Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Idle Land Phenomenon

An article making the rounds of Chinese web sites this month describes the phenomenon of idle farm land.

Driving through rural Hunan Province, the reporter sees farmers hard at work in their fields transplanting rice. However, Zhou Dapo's fields are still asleep, several mu of paddy land covered in weeds. Similar idle fields are evident nearby.

Mr. Zhou is a longtime resident of Spring Lake Village near Changsha. He spends most of his time in the city working, but he took several days off to come home to buy fertilizer. Traditionally, Hunan farmers plant two crops of rice each year, but Zhou is preparing to plant a single crop this year.

Mr. Zhou explains that these days it's cheaper to buy rice than grow it yourself. Last year, two rice crops on 1 mu brought about 650 kg of rice worth about 1700 yuan. After paying for seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, planting and harvesting, the net income is about 800 yuan. If you count the labor and management, you make nothing. Many of Zhou's neighbors are spending most of their time working elsewhere and leaving their land idle for part or all of the year.

The idle land phenomenon is also evident in Jiangxi where there are some large swathes and scattered patches of idle land. One Jiangxi farmer observes that fewer people are growing rice in his village. Some just raise enough to feed their family. The farmer reports that others don't bother with the hard work; they can collect about 100 yuan from the government in subsidies without planting anything.

A survey in Jiangxi's Huang County found that about 12% of the land was idle. That didn't include land shifting from 3 rice crops to 2 or 2 rice crops to 1.

A 2007 survey report on idle land in Hunan said this is a common problem nationwide. However, the report found that the place with the "most serious" problem in Twin Peaks County had only 1.3% of its land completely idle. The big concern was what the report called "hidden idle land"--the switch from 2 rice crops per year to 1. It said this occurred on 20% of the land in some villages and as much as 80% in some villages. Some officials told the surveyors there was no problem with idle land in their area because they gave the farmers subsidies, but the surveyors observed idle land on both sides of the road.

Another problem detected is farmers who are not too serious about farming. They are described as returning to the "depend on heaven to eat" mode of peasant farming. A professor from Renmin University calls this a "lazy field" phenomenon and complains that farmers don't practice intensive farming.

The Renmin University professor blames the problem on low grain prices. He claims that grain prices are 10 to 20 times higher in Japan and South Korea. He is dissatisfied with the minimum price policy and thinks China's grain prices should be 5 to 10 times higher than what they are now.

The Hunan idle land survey report makes more conventional suggestions. The Hunan report recommends making it easier to rent land and improving the subsidy system. The Hunan report criticizes grain subsidies for becoming a welfare payment. The report says you get basically the same subsidy whether you plant one rice crop or two. It praises localities in Hunan that gave more subsidies to farmers who planted two rice crops. One county set up a 1 million yuan award fund that gives 50 to 200 yuan per mu to "large grain farmers" who consolidate fields and plant two rice crops.

No comments: