Thursday, July 5, 2012

China's Crop of "Professional Farmers"

Chinese officials have lost patience with ignorant, lazy farmer/peasants who farm in a lackadaisical manner. This year's "Number 1 document" called for replacing these "traditional" farmer/peasants with "new-style professional farmers" (新型职业农民) who have education, training, and commercial skills.

An opinion article published last month in Farmers Daily described this as a new change related to the increase in off-farm employment, aging of the farming population and the urbanization-industrialization-modernization of agriculture (the new "san hua" slogan). The Farmers Daily writer explains that most people engaged in farming don’t rely on agriculture for their income, have low education, often leave land untended and are not motivated to become sophisticated managers. Professional farmers who specialize and operate on a larger scale are more inclined to adopt new technologies, have lower production costs, higher yields and better feed-conversion ratios.

The Farmers Daily article explains that professional farmers are expected to come from the ranks of capable and entrepreneurial farmers who have become large-scale farmers, leaders of cooperative organizations, founded their own processing businesses, become brokers and traders, and those who supply other farmers with machinery, extension, veterinary and pest control services. Returned migrants who have learned business skills and an awareness of the outside world are viewed as another source of “professional farmers.”

In a strategy that resembles the 1970s campaign to send intellectuals to the countryside, college students are being encouraged to become farming pros. A Henan Daily article features a group of nine young ladies from Henan Agricultural University doing their "practical training" in a greenhouse. One student who was awarded a May 4 medal by Premier Wen Jiabao at a rally of grassroots masses in Zhongnanhai explains that they volunteered to come here to put their textbook knowledge into practice. Now they all want to be professional farmers. The students say there are many policies issued by central and local governments to encourage college students to become a new class of professional farmers with new concepts, education, an understanding of technology, marketing and management skills.

An article on the Ministry of Agriculture web site calls nurturing professional farmers an "urgent requirement" for the new trend in modern agriculture. The Ministry's article describes a gathering of personnel from the agricultural broadcasting school in the "revolutionary holy land" (革命圣地) of Yan'an, the region in northern Shaanxi Province where Mao Zedong and the communists hid out after their "long march." The broadcasting school is set to play a key role in training this new cadre of "professional farmers" through distance education delivered to rural areas.

The agricultural broadcasters made a series of visits to counties in northern Shaanxi that are model areas for developing professional farmers.

Luochuan County is described as the world's ideal apple-growing area. In the 1990s, officials formulated a national plan for the apple industry and created a massive apple industry in this formerly destitute region. Northern Shaanxi's fruit farmers are described as the vanguard of professional farmers. According to the county director, Luochuan's apple farmers have a high degree of technical knowledge, an understanding of quality management, and how to use brands in their business--all characteristics of professional farmers. However, says the director, the farmers still have a low degree of organization--they're not joining cooperatives--so their ability to enter the market is insufficient.

Jingdian County formulated a plan to transform its sheep industry by replacing shepherds who lead their sheep around looking for grass with professional farmers who raise their sheep in pens and barns. In Jingbian, professional farmers need subsidies. The county has a “nine free, ten subsidy” support program that includes free breeding services, training, subsidies for disease prevention, and loans for barn construction. Jingbian has nurtured a cadre of 600 professional farmers through a system of training and accreditation.

Officials are now in the process of synthesizing experiences from different provinces to set up a national system for raising the new crop of professional farmers. An important part of the system is education programs delivered by agricultural broadcasters. Officials are putting together a process for attaining credentials and certifications. The system will target professional farmers for subsidies, loans, participation in social insurance, land rentals, and services in marketing and extension. Professional farmers are expected to be leaders in industry and regional development and act as a vanguard that pulls along other farmers. These professionals are also viewed as a pool that a new generation of rural officials can be drawn from.

Following their usual pattern, Chinese officials have recognized an emerging trend of agricultural entrepreneurs that they think needs to be brought under the communist party’s control and tutelage. They are devising an elaborate scheme to replicate it on a massive scale by turning an organic process into a formula and a giant social engineering program. While the idea looks good on paper, implementation will be difficult in the thousands of local fiefdoms that comprise modern China.

Who will provide all this free education and training on a paltry government salary? Will students who learned things from a textbook but have no practical experience be more productive than farmers? The strategy of dangling subsidies, herding people into training programs and telling them to focus on earning government-issued certificates is at odds with the goal of nurturing a generation of self-motivated entrepreneurs.  Abuse and confusion are sure to follow.

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