Consolidation of farmland inadvertently exacerbates rural depopulation, says Wang Haijuan
Associate professor at China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) believes improving farmland conditions is a better approach to sustain the farming population.
According to Huang Haijuan, the Chinese government's policies aimed at promoting new types of agricultural business entities (essentially land consolidation), have resulted in the displacement of small-scale farmers. Although these policies were originally implemented to address growing concerns regarding the abandoned land, which could potentially threaten food security, Huang argues that these policies might unintentionally exacerbate these very issues.
Huang maintains that there are still 500 million rural population who would be willing to plant crops. However, the challenges of low profitability, stemming from issues such as land fragmentation and inadequate infrastructure, have driven many away from the agricultural sector. She insists that if farmland conditions were improved, farmers would readily return to farming.
Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Huang did not provide a specific analysis of the methods or the required resource allocation necessary to enhance land quality to a point where these farmers would willingly cultivate it. Despite her endorsement of the Chinese government's ongoing efforts to develop high-quality farmland, she contends that these efforts have not adequately addressed the issue of land fragmentation, which continues to require scattered cultivation by individual farmers. However, she did not provide specific solutions for consolidating farmlands into more cohesive units, either.
Wang Haijuan is an associate professor at the School of Public Administration, China University of Geosciences (Wuhan). Her work is grounded in extensive fieldwork in rural regions of China and focuses primarily on rural sociology and grassroots governance.
This article was originally published on the WeChat account 新乡土 New Rural.
With 500 Million People in China’s Rural Areas, "No One to Farm" is a Policy Discourse Trap
In China's rural areas, home to 500 million people, the challenge isn't a scarcity of farmers, but rather the poor conditions of farmlands hindering cultivation.
As younger and middle-aged farmers migrate to cities for work, leaving an aging labor force behind in the fields, there has a prevalent societal belief that there's a shortage of farmers. In response, the authorities have introduced various measures to promote new types of agricultural business entities, mainly family farms, farmers' cooperatives, and agricultural enterprises, in a bid to revive agriculture.
However, this strategy has an unintended consequence: traditional farmers often lose their land to these new entities. Moreover, these new business models don't always effectively tackle farming challenges. Viewed from this perspective, the perceived shortage of farm labor in rural areas seems more a byproduct of policy than a genuine issue. Initially, these areas had active farmers, but misjudgments by authorities, assuming a lack of available labor, led to policies that inadvertently created this problem. Thus, the apparent depopulation of rural farming is, ironically, fostered by these very policies.
Lack of Farmers or Limitation of Farmland?
As urbanization continues its rapid advance in China, a substantial number of young and middle-aged farmers are venturing beyond their hometowns in search of employment opportunities. This ongoing trend has led to rural areas facing two major challenges: an aging agricultural workforce and abandoned farmlands. While concerns have arisen across various sectors of society regarding these uncultivated fields as a threat to national food security, the root of the problem in rural areas isn't the lack of farmers. On the contrary, farmers are quite motivated to cultivate their land; the crux of the matter lies in the limitations of the current farmland conditions.
The first limitation is land fragmentation. Chinese farmers' land holdings are small and scattered across wide areas. Even in plain regions, a farmer's land might be divided into four or five different plots. In hilly areas, a farmer's land could be spread out over a dozen or even twenty different locations, with each plot being only a few fractions of a mou (a traditional Chinese unit of land area, equivalent of 0.06667 hectare). Cultivating such fragmented land requires significant labor and is a cumbersome task. Moreover, against the rapid advancement of agricultural mechanization, it's expensive as well as challenging to hire machinery for these small, scattered plots, and finding skilled machine operators can be a struggle.
The second limitation is inadequate infrastructure, which hinders the use of agricultural machinery and modern technology. Without designated routes for agricultural machinery, it often needs to cross through neighboring fields, resulting in disputes and potential compensation claims if the machinery causes damage to crops. In some cases, farmers have to dismantle the machinery, transport it to their fields, reassemble it on-site for operation, and subsequently repeat this process when the work is finished. While irrigation is indispensable for agriculture, the challenge arises in mountainous and hilly areas, where traditional collective irrigation systems have significantly deteriorated, making it difficult for individual farmers to access the necessary irrigation water.
