By Tracie McMillan
National Geographic magazine • February 2018
Watching Jiang Wannian and Ping Cuixiang harvest a sixth of an acre of daikon seed in the north-central province of Gansu feels a little like traveling back in time.
In a dry valley ringed by dusky mountains, on a brick-paved lot, Jiang drives a rusted tractor over a hip-deep mound of dried plants. As they crush down, Ping, Jiang’s wife, plunges a homemade pitchfork into the straw and arranges it for another pass. Eventually Jiang and Ping work side by side, wiry figures with tawny skin. It’s hot, but they are swaddled in clothes to protect themselves from the dust and the sun. They have handsome faces, taut and lined from years of laboring outdoors, and they turn them skyward as they throw fine chaff up and watch ruddy seed rain down. This rhythm continues for hours. In a singsong voice Ping encourages the wind, murmuring, “Blow, blow!” Machines can do this work in minutes, but they are too expensive for Jiang and Ping. Instead they still thresh the daikon by hand, just as farmers did centuries ago.
Jiang and Ping represent one story of China and its farms. More than 90 percent of all farms in China are less than 2.5 acres, and the average farm size is among the smallest in the world. But this is not the only story. Over the past four decades China has caught up to the agricultural development that took the Western world 150 years to achieve—and reimagined it to boot. Every kind of agriculture is now happening all at once: tiny family farms, gleaming industrial meat factories and dairies, sustainably minded high-tech farms, even organic urban ones.
China is grappling with a daunting conundrum: how to feed nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with less than one-tenth of its farmland, while adapting to changing tastes. Thirty years ago about a quarter of the country’s people lived in cities, but by 2016, 57 percent of the population was urban, living in a China that is wealthier and more technologically advanced, with a diet that increasingly resembles that of the West. The Chinese eat nearly three times as much meat as in 1990. Consumption of milk and dairy quadrupled from 1995 to 2010 among urban residents and nearly sextupled among rural ones. And China now buys far more processed foods, increasing about two-thirds from 2008 to 2016.
Because China’s agricultural resources are so modest, supplying this new diet means heading abroad, leading the government to encourage—and help—Chinese companies to acquire farmland and food companies in places like the United States, Ukraine, Tanzania, and Chile. But China has long prized self-sufficiency in staple grains, as an ideology and a response to political isolation, and this has implications for fields at home too. In 2013 President Xi Jinping, discussing food policy with rural officials, told them, “Our rice bowl should be mainly loaded with Chinese food.” This raises a tricky question: If the Chinese are going to feed themselves and eat more like Americans, what does that mean for the way they farm?
The mismatch between agricultural supply and demand in China can seem insurmountable. There are 334 million acres of arable land, of which roughly 37 million are polluted or set aside for restoration. There are 1.4 billion people to feed, but the giant farms that fuel Western diets are nearly impossible to replicate here. That is partly because much of China’s terrain is mountains or desert but also because the farmland is split among about 200 million farms. China’s agricultural landscape looks less like a blanket of green than a patchwork quilt.
Jiang and Ping’s patches adjoin their village—mud-walled houses arrayed in clutches along paved streets that dead-end in cornfields. Their area is known as Team Seven, a remnant of the collective period under Mao Zedong, when the state told farmers what to farm and took most of what they produced. Jiang and Ping lived through the great famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s; Jiang can recall eating boiled bark and leather belts when food ran out. After the collective system ended in 1981, the state kept ownership of the land but distributed the rights to cultivate it equally among villagers.
