Breaking Big Ag: Examining the Non-Consolidation of China's Farms
Over the past two decades, China’s policymakers have implemented numerous reforms intended to promote the emergence of scale farming enterprises. Nonetheless, contrary to demographic predictions, China’s farm economy remains dominated by smallholders (小农/小型农场) and virtually untouched by “big ag” (大农/大规模农场) as evidenced by a mean farm size of 0.6-0.7 hectares. This paper seeks to explain why China has not significantly transitioned to scale farming despite market liberalization. Using empirical evidence derived from data on land rental markets before and after the implementation of the 2011 Land Certificate Program 《中华人民共和国土地管理法实施条例》, I find that land tenure insecurity has not been solely responsible for limiting scale farming. Rather, China’s farm sizes have likely been constrained partly by unique policy conditions that lead to smallholders renting out their land to other smallholders, who subsequently do not further scale up due to other distortions that disincentivize mechanization, including labor surplus and plot fragmentation. These findings may have wide-ranging implications for the future efficacy of China’s efforts to optimize its rural land policy strategy.
Introduction Over recent decades, the issue of farm size has loomed large for the world’s policymakers and the environmental movement alike. To many economists, large- scale farming is an emblem of market efficiency, enabling millions of rural workers to move out of agriculture into higher-growth sectors. For others, enormous mechanized farms are emblematic of the unstoppable encroachment of “big ag” on the farm economy; they connote lost rural jobs, decimated communities, monocultural commodity dependence, and ecological ruin. In countries like China, where land tenure systems are being continuously invented and reinvented ad hoc to support economic and social objectives, the clash between these two conflicting narratives of scale farming is more than just an ideological battle between family farmers and big business. Rather, it is a surrogate of a broader set of political questions about social optimality that have come into particularly stark relief for China as globalization has forced the nation to strike a balance between economic competitiveness and self-sufficiency. The stakes are nothing less than how daily life is lived for hundreds of millions of people. Partly as a result of both centuries of traditional labor-intensive land-use practices and decades of land policy designed to build a self-sufficient food system, China’s farms are today among the world’s smallest, at an average of roughly 0.6 hectares (1). As of 2010, 70 percent of China’s farmland was occupied by “small- holder farms” (<2 ha) (小型农场) (2), compared to 30 percent for East Asia and below 5 percent for upper-middle-income countries globally (3). These average farm sizes continually decreased until at least 2007 (4). They have since stabilized and begun to slightly increase, but to this day there are no indications of “a systemic shift toward large-scale farming for the typical farming household” (5). While decreasing farm size is unusual for middle-income developing countries, it is especially extraordinary for countries with China’s demographics. Countries typically begin to rapidly adopt scale farming once they reach the turning point’ where the agricultural labor force begins to decrease due to the increasing availability of off-farm jobs (6). With rapid urbanization and a low total fertility rate (7), China has long since reached this turning point: its rural population has decreased by roughly 36 percent since 1992 (8), while its number of “rural employed persons” (农村劳动人口) has been decreasing since 1997 (9). Meanwhile, census data shows cultivated land decreased only 0.2 percent over five years, debunking the popular narrative that farm sizes have contracted due to farmland being lost to urban development projects (10-11). This appears, at first glance, to be a contradiction. If the same amount of land is being cultivated, but the number of farmers is decreasing, how can this not ipso facto imply farm consolidation? Perhaps the most striking thing about China’s farm size trends is that they have persisted through several rounds of rural land tenure reforms that eliminated nearly all direct policy barriers to land transactions and consolidation. A robust debate continues among scholars about the ideal scale of farms in a Chinese topographic and economic context, with many arguing that land rights provide critical social insurance to rural residents and that traditional “dual-intensive” smallholder farming practices (小规模畜-禽-鱼饲养和菜-果种植家庭农场) are well-suited to modern China’s need for both land-efficient farming and crop diversification (12). Nonetheless, China’s top policymakers appear to see farm non-consolidation as a major labor efficiency issue that threatens to inhibit economic growth (13). To attempt to solve this issue, the government has implemented a series of reforms, including the 2011 Land Certificate Program, to make it easier to transfer land rights. While past studies have indicated that these reforms have increased household-level land renting, it remains unclear whether these increases have translated into any large-scale land consolidation (14). Globally, land economists have noted the potential impact of several factors on farm sizes, with significant literature dedicated to the relationships between land documentation (15), mechanization (16), and off-farm employment (17). For China specifically, few studies have investigated the causes of farmland non-consolidation beyond the household responsibility system (HRS 家庭联产承包责任制). The HRS is a policy instrument that equitably distributes land to every rural household, and, until recently, allowed for the periodic “redistribution” of land to preserve this equity; as such, many have assumed it sufficiently explains land remaining unconsolidated (18). While the HRS helps explain why Chinese farms have generally tended to be small, it cannot explain why farms have barely even begun to scale up several decades into land tenure liberalization. Indeed, the HRS makes China an ideal case study for how rural land markets develop when starting from a condition of de facto complete land equality. Structure This paper proposes one model to explain how China’s farmland remains unusually unconsolidated despite land market liberalization. Specifically, I theorize the HRS as a policy instrument that enforced an initial market condition of there being no scale farms. I then propose that given that initial condition, existing models of scale farming development can be deconstructed into two functions: (1) whether people enter the land rental market and (2) the land rental behavior (e.g. total quantity of land rented) of those who do enter the land rental market. Based on this model, I find that while policies that improved land tenure security led to more people entering the land rental market, there is no evidence that they caused those who rented land to rent more land. This finding suggests that tenure insecurity has not been solely responsible for non-consolidation. Rather, although the number of land transactions is increasing, most land continues to be transferred locally from smallholder to smallholder rather than to outside large companies, due to irregular market forces caused by China’s unique land policies. Further, most farms remain non-mechanized, likely due to both farm labor surpluses and plot fragmentation. This non-mechanization disincentivizes smallholder renters from scaling their operations up into scale farms, which constrains consolidation. To examine both the context and global relevance of China’s experience with land markets, I begin with a historical land policy overview. Then, I examine several hypotheses for China’s land non-consolidation, which I organize into three broad categories: (1) barriers to land rental market participation, (2) relative incentives to smallholder-to-smallholder transfers (or disincentives to smallholder-to-company transfers), and (3) disincentives to smallholder land renters scaling up. I then test how variation of each factor correlates with land rental behavior, using data on households from villages that either had completed or had not yet started, implementing the 2011 Land Certificate Program (LCP 《中华人民共和国土地管理法实施条例》) as of 2015 (19). Finally, I discuss the possible implications of my findings for China’s land policy strategy.
Institutional background Land tenure in China: a historical overview China has a unique and complex history of land tenure that often goes unappreciated by Western observers. This history has been shaped by two defining characteristics of modern China: a rapidly growing population and a sharply limited amount of arable land. These characteristics necessitated an agricultural strategy that prioritized ‘land efficiency’ (maximizing output per land) over ‘labor efficiency’ (maximizing output per labor). Indeed, as the population began to grow faster than urbanization could keep up, labor-intensive agriculture emerged as a useful way to “absorb” surplus labor (20). As agricultural technology improved, Chinese farmers began to adopt a “dual-intensive” farming strategy: technology was used not to reduce labor, but to increase output per land (21). This strategy has been credited with facilitating China’s world-class agricultural yields, which remain among the world’s highest by output per acre of arable land (22). Under agricultural collectivization during the Mao era, dual-intensive agriculture largely continued despite the removal of boundaries between plots, surprising economists who had expected economies of scale to emerge (23). China’s rural reforms in 1978 revolutionized the land tenure paradigm, but preserved incentives for dual-intensive farming. The