Saturday, April 18, 2009

China’s new crop of greenhouses

Little of China’s massive fixed asset investment has found its way into the agricultural sector. But authorities are now encouraging investment through subsidies for machinery purchases and a number of other strategies that include building infrastructure, breeding stations, barns, bioenergy facilities, and other fixed assets. They typically include modest subsidies split among central, provincial, and local governments and enticements to private agribusiness companies. Many of these campaigns fall under the rubric of developing “modern agriculture.”

One of these campaigns is “facilities agriculture” which seems to encompass mainly building greenhouses to produce vegetables. It includes construction of various kinds of greenhouses, demonstration projects, breeding stations, and technical training. “Facilities agriculture” was featured in the 11th 5-year plan and the “Decision” of the 3rd plenum of the 17th party congress in October 2008. Campaigns to build greenhouses have been around a while, but this seems to be a coordinated nationwide, well-subsidized effort.

An April 9 article on the MOA web site gives a rundown on progress in facilities agriculture programs in select provinces. A total of 8 billion yuan will be for support of these programs. Funds for subsidies are to come from three levels of government: provincial, municipal (prefecture), and county. Provincial governments are scheduled to contribute the biggest share—nearly 3 billion yuan, followed by about 2.9 billion yuan from counties, and 2.2 billion yuan from municipal governments. The total is roughly half of the amount of grain subsidies allocated for this year. Eight provinces are expected to allocate over 100 million yuan each (Beijing, Liaoning, Shanghai, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Jilin, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia). The article doesn’t mention any contributions from the central government but each province has similar subsidies and targets, indicating this is a national program directed by the central government with actual responsibilities devolved to local governments.

Facilities include greenhouses heated by sunlight, greenhouses formed by constructing a bamboo frame covered with plastic sheeting, and mesh netting placed on a 4-5-foot frame over an outdoor vegetable patch. Greenhouses typically have an earthen or concrete wall on one side and a frame covered with plastic film on the southern exposure. Only a few well-capitalized companies have glass-enclosed greenhouses and drip irrigation. Mesh netting appears to be used mainly in Jiangsu Province. Small plastic-covered frames are commonly used in fields to start seedlings. “Facilities agriculture” is part of China’s broader “modern agriculture” campaign. It also emphasizes building county plant breeding farms, offering training for farmers, and setting up demonstration areas.

Each province has established subsidy standards for each type of greenhouse and most have ambitious targets for increasing the area covered by facilities agriculture. The subsidy varies from province to province. In Jiangsu, the subsidy is higher in poorer, agricultural regions in the north of the province where a steel-framed greenhouse is subsidized at 2500 yuan per mu, compared with 1500 yuan per mu in the richer southern part of the province. In Beijing, the subsidy for steel-framed greenhouses is 10,000 yuan per mu. Shanghai is subsidizing vegetable production base facilities of 300 mu or larger at 40,000 yuan/mu.

Already there are places where the ground is completely covered by plastic greenhouses. According to China’s agricultural census, greenhouses covered over 1 million hectares of planting area in 2006, about three-fourths of that planted in vegetables. Shandong Province is by far the leader in greenhouse agriculture, with about 20% of the greenhouse area in 2006. Shouguang of Shandong (ground zero for China’s greenhouse/vegetable explosion) is a demonstration area for greenhouse area where the fields are blanketed with plastic structures. Shouguang has one of the biggest wholesale vegetable markets and a massive research center with surreal giant fiberglass vegetables decorating the courtyard.

Provinces have set ambitious goals to expand area sharply. For example, Liaoning plans to have 8 million mu of greenhouse area by 2010, up from its 1.4 million mu total in 2006. Jilin and Tianjin have targets of 1 million mu by 2011 and 2012.

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