A few years ago, I was struck by this picture of one of the most prosperous farming areas in southern China. What blew me away was the high-rise apartment buildings crammed along the roads on the edges of the fields. Which led me to finally try to get my head around Chinese farms. Let’s go to the math.
The average Chinese farm is 1.6 acres, which is what happens when 300 million farmers live in 200 million households on 340 million acres of arable land. To compare we have about 470 million arable acres, so it would be like putting our entire population on about 2/3 of our farmland. To make it even more mind-blowing, fifteen years ago more than twice that many Chinese – about 700 million were on farms. The exodus to other work has been astounding.
The oddity that only recently dawned on me after reading about recent efforts by the Chinese government to reform agriculture, is how much useable land is unavailable because of the human footprint. There has to be room for a house and space for any animals. Without such vertical housing, a significant fraction of that 1.6 acres would be homestead, not crops. The picture of apartment buildings shows the result of efforts to move farmers into denser housing and free up land for cultivation. Certainly, Chinese farmers were already using the minimum of space, but agrarian cultures lack the ability to build much over 2 stories high.
Now add in African Swine Fever. It which will likely devastate those tiny farms, since unlike large hog facilities, they cannot begin to control the contagion. ASF could be leveraged by ag reformers to not only modernize pork production into large herds but shrink the housing footprint at the same time. Officials may use carrots of cheap, modern housing and ag economic policy reform – about which I’ll speak more later – to densify rural China. This trend would make modern agriculture, such as mechanization, more practical for China and improve their production.
We’re not the only country whose rural areas are losing population to cities, we’re just starting from different places – and the Chinese are doing it on purpose.