That process gave Jiang and Ping less than three acres divided among four sites. They dispatch their daughter, a 36-year-old tour-company worker visiting her parents from Kunming, 1,200 miles away, to show me their farm. Under hot, clear skies Jiang Yuping, wearing white jeans, knockoff Vans, and a melon-colored off-shoulder blouse, leads me to the end of the street. I see a tiny, mud-walled building adjacent to an irrigation canal and ask why an outhouse is placed so close to water. She blinks. “It’s like a temple for worship,” she says, eyeing me skeptically. As I apologize, she turns to point out her family’s stevia fields, an acre patch of short, emerald-hued plants bound for sweetener. We walk farther, and she shows me the family’s half acre of flaxseed, planted beneath a factory’s spindly chimney. A couple kilometers down a two-lane highway are the daikon, lettuce, and corn plots. Later she talks about her parents and how she wishes their farm could be more like an American one. “Look at China: Most land is difficult to manage,” she tells me. “There is a waste of human labor and resources.”
The small fragmented nature of Chinese farms is the crucial difference from Western ones, and it’s antithetical to the way much of the industrialized world produces food. If China is to meet its changing appetites with domestic crops, “there are a number of changes that we need,” says Huang Jikun, an agricultural economist at Peking University. Irrigation must be upgraded, he says, and technology and mechanization need to expand. But the first thing that feeding China from home requires, he says, is enlarging the country’s small farms.
The solution might seem simple: replace the patchwork quilt with a vast blanket that can be mowed down in one fell swoop. But Huang cautions that big isn’t always best. China’s staple crops of corn, rice, and wheat all yield the most food per acre at modest scales: One study suggested the sweet spot is between five and 17 acres. “If you’ve got a very small farm, a farmer is out there weeding and working very intensely,” notes Fred Gale, a senior economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and crop yields per acre will reflect that, often being higher than if a large machine is used. China’s plan is not to merge the holdings of small farmers like Jiang and Ping into Kansas-style farms. That would be nearly impossible logistically and would also spur social disruption by uprooting millions of farmers. For now, at least, the idea is to cluster adjoining fields into farms about the size of a Walmart Supercenter parking lot.
Spend a few days with Jiang and Ping, and it can be hard to fathom that China also has some of the most sophisticated industrial farms in the world. The epitome of that is in the meat and dairy industries, which officials have modeled after those in the West. To see for myself, I had to go to eastern China, where I visited a four-year-old dairy bigger than most in the United States.
Walking the length of a cow barn and processing plant at Modern Farming’s Bengbu Farm in Anhui Province, the largest dairy farm in China, took me almost five minutes. It was dim and cool, and there was a sweet smell, half animal and half decay, that wasn’t quite unpleasant. The cows, black-and-white mottled Holsteins, were quiet. They poked their heads through slotted metal fencing to reach feed along the concrete walkway and eyed me, a white-clad interloper in sterile coveralls, galoshes, bonnet, and face mask, with mild interest. The farm, nearly 600 acres, has eight enormous barns built to hold 2,880 milking cows each. Other barns and sheds hold calves and pregnant cows, putting the farm’s maximum bovine population at 40,000, among the largest in the world. Part of industrial agriculture’s allure is the sheer scale of it, and China has succumbed to this as it has expanded its meat and dairy production. China has always prized pork in its diet, and hogs were traditionally raised—and slaughtered—in backyard plots; as recently as 2001, farms with more than 50 hogs made up just a quarter of the market. By 2015 an estimated three-fourths of China’s hogs were being produced on such farms. An expanding appetite for poultry and eggs also has been answered by industrial farms. But perhaps the most surprising industrialization has been at dairy farms like the one I visited in Bengbu. Traditional production had been household based, as hogs were, but after a 2008 food-safety scandal involving fatally contaminated infant formula, China pushed the industry to modernize. In 2008 nearly one in six dairy farms held 200 or more cows. By 2013 more than one in three did.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of food safety to Chinese consumers. Besides fatal levels of melamine in baby formula, scandals have included long beans treated with a banned pesticide and adulterated fox meat passed off as donkey. A 2016 McKinsey & Company study found that nearly three-quarters of Chinese customers worry that the food they eat is harmful to their health. The vast number of small farms makes China’s food system “almost completely unmanageable in terms of food safety,” says Scott Rozelle, an expert on rural China at Stanford University. Industrial dairies and slaughterhouses make traceability and accountability for quality possible, and this is something Chinese consumers want. Indeed a colloquial phrase traditionally used to describe being at ease, “Put your heart down,” has been repurposed. Farmers repeatedly assured me that I could put my heart down with their food; it was, in other words, safe to enjoy.
