What Farming Looks Like in China – and Why It Surprised Me

by Erin Beck

June 17, 2015

Last May I had the opportunity to visit China on a South Dakota State University ag trip with 23 students plus faculty. With the majority of the class pursuing ag-related majors, we shared a common interest in seeing firsthand how the Chinese have structured their agricultural system.

I grew up on a commercial cow/calf operation of 350 head in southwest Iowa where we raise corn, soybeans and hay on the side. Thanks to my own expectations from growing up on the farm, the local family farm I toured in China wasn’t quite what I had anticipated.

I had seen plenty of farmland framing the outskirts of China’s cities, but this farm was buried right in the heart of residential Xi’an, a city with a population of 8 million.

It was a glorified version of a community garden: farm plots lining either side of a dirt road, each fenced off with sagging wire or wooden boards with the occasional crumbling adobe hut. A walk down the dirt path showed miniature wheat fields, cornfields sporting uneven growth rates, orchards and vineyards.

The farm manager was a gracious tour guide, pointing out her fields totaling two-thirds of an acre. Her husband worked construction while she supervised laborers on their farm. They planted and weeded by hand, and at harvest time a custom combine gathered in the crops.

We strolled by wheat, corn and soybean fields, not much different than university research plots I’ve seen. Trellises held up kiwi plants in symmetrical rows, similar to the neighboring grape vineyards. The farm manager proudly went into an orchard and brought back samples of the top moneymaker on her farm: cherries. While they harvested the wheat for their own personal use and sold the soybeans to the government, the cherries were sold at wholesale markets for a premium price.

I left China with a new definition of a “small” farm. The average farm size in China is 1.6 acres, compared to 441 acres in the U.S. And while there are plenty of family farms in China, the concept of the family-owned farm is less common. The government hands the land out in 70-year leases and controls who receives the land when each lease is up.

The investment that China is pouring into ag was evident from the variety of agricultural enterprises I visited, all the way from fish farms to beef feedlots to meat markets to ag-based companies. The government has seen the need to become a sustainable powerhouse in agriculture, but change doesn’t come easily, not even when 21st century technology lies at its fingertips.

Agriculture is a way of life that Americans are proud to claim. The Chinese don’t have that same connection. With a history of disdain for outdoor labor, China is overcoming its inferiority complex in agriculture by bringing its farming practices up to speed. While the technology is in place, what China’s agriculture needs most now are people who are passionate, innovative and adaptable. It’s a work in progress.

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