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.