At Modern Farming’s dairy, officials introduced me to an employee, Zhang Yunjun, whose family home had been where the offices now stand. The Bengbu farm displaced about a hundred villagers, and the government moved them a little way down the road. People in the village cooperated willingly when officials promised jobs at the dairy, new housing, and regular increases to the rental fee for their land. Before the dairy Zhang had worked about six acres with two relatives, growing peanuts and wheat. Now 55, he tends to bedding in the barns and earns more than twice what he did farming. “People are very happy,” he says. “It was really hard working as a farmer. Now I can make much more.”
Nearly every proponent of large-scale farms told me some version of this story, saying that big farms are effective solutions to poverty in rural areas. Farmers, the thinking goes, can work for the big farm and rent out their land, earning two incomes at once. But the reality doesn’t always match the sales pitch. “They do employ people, but it’s very limited,” says Ye Jingzhong, a rural sociologist at China Agricultural University in Beijing. “If they want to make a profit, the first thing they want to cut is the labor employment. And they can only employ a very limited amount of low-paid farmworkers.”
As the sun began to set, I visited the displaced villagers and found their enthusiasm for the dairy much thinner than Zhang’s. They live in a gridded cluster of flat-roofed, two-story apartment buildings painted yellow, surrounded on three sides by peanut and corn fields. Across the road, the dairy’s alfalfa fields roll into the distance. A woman hanging laundry in her small concrete yard told me the water now smelled funny. Several people told me the dairy didn’t hire many workers, their homes were crumbling, and rental income had not budged in four years. Everyone complained about an inescapable stench from manure sprayed on the fields. Nobody I talked with seemed happy about having moved, but hardly anyone seemed all that upset either. The overriding sentiment was simply resignation.
For most rural Chinese these agricultural projects are at best double-edged swords, just as they are elsewhere in the world. Big animal farms can offer some Chinese an escape from the grinding toil of peasant life, but they also bring significant environmental and health risks. A 2010 census of pollution by the Chinese government found agriculture to be the largest polluter of water, greater even than manufacturing. And with all of China’s pollution challenges, it’s hard to see how large-scale animal production will escape the pollution and public health problems attributed to, say, dairies in California—which are smaller than the mega-farms in China.
The government says it recognizes the dangers and emphasizes addressing animal waste in a sustainable way. These concerns are shared by many of the agribusinesses in China, including Modern Farming. In Bengbu the company installed a biogas digester to turn manure into enough energy to meet one-third of its needs there and uses the by-products to fertilize its fields. “Almost no waste,” says Liu Qiang, the mild-mannered, bespectacled guide who took me around the farm. The whole thing, from the fields to the barns, the milking parlors to the bottling plant, he says, is “a demonstration for this country.”
Across Hangzhou Bay from Shanghai, at the edge of a shimmering expanse of mudflats, a Thai animal-feed conglomerate is building a mega-farm with a sustainable bent. In exchange for a break on the rent and a 20-year contract, Charoen Pokphand, or CP Group, is converting 6,425 acres of filled-in mudflats outside the city of Cixi to food production. The goal is “to create value for society in all directions,” says Wang Qingjun, a senior vice president dressed in loose slacks and shirtsleeves.
