I’m writing this week from seat 11J on a long-haul flight homeward bound from China. I spent a week in the vicinity of Nanjing giving some talks at universities and visiting my friend, Xu Huaike. Xu spent a year as a visiting scholar at Michigan State University, and he wanted to show me his home village. The word ‘village’ can mean something different in the Chinese context. It might be a town of 200,000 people, but in this instance I think anyone would agree that I was going to a village. We drove about an hour out of Ming Guang, which is too small to have an airport, but might have 400,000 people, passing through the small city where Xu had taught high school students. He wanted to show me the farmer’s market: chickens and geese being slaughtered, plucked and dressed; old men sitting with a few cabbages and a handful of cilantro to sell for their daily living; live fish swimming in dishpans.
We kept on driving for another 10 or 15 kilometers on a very narrow but well maintained paved road until we came to the place that Xu was born and spent his childhood. It was a farming village with perhaps 30 small compounds tightly packed together. The Chinese farm household consists of two or three squat rectangular buildings arranged around a hard (possibly concrete) rectangular pad that is used to thresh and dry grains. Corn is what I saw on a pretty chilly December morning. The compound might be walled and gated, with tin roofs over the brick buildings. One of these buildings serves as the house, with two or three rooms, including a small kitchen, while others are for storage of grain and tools, or barns for chickens, pigs or goats. We pulled into a drive and parked the car, then walked about a quarter of a mile down a dirt path to two of the compounds where we met some of the family still working at farming.
The men and women alike were grizzled and weathered to the point that it was difficult to guess their age, though I suppose they ranged from mid-forties to late fifties. There is electricity that runs to the compound but no plumbing in these houses. I’m not sure how that little bit of human necessity is handled. I saw no evidence of electrical appliances. The power is for the farming work.
After a few pleasantries, the dogs were shooed away and narrow benches were brought out so we could all sit in the compound for a smoke and a chat. There’s not all that much compelling work on a farm during the second week of December, so everyone was more than willing to spend a few moments with the pale, blue-eyed stranger that had appeared in their midst. Some of the talk was typical farm stuff: how the bumper crop in rice and corn this year had led to a collapse in prices. When we got around to talking about the outlook, none of them expected to be there in ten years. None of their children are there now. Everyone expects to lease their land to a contractor eventually and move into the city.
Now this land thing is a complicated story I don’t fully understand. All the land in China is owned by the socialist government. However, farmers do have the right to farm on designated plots. Although they can’t buy and sell land, they can either lease their right to farm to a contractor, or they can sell it permanently. I’ve read that a few farmers have exchanged their farming lease for a similar lease on an urban apartment, and perhaps that’s what Xu’s family is hoping to do as well.
These plots are exceedingly small by U.S. standards—no bigger than the patch on which we grow vegetables for Thornapple CSA and some much smaller. What is more the plots are separated from one another by berms and the level of the fields are not at the same height. Rice fields, in particular, may be two or three feet lower than others. You could not run even a medium-sized farm tractor over these fields without a major landscaping effort. Patchwork is an understatement. Nevertheless, I did see a small tractor, and also a small (by U.S. standards) harvester.
This is obviously a hard life that is mostly dominated by work with few amenities. Xu says, “I think their lives are miserable,” though by world standards they are not poor, earning about $5000 annually from tending their plots. You can live on that, but not well. A cup of coffee in Ming Guang will cost you about what it does in the U.S.A, so there’s not money for extra clothes or home improvements. At the same time, I’ve seen poor farmers in India and Africa who would not have even the bits of equipment that the farm families in this village have.
The story is missing lots of important details, though I do have a few that I might be sharing in future blogs. What’s most unclear is who will be doing the farm work when everyone leases out their right to farm and heads to the city. Xu’s village once had over 300 families, but on the day I visited they were down to 19. Most of the farm compounds were abandoned. I’m sure I will be mulling over this trip for some time to come.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University