right to work (collectively owned) land became the right to operate land. Crucially, however, the village committee remained the legal proprietor of all the land, and households’ right to retain it was conditional on meeting agricultural production quotas. Under this household responsibility system (HRS), the village contracts several non-contiguous parcels of land out to each of its households, equitably distributed by household population, for a given renewable term, currently 30 years (24, 25). When the term expires, the village can “redistribute” the land to correct for changing household sizes over the contract term, and, until recently, could take land away from a household that was leaving it idle (26). Households retain their own agricultural income, except for taxes paid back to the collective. This system ensures that all of China’s limited farmland continues to be used efficiently, and that land distribution remains equitable, with all households having the right to retain any land they can use for farming. While the HRS provides an invaluable social safety net for a rapidly growing population and facilitates the maximization of domestic agricultural output, it poses significant obstacles to China’s new goal of maximizing national labor productivity (27). On the most basic level, limitations on land rights impose obvious limitations on land transfers, making it difficult for farmers who could make more money off-farm to leave agriculture (28). Given that villagers cannot fully own their land, they cannot sell their land; they can only rent it out or subcontract it for the remainder of their lease term (29). Village government proprietorship of land has given rise to further frictions. Until recently, village governments had to sign off on transfers (30), giving village leaders significant power over what kinds of transfers could occur and to whom. Many villages regularly violated the prescribed contract terms by conducting “reallocations” of villagers’ land even within the con- tract period (31). These reallocations made farmers hesitant to rent out their land, the fear being that doing so would signal the land was no longer needed (32). Finally, until 2011, most land contracts were not formally certificated; the resulting limited land tenure security discouraged renting out to strangers, with whom no informal social contracts existed to motivate contract compliance (33). To resolve such problems, the central government has introduced several reforms to improve tenure security and liberalize the land market. Two especially noteworthy programs stand out. The first, the 2002 Rural Land Contracting Law 《中华人民共和国农村土地承包法》, clarified that villagers had the right to transfer their contract land either by renting out (出租) or by “subcontracting” (转包) the remainder of their contract term, while explicitly banning most reallocations (34). Subsequently, the 2011 Land Certificate Program (LCP) reasserted commitment to the 2002 regulations while introducing formal land documentation for every rural household. Some contended that large-scale land consolidation was only a matter of time as a result of these reforms (35). However, the fact that farms have not meaningfully consolidated decades later suggests otherwise.
Potential constraints on consolidation: Several hypotheses 1. Structural barriers to entering the land rental market 1.1 Land tenure insecurity Perhaps the most common explanation of China’s farmland’s non-consolidation is that persistent land tenure insecurity continues to discourage land transfers (36). This explanation would suggest that, while recent reforms have improved the conditions for consolidation, rental markets remain constrained largely because the new policies have not yet been universally implemented or enforced. Despite the central government’s obsessive efforts to recalibrate land policy, this explanation is plausible, as village governments’ compliance with national land laws vary (37). This pervasive noncompliance is evidenced by the significant number of reallocations that have continued to occur well into the 2010s despite reallocations having been essentially outlawed by the 2002 Rural Land Contracting Law (38). Despite these implementation lags, each round of reform has demonstrably had some impact. When the pilot of the LCP had extended to roughly half of China, farmers from villages where the LCP had been decreed were more likely to rent land (39). However, it remains unclear whether reforms’ impact has been to increase scale renting or just to spur lots of non-scale renting. If tenure insecurity were solely responsible for non-consolidation, we would expect the local implementation of reforms to positively correlate not only with rental participation but also with rental scale. Thus, a more granular assessment of how land reform implementation has affected rental market dynamics may elucidate the extent to which tenure insecurity has constrained scale farming.
