The Chinese government has a problem and they know it. How do they feed almost one and a half billion people with limited land and water resources with an agricultural system that is still lacking many modern production techniques. A group of western Wisconsin farmers who toured China and some of its agricultural enterprises earlier this fall, found Chinese government officials don’t seem to know exactly what to do in spite of the fact that the central government still makes the decisions.
Since about the 1970s Chinese farmers have been able to operate their own small farms of about one or two acres on land leased to them by the government. No one in China, except the government, owns the land and the farm leases are for between 20 and 30 years. This new type of farming in China came about following the failure of the commune system of big farms with lots of workers. Former Communist Party leader Mao Tse-Tung changed the farming structure in the country to help farmers enjoy a better life and as a reward for helping him come to power back in 1949. The problem is that the farmers, for the most part, aren’t enjoying that much better of a life than they had before and much of the younger generation wants to leave the farm and move to the big cities where wages are higher and life is better.
The Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s in China changed China’s rural landscape. When university students demanded a more capitalistic society, the government shipped about 25 million of them to the countryside for “re-education”. But when the revolution ended in 1979, the universities in China reopened and the agricultural landscape began to change. Farmers could now farm their own land, leased to them by the government in an attempt to keep them out of the cities and with enough land to feed their families. Still today, though, those farmers live in rural housing units left over from the days of the communes. That housing includes limited conveniences for personal hygiene and other necessities.
Not all the farms in China, however, are of the one acre variety. Chinese officials are encouraging some entrepreneurship in agriculture. During a visit to the farming village of Jiang Jialu in central China, our Wisconsin group visited a 400 cow dairy operation that was actually milking about 200 head of Holstein cows. The farm operation was privately owned and trying to modernize but it still has a long way to go. Most of the work is still done by hand with 30 employees and their families supplying the farm labor. The farm was started in 2000 and is almost completely enclosed by concrete type walls. As the farm manager told us, “that’s to make sure our cows don’t disappear.”
The farm feeds silage using a total mixed ration that struggles to find consistent feed since the dairy is dependent on buying much of its feedstuffs, like corn, from the neighboring one acre operations. Those operations sell mostly just the corn stalks as they strip out the corn for their own use to feed their family or their small numbers of hogs or sheep for their own use. That means the silage in the bunkers is mostly void of grain and length of cut is also not a priority as the material length is anywhere from about six to 12 inches in length.
The cows at the dairies our Wisconsin group visited are mostly housed in free stall or loose housing with all the manure handled by hand with no skid steers or end loaders. That loose dairy manure was then loaded onto a motorized three wheeled utility vehicle that had a box on the back that made it look like a prehistoric type Gator. The worker then drove out to the fields to spread the manure, losing most of it along the bumpy road as he drove.
Chinese corn production also lags way behind more modern western practices. Because most farmers only have about one acre of land, much of the corn is planted by hand in the areas our group visited. In some cases it was hard to tell whether the corn was growing in an orchard or if trees were growing in a corn field. But in areas of more commercial production, it appeared they were planting in about 24 inch rows and have to deal with common corn growing challenges like root worm and velvet leaf.
Food safety in China is supposed to be controlled at the local level. When asked how his dairy is inspected, the farm manager wasn’t sure how to answer, but then did admit that Chinese dairies are self-inspected and nobody from the government bothers them unless they have a problem. Their milk goes to a processor called Everbright which sets the milk price to the farms who have no negotiating rights in the process. Currently that price is between 60 and 70 cents a liter. On the farm in Jiang Jialu the cows are milked three times a day in a very clean double 15 swing parlor and production is about 45 pounds a day per cow.
Not everything on the farm is behind the times, though. When asked about his breeding program, the farm manager said, “We A.I. everything and use sexed semen on our first calf heifers.”
It’s clear the Chinese are trying to improve their food production capabilities but it’s also clear they will never be able to feed their people with the land resources they have or with their slow adoption of new technologies.