This is what China’s agricultural future looks like too: a transnational corporation sinking billions of yuan into an agrifood complex comprising fields, farms, factories, corporate offices, and even, eventually, employee housing ranging from apartments to waterfront villas. Last summer, rice paddies covered 3,600 acres. Of those, 115 acres were grown organically and stocked with crabs that are sold for food. There are produce greenhouses, broccoli fields, drones to distribute chemicals, a near-finished dumpling factory, and a one-million-hen egg factory slated to triple in size—large enough to justify a temperature-sensitive robot to automatically cull dead birds. CP Group also expects to harvest enough chicken manure annually to produce 22,000 tons of organic fertilizer.
Last year the company built a vertical farm, an airy, translucent box housing six 30-foot towers with rotating shelves of plant beds, akin to Ferris wheels. When I visited, they held bok choy, amaranth, and garlic chives. The controlled environment allows for targeted fertilizer application, eliminates the need for most pesticides, and produces quadruple the yield of a field with the same footprint, Wang says. This is remarkably promising for a country with too little farmland, particularly one where farmers add to the country’s pollution woes by using three times as much fertilizer as needed. It also sets up CP Group to comply with the government’s goal, announced in 2015, of capping fertilizer and pesticide use by 2020.
The complex is largely an exercise in applying manufacturing logic to food, and Wang, who struck me as part pragmatist, part dreamer, envisions it as a paragon of vertical integration. “The relationship of human and land should be in harmony,” he says. He sees the food-manufacturing system that CP Group is building as a way to accomplish that. For eggs that means growing grain for poultry feed, breeding chickens, then slaughtering and processing them once they are spent. Dumpling dough will be made from CP Group wheat and filled with the company’s meat and produce. To sell its products, the company has its own grocery stores. It’s an impressive vision, if nothing goes awry. But if, say, listeria were to end up in its fruits, contamination could spread far more widely and rapidly than in a decentralized system—as Americans have learned.
Nearly all the large-scale farms in China are run by the government, cooperatives, and businesses, but I also met Liu Lin, a farmer in Inner Mongolia who has become well-off by growing alfalfa for industrial dairies. As a teenager Liu heard a radio broadcast about American farming and its use of machines to till the land. This sounded better than breaking up soil by hand with a hoe, and he became obsessed. Over time Liu persuaded local governments to rent him about 2,470 acres. He bought sophisticated agricultural machines from the U.S. and Europe that, in four hours, could finish what had taken 30 workers 20 days to do.
By the time I met Liu last summer, his farm had several giant barns, barracks for workers, a set of offices and carports, and a two-story villa overlooking a pond. I watched, impressed, as a French silage baler rumbled across a field. In 89 seconds it vacuumed up mowed alfalfa, compressed it into a 1,700-pound cylinder, encircled it in plastic, and discharged it onto the field.
Later Liu took his car, a Lexus SUV, to town to get it washed; his daughter-in-law drove me to meet him in her husband’s Lexus sedan, playing Amy Winehouse on the stereo. In the din of the car wash, I asked how much he earns: More than 10,000 yuan—$1,505—a month? I couldn’t hear his response, but I saw him smile. Later my interpreter told me he had emphatically said, yes, he made more than that—a lot more.
I thought of Liu during my visit to CP Group’s park and corporate offices, where it’s easy to intuit another less discussed selling point of giant farms: money. Experts may debate what size farm will produce the most food per acre, but industrial farms still generate profit far more readily than small ones. CP Group is working to ensure that; the group has hired leading American business academics, as well as consultants such as McKinsey & Company, to help it succeed.
When I visited the Cixi park in August, it was sweltering and humid, and Wang whisked me into a highly air-conditioned boardroom for a PowerPoint presentation. We moved on to lunch in an executive dining room with a wall of windows overlooking the grounds, about a dozen of us seated at a heavy wooden table with a rotating center. I was given the seat of honor, at Wang’s right, and we grazed on the 27 dishes arrayed on the lazy Susan, including grapes and dragon fruit from the park’s greenhouses. Wang offered me red wine and, in keeping with Chinese custom, praised me warmly. It was the most lavish meal I ate in China.