1.2 Hukou system 户籍制度: Emigration without land renunciation The Hukou System, which splits the Chinese population into “urban” and “rural” residents, is another widely theorized source of non-consolidation. Over recent years, an unprecedented number of rural Chinese residents have migrated to the cities (40). Yet many of these migrant workers cannot get their rural hukou registrations (农村户口) changed to receive social benefits from their new municipalities, nor do employers typically offer them basic social protections (41). Only 22 percent of migrant workers have “basic pension insurance” (低保), while just 17 percent have un-employment insurance (42). Thus, most migrants choose to keep their land rights as a fallback (43). To some theorists, this trend is the end of the mystery of China’s farm sizes: these retained landholdings simply remain idle, perhaps being casually tended by an aging family member (44). Thus, it is possible that while the rural population is decreasing, the number of rural landholders is not, precluding consolidation. Indeed, this seems to be the popular conception both outside and within China (45). However, evidence suggests this is unlikely to be happening en masse. For instance, China’s land is remarkably productive given how much of it is barely arable. The country’s average cereal yields per hectare regularly rank among the top-few G20 countries–including those with far more prime farmland–and far exceeds most of its regional peers (46). If most of the thirty percent of China’s farmland contracted to migrant households were near-idle, the remaining farmland would be by far the most productive land on the planet, which is implausible (47). Moreover, output has not decreased with the emergence of migration since the 1990s; rather, it has increased comparably to or more rapidly than that of peer countries, again making it improbable that idle land is massively increasing (48). Finally, the persistence of reallocations, which Krusekopf finds most often occur where village demographics have recently changed, indicates that migrants typically cannot leave land idle without it being redistributed (49). Thus, it is incredibly unlikely that land abandonment alone can account for farm non-consolidation. Yet the question remains: what, then, happens to migrant households’ land when they leave the village but do not renounce their land?
2. Relative disincentives to land rentals to outside scale farming companies 2.1 Cheap rent prices reduce barriers for local renters The data suggest that for most of China’s migrant households, renting their land out is the solution of choice. For migrant families to fully allocate their labor capital off-farm while keeping their land rights for social insurance, they must somehow keep their land under cultivation to meet HRS quotas, lest they risk the village government reallocating their land (50). This need can essentially only be fulfilled by renting; thus, it is unsurprising that households with more migrant workers tend to rent out greater proportions of their land (51). Given China’s remarkable recent rates of rural emigration and non-agricultural job growth, the expected result of this dynamic is an extremely high supply of land for rent, likely leading to unusually low land rental prices. Wang’s data confirms this conjecture: 62 percent of land “rentals” (农村地租), including 53% of those to non-relatives, were rent-free (52). While rent-charged rather than rent-free transactions slightly increased from 2000 to 2008, the mean yearly rent charged when rent was charged decreased over the same period, from 272 to 222 yuan/mu (53). Even with these low prices, supply of land for rent continued to outstrip demand. While 25 percent of households expressed “willingness to rent out” land for a below-market 200 yuan/mu, a dramatically lower proportion of households actually found takers (54). The result of this “buyer’s market” is that Chinese smallholders, unlike most of the world’s smallholders, can afford to rent—which many do. Due to still-inconsistent land tenure security, Chinese farmers typically prefer to rent to their neighbors, with whom informal social relations may provide recourse if land disputes occur, rather than to companies or to strangers from outside the village (55, 56). Thus, the feasibility of local smallholder-to-smallholder renting leads to such transactions dominating the rental market: as of 2008, 85 percent of rented out land was rented to farmers within the contract holder’s own village (57). This tendency toward local renting has persisted even with rental market expansion and reform. From 2000 to 2008, a period over which renting participation nearly doubled, the percentage of rental contracts that were informal rather than written decreased from 96 percent to 89 percent (58). However, over the same period, the proportion of rentals to “non-kin” (非亲) rather than “kin” (亲) did not change (59). Given that it is unlikely that many people would choose to rent their land out to outside companies with no formal contract, this likely indicates that it was not rentals to outside companies, but formal rentals to close social relations, that increased most substantially with the recent expansion of land rental markets.