The third limitation lies in the difficulty of expanding the scale of land cultivation. When farmers migrate to urban areas for work, they often lease their land to relatives or friends, who then will be faced with even more scattered and intermixed land, making large-scale farming a daunting task. The larger expanses of land farmers work on, the greater the fragmentation, resulting in decreased farming efficiency. In rice-growing regions, for instance, individual farming households typically find themselves limited to a maximum planting scale of 30-50 mou (2.02 to 3.24 hectares).
Despite significant government efforts and financial investments in rural areas to boost agriculture, the outcomes have been less than satisfactory. When it comes to reviving rural industries, local governments tend to focus on integrating primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors, emphasizing tourism and high-end industries, while showing little interest in traditional farming activities. In recent years, the central government has allocated substantial funds for high-standard farmland construction, with an investment of 2,000 (279.65 U.S. dollars) to 3,000 yuan (419.47 U.S. dollars) per mou; in some areas, high-standard farmlands have achieved near 100% coverage. However, most of these initiatives involve only minor adjustments and improvements to existing land infrastructure, without addressing the issue of land fragmentation. Consequently, the efficiency of agricultural facilities remains low, and the land limitations persist. Some farmers may not even be aware that their land has been included in high-standard farmland projects, while others believe these initiatives have limited benefits and are hesitant to get involved. This has created challenges in effectively carrying out these projects.
60-Year-Olds are the Main Farming Labor Force
Currently, agricultural production in China is primarily sustained by farmers around the age of 60, who are more than capable of efficiently managing their land. In 2022, the government of Shayang County in central China's Hubei Province conducted a survey across 12 villages under its jurisdiction. The results showed that individuals aged 50 and above comprised 88.5% of the agricultural workforce, those aged 60 and above accounted for 69%, and those aged 70 and above constituted 30% of the total.
Given the rapid advancement of agricultural mechanization, physically demanding labor in agricultural production has greatly reduced. Farmers in their 60s can efficiently handle land management tasks. In 2021, China achieved a mechanization rate of 72.03% for crop cultivation and harvesting. To break it down further, plowing had a mechanization rate of 86.42%, seeding stood at 60.22%, and harvesting reached 64.66%. Farmers in their 60s are mainly involved in large-scale grain and oilseed cultivation. At present, various farming activities such as plowing, seeding, fertilizing, harvesting, spraying, and trenching can all be mechanized. Additionally, in many regions, drones are utilized for tasks such as seeding, fertilization, and pest control. Agricultural production now largely involves minimal physical labor, with farmers mainly responsible for field management — a task that older individuals can readily handle.
Moreover, farmers in their 60s are often more motivated to cultivate land. Finding it difficult to secure employment opportunities in cities, they consider agriculture a suitable occupation. Although farming may not yield high income, farmers around 60 years of age have typically fulfilled their major life responsibilities, with their children settled and no significant family expenses. As a result, they are generally willing to accept an income lower than what they could have earned outside their hometowns.
With rising life expectancy, farmers in their 60s are physically robust and mentally youthful, often perceiving themselves as the primary labor force in their villages. Far from considering themselves old or ready for retirement, they remain actively engaged, continually seeking ways to boost their family's income. This shift in life expectancy prompts a reconsideration of the conventional definition of who is considered elderly.
Involuntary Withdrawal of Small Farmers from Land
Observations of my team indicate a rapid transfer of land from small farmers. Whether in central or eastern China, over the past two to three years, there has been a notable increase in the rate of land transfer, leading to greater land concentration in the hands of market entities.
The withdrawal of small farmers from land is an incoluntary decisionis, as evidenced by their stagnant income post-transfer. Small farmers have remained in their villages primarily due to the difficulty of finding employment in cities. Therefore, after relinquishing their land, instead of migrating to cities for work, they often face unemployment. Although new agricultural business entities do share a portion of agricultural profits, the rent small farmers receive is typically lower than what they could earn by farming themselves. Additionally, ceasing farming activities necessitates purchasing living supplies, leading to increased commercialization and higher living costs in their household.
With the agricultural profits more or less the same across the country, farmers' decisions to abandon cropland hinge on its cultivation conditions. My team's research has identified a clear pattern: land with favorable cultivation conditions tends to be maintained, whereas land with less desirable conditions is often abandoned. In plains areas, where farming is more accessible and irrigation conditions are favorable, there is minimal abandonment of cropland. Conversely, in hilly regions, where farming poses more challenges and irrigation is difficult, there is a higher possibility of cropland abandonment. In a central region township, as much as 50% of the paddy fields have been abandoned. My team's survey of five villages in the region revealed that the three villages situated near a lake, benefiting from convenient irrigation, experienced no cropland abandonment. On the other hand, two villages located near mountains, with limited access to irrigation, have seen significant abandonment of their cropland.
