Challenges to Family Farming in Chine [*]

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. China's agricultural sector requires reforms to assure farmers and consumers of fair prices while protecting the environment and permitting sustainable growth in the coming years. The affluent eastern province of Jiangsu is an appropriate site in which to explore the effects of agricultural reforms on rural households and, in turn, the efforts of these households on the environment. We compare two surveys (1987 and 1996), of 100 households each, of farmers in Huaiyin and Huai' an Counties, Jiangsu Province. Indicated are chronically low economic returns on grain, moderate returns for livestock, and the highest returns for vegetables. Unfortunately, the production of livestock and vegetables requires more farm chemicals, inorganic fertilizers, and placement of field plastic--all of which are associated with greater environmental problems. Keywords: agriculture, China, Jiangsu Province, rural development.

China's leaders recall with ritual regularity agriculture's place as the very "foundation" of the state economy. Farmers, in turn, are assumed to be the "pillars" upon which society rests (Beijing Review 1998; Li 1998). This rhetoric, which in 1996 then-Premier Li Peng used to evoke Mao Tse-tung's rural strategy dating from the earliest days of the Chinese Communist Party, has come to sound hollow in recent years (Li P. 1996). In the modern People's Republic of China (PRC), where high incomes are associated with light-industry or service-sector jobs in urban places, the Confucian line that farmers should receive the utmost respect from all members of society requires a bit of a stretch. In fact, in early 2000 the social and cultural gaps between farmers and city-dwellers in China are greater than ever, and farmers are being singled out as having caused economic and environmental problems that are distinctly beyond their control.

Fiscal reform of the farm sector and environmental protection in China area admittedly complex issues, often viewed in academic research from towering macro-policy or national political economy perspectives (Sicular 1988, 1991; Perkins 1991; Hsueh, Sung, and Yu 1993; Smil 1993; Brown 1995; Huang 1998). These clinically removed approaches are appropriate and necessary, but the picture they paint is in complete. Two surveys of 100 households we conducted ten years apart in Huaiyin and Huai'an Counties, in the most important agricultural region of northern Jiangsu Province, help to fill in the gaps (Figure 1). The first survey was carried out in September and October 1987. The follow-up, with a 30 percent overlap in the sample, was done in January 1996 to document changes in the agricultural economy. These economic and environmental changes challenge China's entire agricultural sector. With this research, we seek to place in a specific local context the broader debates on national food supply, the efficacy of c urrent pricing and marketing policies, and potential environmental problems. To understand these complex issues more fully, we return to the farm, where production decisions are made one plot, one yuan, or one hour at a time. The farmers in our samples cannot change the broader and inaccessible policies related to interest rates, prices, land tenure, land use, or environmental protection. They instead respond, and quickly, to fresh commercial opportunities and new prices. Each season they can change what they grow, how they grow it, where they sell it, and to whom they sell it.

How, then, have family farm strategies and agricultural investments changed in the past decade of reform? Are matters better or worse? Secondarily, but related to the first set of financial matters, are environment-related issues. Do farmers in Jiangsu contribute to environmental problems? If so, how do these families pollute or cause environmental damage? Are the farmers aware of these issues? What mutually beneficial adjustments might be made to meet the needs of the state, of urban consumers, and of farmers? …