2.2 Disincentives for scale farming companies to rent or subcontract land Even when farmers transfer their land rights for the remainder of their lease term, they most often transfer to other nearby farmers. As of 2013, 58 percent of full-lease-term transferred farmland by area—and the overwhelming majority of such transfers by count—was transferred to other farmers rather than to companies, cooperatives, or others (60). Only 9.6 percent of transferred farmland was transferred to companies.61 Because farmers who transfer their land rights permanently presumably do not care what happens to their land once they sell it, the predominance of smallholder-to-smallholder transactions indicates the presence of not just supply-side, but demand-side barriers to scale transfers. Smallholder farmers entering the transfer market cannot singlehandedly explain why farmers who permanently transfer their land do not choose to transfer it to scale farming companies (which could presumably pay more than smallholders), given that, for such transfers, trusting the recipient is no longer a factor. This implies that scale farming companies must be choosing not to rent land, or, equivalently, that Chi- na’s land economy precludes many scale farming companies from penetrating the Chinese market. One likely demand-side contributor to the dearth of outside-scale renters is that it is simply not worthwhile for companies to rent or subcontract land given China’s policy conditions. Given that land is merely leased rather than owned, the long-term returns for non-residents to establish scale farming operations may not be worth the considerable fixed costs. Moreover, renting 0.1 hectares of detached land may be gainful for smallholder renters, but is unlikely to be very useful to most scale farming companies. Due to the non-contiguous plot distribution under the HRS, one cannot rent corporate-scale stretches of contiguous land without contracting with dozens, or even hundreds, of farmers who hold conjoining plots. It is thus unsurprising that, according to Huang, most scale transfers to companies involve village governments organizing the transfer of the entire village’s land at once (62). However, this is only possible when none of the village’s households still rely on agricultural employment—or when those who do can be convinced to become wage laborers on the land they own—which is rare (63). Thus, companies can rarely obtain enough contiguous land to warrant the nontrivial fixed costs of scale farming enterprises. Whether scale farming is constrained more by the opportunity for local farmers to rent land or by disincentives to outside companies taking on land is difficult to precisely determine, though examining the impact of village per capita incomes on rental markets will help elucidate the impact of cheap rent prices. Regardless of the reason, it is evident that the vast majority of rental transactions occur locally and between smallholder farmers.
3. Disincentives for local land renters to scale up: Non-mechanization Even if China’s land rental market is constrained to local smallholder-to-small- holder transfers, it is not obvious that this should prevent farms from consolidating. The U.S. farm economy is a prime example: even though mean farm sizes have ballooned to hundreds of times those of China, 96 percent of US farms remain “family farms” rather than corporate entities (64). Smallholder renters can only be responsible for the dearth of scale farms if conditions have disincentivized these smallholder renters from further scaling up their operations over time. The most plausible explanation is China’s unusually low levels of agricultural machinery. While many studies have indicated that scale farming is generally associated with mechanization, China’s persistent non-mechanization despite rapidly increasing rural wealth is not well understood (65). With that being said, several factors unique to China may be disincentivizing machinery investments, and, therefore, limiting scale farming. Plot fragmentation is one such likely disincentive. The HRS divides villages’ land into plots, often of less than 0.1 ha, and contracts several of these plots to each household. To ensure that each household’s land is equally arable, the village committee assesses the quality of each parcel and allocates an equal proportion of “good” and “bad” parcels to each household (66). Due to China’s mountainous terrain, which often causes the farmland within a given village to vary dramatically in quality, many households are thus given several completely noncontiguous plots (67). This extreme fragmentation essentially neutralizes the economies of scale associated with mechanization (68). To give one provocative example, from 1980 (when much farmland was still collectivized) to 1988 (when much land was on plots of less than 1 hectare), the percentage of farmland “under mechanized operations” decreased by 5.8 percent despite unprecedentedly rapid rural income growth (69). Such trends continue today: Tan70 finds that rice farmers from China’s Jiangxi province with more fragmented land had higher labor costs but lower tractor costs, indicating they were less mechanized. Alternatively, it may be that China’s land renters do not mechanize simply because their labor-to-land ratio under the HRS land distribution gives them no reason to. Most of China’s rural households