Government Intervention Results in a Lack of Available Farmers
Observing the aging agricultural labor force, the withdrawal of small farmers from their land, and the abandonment of farmland, the government perceives a shortage of farmers for rural cultivation. In response, it promotes the involvement of young migrant workers and industrial and commercial capital in agricultural activities in the countryside. Policy initiatives focus on transferring land use rights to new agricultural business entities and assigning agricultural projects to these entities. However, this approach often leads to original farmers losing their land use rights or suffering from diminished agricultural infrastructure. This, in turn, intensifies the cultivation challenges for small farmers, thereby reinforcing the perceived shortage of farmers for rural agriculture.
In a central region county, situated in a plain area and averaging 11 mou (about 0.73 hectares) of land per household across approximately 5.5 plots, two villages adopted different approaches to land management with contrasting results. Since 2020, the local government's 'Small to Large Field' reform, combined with building high-standard farmland, has helped to overcome land fragmentation and improve infrastructure, thus addressing the limitations of farmland.
About the "Small to Large Field" reform
Historically, rural farmlands were fragmented into numerous small plots with diverse characteristics. The recent shift focuses on forming uniform, high-standard farmland, requiring substantial investment to homogenize conditions and yields. This involves consolidating these varied small plots into larger, standardized units, and reallocating them to households in proportion to their original landholdings.
Post-reform, Village A's smallest field measures 5 mou (0.33 hectares), with the largest extending to 81 mou (5.38 hectares), and an average field size ranging between 20 to 30 mou (1.34 to 1.98 hectares). Village B initially had 4,860 plots distributed among households. From 2012 to 2017, influenced by the rising trend in crayfish farming, farmers began converting dry land into paddy fields. This period saw a self-driven consolidation of over 2,100 plots through adjustments and land exchanges among farmers. The trend continued with the 2021 high-standard farmland construction, further reducing the number of plots to 492.
The divergent approaches in land use rights allocation in Village A and B led to distinct outcomes in the two villages.
Village A, covering 6,944 mou (462.96 hectares) and comprising 17 villager groups, 570 households, and 2,640 people, traditionally saw farmers cultivating land independently with minimal transfer of land use rights. The village embarked on high-standard farmland construction in 2018, initially covering 1,900 mou (126.67 hectares) across 7 groups, and expanding by an additional 1,100 mou (73.25 hectares) in 2020 involving 3 groups. This initiative, led by the village collective, was designed to merge smaller fields into larger, more efficiently manageable plots.
However, following the construction, the collective primarily transferred land use rights to external market entities. By 2018, 20% of households had stopped cultivating their land, with the village collective farming 800 mou (53.42 hectares) and leasing 1,100 mou (73.25 hectares) to these entities. This proportion increased to 50% by 2020. Now, over 200 farming households remain, but only 60 are local, with the rest being external entities. The dominant farming practice is rice-shrimp co-cultivation on 300 mou (19.83 hectares), which is most effective at a scale between 30-50 mou (2.02 to 3.24 hectares). Beyond 50 mou (3.24 hectares), the scale usually surpasses the management capacity of average farmers.
In 2021, Village B embarked on rural land improvement covering 6,000 mou (400.2 hectares), which attracted over 60 households back to farming. This development led to a decrease in the land transfer rate from 62% to 38%. Consequently, the number of farming households rose from just over 430 to 492. Among them, around 40 households practice part-time farming while living in the county town, and about 20 have fully returned to farming, leaving their other jobs. All cultivators are local residents, with individual plots ranging from 10 mou (0.67 hectares) to a maximum of 50 mou (3.34 hectares). The village collective groups lands smaller than 10 mou for collective planting, and allocates the 10 mu fields individually for cultivation.
The village collective (村集体) is the shortened form of rural collective economic organization (农村集体所有制经济组织).
A villager group (村民小组) represents the most localized unit of rural self-governance and grassroots administration, established according to property rights, social identities, and communal work and living spaces. These groups can vary in size, ranging from a few households to several dozen.
Can Farming be Passed Down from Generation to Generation?
Concerns over an aging farmer population and the possible shortage of agricultural successors are prompting authorities to develop new agricultural business models. However, research by my team suggests that as long as farmland is in good condition and agriculture is profitable, people will show a tendency to return to their hometowns to farm.