Even as China strives to scale up its agriculture, many affluent urbanites have leapfrogged ahead to a distrust of industrial farming. A compelling example of this can be found north of Beijing, where Jiang Zhengchao, the son of Jiang and Ping, is helping build the latest addition to China’s agricultural future. Behind two squat concrete buildings next to a roaring freeway, he tends five acres that make up his patch of China’s agricultural quilt.
Jiang grows nearly a hundred crops—watermelon, eggplant, taro, and sweet corn among them. He takes some to wholesale markets, but his primary business is persuading middle-class Beijingers to pay him in six-month installments for weekly delivery of safe, farm-fresh food to their door. He also rents plots to people who want to grow food, and for an extra fee, he will tend them. After beginning his business without pesticides and fertilizers, he now uses them sparingly; customers balked at pitted vegetables and undersized fruit. “I have this emotional bond” with farming, says Jiang, who has a degree in social work. He worked three years in an office, which he hated. Eventually he returned to farming—much to the dismay of his parents, who equate the fields with drudgery. “I cannot afford a luxury life,” he says, and he’s OK with that.
Jiang is part of a phenomenon of rural-born, college-educated Chinese going back to the fields. Though small in scale, it is still common enough that there’s a phrase for its participants, fanxiang qingnian—young people returning to the countryside. They now have an organization dedicated to supporting their interests, Wotu Sustainable Agriculture Development Center, and a magazine catering to them called Sustainable Farming. China’s organic sector has boomed, with sales growing as much as 30-fold since 2006, according to a recent industry analysis. Researchers say that at least 122 community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects, with farmers following the same model as Jiang, have sprung up, but the movement claims there are hundreds. Nationwide a few Western-style farmers markets are operating, all in large cities.
For consumers the appeal of small farms is twofold. It’s partly about trusting the farm to supply safe food. But smaller farms also reflect China’s agricultural traditions, says Wen Tiejun, a leading scholar of rural China, and that appeals to rural and urban Chinese alike. “In Asia you have 40 centuries of agriculture,” Wen says. “You not only get enough food for this big population but have a very good environment.” People know and remember this, he says. In 2008 Wen helped found Little Donkey, a model organic farm in Beijing. The next year it became a CSA after one of his graduate students returned from Minnesota, where she’d studied with food activists.
This kind of food remains a minuscule share of China’s market. But it suggests that many Chinese aren’t completely sold on a future of industrial meals. Jiang Zhengchao understands why his parents would love to leave their farm behind, and he has no wish to repeat their hardships. But he’s also skeptical that industrialized farms are necessary.
When I visited him, Jiang took me and some colleagues to dinner at a barbecue restaurant. We sat outside at a plastic table, watching a plump woman in a tight apron tend a narrow metal grill atop sawhorse legs. An industrial fan roared above it, spinning tendrils of smoke into the evening air. The woman brought us caramelized nuggets of pork and skewered chicken hearts, fibrous enoki mushrooms doused with sauce and black sesame, grilled garlic cloves, eggplant slick with oil and vinegar, boiled peanuts tossed with soy sauce. It was more meat than Jiang had eaten as a child but far less than is typical for Americans. As the light faded into dusk, elderly farmers loitered on a corner, selling off surplus scallions. Jiang told me he liked his life and later quoted poetry to illustrate what Americans tend to call living simply: an old but comfortable house, nothing too fancy, a beautiful space in the woods. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing in the old days that the people could support themselves from their own land,” he says. “In China if you are a farmer, then people look down on you, but I just love it. Life is short, so I do what I like.”
Jiang has seen the benefits of the changes that China’s farms have undergone in the past four decades. Our meal with ample pork and chicken was part of that for him. So was the way his life encompassed a kind of time travel, looping between rural Gansu Province and hypermodern Beijing. But he wasn’t sure he’d stick it out with the CSA; it paid so little and took so much work. Maybe, he told me, he’d go back to Gansu and try to start a big farm.