still have lower marginal returns to labor than the prevailing non-agricultural wage rate, indicating labor surpluses—which is to say, they do not have enough land to need as many on-farm workers as they have (71). Why these households’ “surplus laborers” continue to farm even though they could make more money from non-farming work is unclear (72). Nonetheless, it is evident that these households have enough labor capital to take on significantly more land while remaining land-efficient without needing to mechanize. It is important to note that most smallholder land renters may not have the ability to purchase machinery. As previously mentioned, a primary driver of land rent- ing among Chinese smallholders appears to be the extraordinarily cheap avail- ability of local land for rent (73). As such, the typical Chinese land renter may not have the means--or the desire--to make large fixed investments into agriculture. Given the ever-evolving nature of China’s urban work opportunities, renting land may simply be households’ way of temporarily allocating their labor capital more efficiently, without incurring fixed costs or financially committing to agriculture long-term. Such households would be willing to rent up to, but not beyond, the maximum land they could manage without machinery given their labor endowments, thus precluding the transition to scale farming. The size distribution of land renters’ landholdings illustrates the salience of this hypothesis. Of the land renters from the sample used for the present study, 83 per- cent had total landholdings, including land they were renting, of less than 30 mu, or 2 hectares [Fig. 1].74 While labor efficiency varies for different types of farms, 2 hectares can typically be farmed land-efficiently by a family of four—roughly Chi- na’s mean household size—without machinery (75). It is likely no coincidence that 85 percent of households from the same sample had zero “agricultural asset” value (76). Even households from villages where the LCP had been completed rarely exceed- ed these labor-intensive-friendly farm sizes: only one of the sample’s 48 land renters whose villages had completed the LCP had more than 20 mu of landholdings, further indicating that barriers to scale renting exist independent of land tenure security (77).
Fig. 1 (78)
It is not necessarily possible to determine the causal relationship between rental land holding and mechanization due to reverse causality concerns: not having enough land to need machines may discourage mechanization, and not having machines may also discourage renting an amount of land that cannot be farmed without machines. However, given the fixed nature of machinery costs (those who currently own machinery most likely did not buy it within the past year), examining the relationship between machinery ownership and year-to-year land renting behavior change may provide some insight into the impact of non-mechanization.
Methodology Data sources To test how each of these sets of factors may be influencing land transfer behavior on what levels, I examine data on households that had either completed or not yet started implementation of the 2011 Land Certificate Program by 2015. Specifically, I use Probit/Tobit regressions to examine the relationship between various measures of land rental markets and LCP completion, machinery ownership, and village per capita income. Probit regressions are used to regress on binary variables (i.e. household likelihood of renting land), whereas Tobit regressions are used to estimate linear relationships between “censored” variables where not all “zero” observations can be considered equivalent (i.e. the amount of land that a household rents, a variable which does not consider that some non-renters rent out land). The data used for this paper was collected by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy. It was originally used for Zhang’s investigation of the early impacts of the LCP on land rental markets (79). Several households were surveyed from each of 100 randomly selected villages distributed across China. The dependent variables used for the present study were households’ land renting participation (yes/ no), intensity (percent of the household’s total contract land rented), and amount (mu) (80). LCP implementation was conceived of as a “treatment” variable, which is to say, its causality is unidirectional (LCP implementation could cause more people to rent, but more people renting probably could not make LCP implementation more likely) (81). Other data collected included machinery ownership (log asset value) (82), off-farm migrant workers and off-farm local employment (by the number of household members), and village per capita income (yuan). Control variables included household head education, gender, and age, original contract land (mu), and county location. Two new variables were created for the present study. 2014 rent % measures the household’s 2014 land renting intensity; I derive this from dividing 2014 renting quantity by contract land. This enables testing of 2015 renting intensity controlling for 2014 intensity, which functionally approximates year-to-year renting intensity change. Rented 2014 simply measures whether 2014 land renting quantity was greater than zero; this similarly enables examination of 2015 rental market participation controlling for 2014 participation.
