“One Kansas farmer feeds you and 138 people” reads one rural Kansas sign that badly needs updating. If China had such signs, they would read: “One Chinese farmer feeds you.” For until recently, half of the people in China were farmers. An average American farm is 400 times larger than the land used by the average Chinese small farmer. But times are changing over here.
I first came to Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in 1999 when China decided to build a new university town in the little village of Yangling. It is one hour west of Xi’an and the first time I traveled that road, there were small family plots all along the small superhighway, new at that time. The family plots had raised walkways between them. And if it was after school, children joined their parents and grandparents working in this patchwork field.
A few years later, the kids weren’t in the fields. Parents demanded their children spend the remaining daylight inside their old rural houses, studying for the exam so they could go to college. By 2010, only the old folks — mostly grandparents — still were working the fields. Many younger adults had migrated to larger towns and cities for better paying jobs.
Today, that superhighway is double-wide and the small family plots along that route are gone. Heavy equipment has leveled the walkways. Fields sown in wheat resemble fields in Kansas. The retired farmers get a percentage from these new farm operations that have replaced them. Some now live in nearby towns in simple but modern apartments — "townification." I suspect China could have moved from small plots to big farming a decade ago, but moved at a speed that allowed the older farmers to keep their jobs and dignity. I respect that.
China works hard to maintain national food security. Its policies include regulations for food safety, reforestation of marginal lands, reduction of pollution and fair treatment of the 603 million people in 200 million farm households who now include the majority of their 70 million citizens still in poverty.
On a map, China looks the same size as the U.S. but has far more mountains and deserts. China must feed 22 percent of the world’s population with only 9 percent of the world’s cultivated cropland. Fifty years ago, everyone in China was indeed equal — equally poor. Food was distributed evenly, and the obesity rate was essentially zero. Everyone knew times of hunger. After 1980 and the end of farm collectives, per capita food production in China increased 3.5-fold.
China stacks their population vertically in high-rise apartments and attempts to limit diversion of cropland to other uses. Every square foot of good land is cultivated. Along much of the high-speed train route from Yangling to Beijing, I see much farmland that formerly saw one or two crops a year is now under greenhouses that stretch out of sight and allow double or triple-cropping. Far from cities, you see wheat and other field crops. Near cities, it changes to vegetable crops.
China is in the forefront of developing high-yield crop strains improved through both conventional breeding and engineering for hybrid rice, corn/maize and wheat germplasms. China also dramatically has increased use of fertilizers and pesticides. Agricultural irrigation has been expanded. Good roads are being paved to all rural towns. China now grows more than 95 percent of its own grain.
But there are problems, too. China is using 35 percent of the world’s fertilizer, three times the world per capita average. That results in pollution and reduces food safety. Same with pesticides.
Education and extension work will be critical as China moves into modern farming. Having sent kids off to higher education, the old farming population averages less than 7.8 years of education while 85 percent of U.S. farmers have graduated high school and nearly 20 percent hold bachelors’ degrees.
As China moves to large-scale farming operations where mechanization will improve efficiency, the solution comes back to education. China openly speaks of farming becoming a profession. Of the 40-plus national universities, only two (Chinese Agricultural University and NWAFU where I am reporting from) specialize in serving this half of China that is still rural.
The pure and applied research that is conducted here, and the extension work that must be done, are highly valued in China — a country where parents and grandparents remember hunger.
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University.