Is “Family Farms” the Way to Develop Chinese Agriculture?
Early in 2013 China’s Party Central sounded the call for developing so-called “family farms.” A great deal of discussion ensued, in which the dominant view has been to call for developing scale economies in “family farming” through greatly increased transfers of land, in the belief that largescale farms would help raise both labor and land productivity. The slogan used, “family farms,” is borrowed from American rhetoric and reflects the way American agriculture is mistakenly imagined by many people. This article demonstrates that such a vision runs counter to the logic shown by the history of agricultural modernization throughout the world. It mistakenly tries to force China’s reality of “lots of people and little land” into an American model predicated on its opposite of “lots of land and few people,” and it mistakenly tries to apply economic concepts based on the industrial machine age to agriculture. The vision/policy is also based on a misunderstanding of the realities of contemporary American agriculture, which has long since come to be dominated by agribusiness. The determinative logic in American agricultural modernization has been to economize on labor, in contrast to the path of modernizing development that has already taken hold in practice in Chinese agriculture of the past 30 years, in which the dominant logic has been to save on land, not labor, in what I term “labor and capital dual intensifying” “small and fine” agriculture. The American “big and coarse” “model” is in reality utterly inappropriate for Chinese agriculture. It also runs counter to the insights of the deep and weighty tradition of scholarship and theorizing about genuine peasant family farming. The correct path for Chinese agricultural development is the appropriately scaled, “small and fine” genuine family farms that have already arisen quite widely in the past 30 years.
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