Theoretical framework While Zhang (83) finds LCP completion was correlated not only with the likelihood of renting land, this measure may be insufficient, because, with most transfers being of similar scale with quantity rented (not controlling for whether one rented land), one’s land renting quantity is strongly correlated with whether one rented land (84). Thus, the fact that the LCP impacted quantity rented does not tell us whether mean land renting quantity increased because more people rented land, or because a few people started renting larger amounts of land. The former result would support the smallholder-to-smallholder hypothesis, whereas the latter would indicate nascent scale consolidation and thus imply that tenure insecurity was directly holding back the consolidation of scale farms. To reflect the need to isolate which variables impact whether the individual rented land versus how much land was rented by the individual, the basic demand-side model of land rental intensity and amount:
can be deconstructed into the following two specifications:
Where Y = land renting amount/percentage, R = whether one rented or not, LCP = whether the village had completed the LCP, M = asset value of agricultural machinery (log yuan). Essentially, equation (2) tells us the likelihood that someone will rent land given their levels of other factors. Equation (1) tells us how much land they can be expected to rent given their levels of other factors, including whether they rent land. Therefore, holding constant Ri = 1 (by limiting the sample to those who rented land), equation (1) now tells us how much land those who rent land can be expected to rent given their levels of the same other factors from equation (2). Then, what this deconstruction does is separate each independent variable’s impact on the household’s total land rental quantity or percentage into 1) its impact on whether they rent land, 2) its impact on how much land they rent, or what percentage of their land they rent if they rent land.
Regression results (truncated) (85)
Table 1. Impact on the likelihood of renting land
Table 2. Impact on renting quantity (mu), intensity (percent of contract land rented) for only those who rented
Discussion Impact of LCP LCP completion is positively correlated with land rental market participation [Table 1]. However, for rental market participants, it is not significantly correlated with how much land they rented [Table 2, col 1], what percentage of their land they rented [Table 2, col 3], land renting quantity year-to-year change [Table 2, col 2], or renting percentage year-to-year change [Table 2, col 4]. This suggests that, while the LCP increased the total number of land rental transactions, it did not necessarily impact the size of the transactions that occurred. This does not necessarily mean the LCP did not improve incentives for scale farming; for instance, improved land tenure security would likely have increased prospective corporate renters’ confidence that they could keep the land they rent- ed for the specified term. However, these results provide no evidence that the LCP more significantly facilitated scale renting than it did smallholder-to-smallholder rentals. This provides further support for the hypothesis that while land tenure insecurity may constrain the emergence of rental markets, other constraints on scale renting exist that tenure insecurity cannot account for. Moreover, the demand-side impact of land tenure insecurity on scale renting is likely to mirror the impact of limited-term leases since both similarly decrease the length of time that people, especially non-village residents, can expect to keep their rental holdings, disincentivizing renting by operations that require high fixed costs. Thus, the non-correlation of LCP completion with rental scale may suggest that drivers of smallholder-to-smallholder renting other than limited-term leases, including diseconomies of scale due to fragmentation and cheap rent empowering local renting, likely contribute to non-consolidation.
Impact of machinery Machinery ownership is strongly positively correlated with renting land by nearly every measure: whether one rented land [Table 1], how much land one rented if they rented land [Table 2, col 1], what percentage of one’s land one rented if they rented land [Table 2, col 3], land renting quantity year-to-year change [Table 2, col 2], and renting percentage year-to-year change [Table 2, col 4]. Although causal implications of the rental-machinery relationship cannot necessarily be determined, it is noteworthy that renting quantity year-to-year change is positively correlated with machinery ownership. Because it is unlikely that most machines were purchased within the past year, this may suggest that those who purchased machinery subsequently began renting more land, rather than vice versa. This indicates machinery non-ownership may be constraining scale rent- ing. On the other hand, when controlling for 2014 land rental market participation, machines were not correlated with 2015 participation, which may indicate that machinery purchase did not prompt an increased likelihood of entering the rental market [Table 1]. This supports the hypothesis that, due to labor surplus- es enabling farmers to expand their landholdings without needing to mechanize, machinery non-ownership does not constrain rental market participation—it just constrains how much land renters rent.
