet to resume business,” Zheng said. The lockdowns across China would cost them at least a few weeks’ pay, and even the job itself, as their employers sank deeper into financial problems. “To them, a month’s pay in the city could equal what they can make from the fields at home in an entire year,” Zheng said. “So talking about the impact of the epidemic, income of farmers should be a bigger concern than overall agricultural production.” Beware of coronavirus outbreaks coming back to life, WHO warns Li Guoxiang, a researcher at the Rural Development Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said there was still time for things to return to normal, given that most planting started in March in most areas. But fewer crops might be planted. “Enthusiasm among farmers to grow crops would be dampened if they expect it will be more difficult to buy fertiliser and seeds,” Li said. To counter that, the central government has ordered local authorities to ramp up preparations for spring planting and to guarantee smooth transport of farming materials even though the new virus is not yet under full control. “The more risks and challenges we face, the more we need to stabilise agriculture and ensure the safety of grain and major non-staple foods,” President Xi Jinping said. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.