Agricultural continuity depends on two factors. First, older migrant workers, struggling to find city jobs, are increasingly returning to rural areas, especially the first generation of migrant workers. Improved land cultivation conditions can hasten this return. For example, in Village B, addressing farming challenges led to over 60 migrant workers returning to agriculture. Initially, many of these individuals settle in nearby county towns, juggling part-time jobs and farming; but after a while, they eventually transition fully back to rural living when possible.
My team's nationwide research revealed numerous cases of migrant workers returning to their villages. For example, in Village B, after the development of high-standard farmland, a farmer who previously ran a restaurant outside the village returned to farming due to challenges in the catering industry and advancing age.
Conversely, a decline in the number of returning migrant workers enables agricultural operators to increase their landholdings, enhancing agricultural income and attracting more farmers back to rural cultivation. The scarcity of available land often discourages farming; however, with sufficient land in their villages, farmers are less inclined to leave their homeland.
Young people are more likely to remain in rural areas for farming if it offers an income comparable to or better than urban jobs. This is evident in Village B's profitable rice-shrimp co-cultivation. According to local farmers, cultivating over 10 mou (0.67 hectares) is adequate for basic living, but those with less than 30 mou (2.00 hectares) often supplement their income with part-time work. Managing over 30 mou (2.00 hectares), however, can provide enough income to forego additional jobs.
A notable example is a 60-year-old villager group leader in Village B. Initially farming 23 mou (1.53 hectares), he expanded to 50 mou (3.34 hectares) after high-standard farmland development, earning about 200,000 yuan (30,000 U.S. dollars) annually from rice-shrimp farming. His 26-year-old son, with a monthly income of 6,000-7,000 yuan (900-1,050 U.S. dollars) in Shenzhen, found it challenging to save money, let alone settle down in the city. Consequently, he returned to the village to farm. The elder villager now assists his son, planning to pass on his agricultural enterprise to the next generation.
Effectively Utilizing the Second Round of Land Contract Extension Policy
In China, rural land is collectively owned. Its use right is held by an individual household that contracts a piece of land.
Although the earliest implementation of household land contracts was in 1978, in most parts of China, the first round of contracting generally began around 1983 and ended around 1997, with a contract period of 15 years.
In 1993, the contracting period was extended to 30 years. So the second round of land contracting began around 1998 and is set to end around 2027.
A 2019 policy paper extended the contracting period by another 30 years, which means farmers can keep working on their contracted land for 30 more years upon the expiry of current arrangements.
China's land contracting policy has long prioritized protecting farmers' interests by ensuring stable land property rights and certifying rural land use. Initially, with varying land quality and low agricultural productivity, adopting a dispersed land contracting approach made sense. However, as differences in land quality decrease and agricultural mechanization improves, this approach no longer aligns with modern productivity needs. Ironically, the policy's emphasis on securing farmers' interests through land-use rights certification has inadvertently led to the consolidation of fragmented plots, making the land more challenging to cultivate. This creates a paradox: a policy designed to protect farmers' interests ultimately undermines them by making land less manageable.
Currently, China is advancing the second phase of its rural land contract extension policy. It is advisable to synchronize it with high-standard farmland development to enable the "Small to Large Field" reform, thereby encouraging contiguous land contracting for households.
Following the establishment of 403 million mou (26.88 million hectares) and 800 million mou (53.36 million hectares) of high-standard farmland in the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans respectively, 2022 marked the completion of an additional 1 billion mou (66.70 million hectares). The ongoing 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) targets the creation of 1.075 billion mou (71.70 million hectares) of connected, high-standard farmland by 2025. The high-standard farmland initiative aims to equalize land quality and enhance agricultural infrastructure, thus addressing the challenge of hard-to-cultivate land and facilitating contiguous contracting.
Village collectives need to reallocate land use rights in a consolidated manner while preserving the overall contracted land area, adhering to the principle of "fixed area, flexible plots." In plains, the "one household, one plot" model is preferred, while in hilly regions, where cost-prohibitive leveling makes this model unfeasible, a "one household, multiple contiguous plots" approach is adopted. By centralizing scattered plots, farming becomes more efficient, even in challenging terrains.
Currently, the second round of land contract extension must emphasize not only protecting the unchanged total land area for farmers but also addressing the difficulties of cultivating certain lands to genuinely safeguard farmers' interests.