Impact of village per capita income There is no evidence that village income level is correlated with rental market participation [Table 1], the quantity for those who rented [Table 2, col 1], or intensity for those who rented [Table 2, col 3]. This may support the hypothesis that cheap land rent prices have made renting land widely financially accessible. Moreover, controlling for total landholdings, village income level is not correlated with machinery ownership [Table 6]. While past studies have proposed wealthier households having more off-farm employment may be responsible for machinery investments not rising with rural incomes, the present study controls for off-farm employment (86). This result, therefore, gives credence to the idea that machine ownership is constrained not by insufficient financial capital, but by disincentives to mechanization. Specifically, machine use is likely disincentivized by labor surpluses and plot fragmentation.
Conclusion Many interconnected factors contribute to China’s dearth of scale farms; however, the way these factors interact is not well understood. By deconstructing the existing models of how various factors impact China’s land rental markets, we can more clearly observe the specific dynamics that constrain scale farming. The findings of this paper offer a more granular, though still not comprehensive, model of these processes. Specifically, (1) the LCP improved rental market participation, but there is no evidence that it increased the scale of renters’ rental holdings, indicating that tenure insecurity may constrain rental markets but cannot solely account for non-consolidation. Further, (2) machinery ownership may spur increased land renting quantity, though not necessarily increased renting participation, indicating that households may not need machines to rent land but they do need them to rent at scale; (3) machinery purchase seems to be mainly constrained not by financial capital but by incentive structure; (4) village incomes do not seem to significantly impact rental markets, which may suggest rent prices have become cheap enough to no longer be a barrier to renting. Together, these findings suggest that a policy environment that incentivizes smallholders and disincentivizes companies to rent land, along with a land tenure structure that disincentivizes smallholder renters to mechanize, helps to constrain the expansion of scale farming. China’s experience shows that under the right set of structural conditions, land market liberalization need not necessarily give rise to the large-scale consolidation and corporatization of farms, a finding that may be encouraging to proponents of both liberalization and local food systems. Indeed, while there are some indications that China’s top policymakers had hoped to facilitate the development of large-scale farming companies through land tenure reform, the current trends offer arguably even more cause for optimism. First, given that smallholder-to-small-holder rentals have been accelerating, the typical Chinese farm will increasingly move further down the U-shaped curve of total societal costs of farming by farm size, even if most renters continue to rent 2 hectares or less (87). Moreover, these low-level rentals may be slowly mitigating the labor surplus problem. With the expansion of urban work opportunities, more farmers will rent their land out to their neighbors, causing the remaining farms to converge toward allocative efficient sizes (absent machinery) for their respective households’ labor endowments. Finally, Huang notes that China’s increasing need for crop diversification may turn the plot fragmentation that persists under the HRS into a boon rather than a liability (88). While major problems persist, China may be moving toward an enviable equilibrium: maximum agricultural output, crop diversity, fewer environmental externalities, with the countryside not only “absorbing labor” but also providing critical social insurance to those with rural hukous (89). Globally, food security is increasingly under threat from many unprecedented sources, including global supply chain disruptions and climate change (90). These threats call for countries to renew their commitments to ensure they can sufficiently and sustainably feed their own populations. Countries with low land endowments per capita face unique obstacles to realizing sustainable self-sufficiency; China’s farm economy exhibits such challenges even independent of its distinctive policy conditions (91). Given these unique challenges, it is worth interrogating whether the same labor-optimizing strategies used by countries with more land and fewer people, where maximizing land efficiency need not be paramount, really represent the optimal rural development model for “land-poor” countries like China. Time will tell whether China’s current combination of liberalized land markets and structural deterrents to the establishment of large corporate farms will survive ongoing political challenges, and, if so, whether it will prove beneficial to the welfare of the country’s rural population. Appendix Table 3. Impact on the likelihood of renting land (expanded)
Table 4. Impact on rental quantity (mu) for those who rented (expanded)
Table 5. Impact on rental intensity (% of contract land) for those who rented (expanded)
Table 6. Impact of village incomes on mechanization
Table 7. Impact of whether one rented land on how much land they rented
1 Lowder, Skoet, and Singh, “What Do We Really Know about the Number and Distribution of Farms and Family Farms Worldwide?”, 11. 2 Wu et al., “Policy Distortions, Farm Size, and the Overuse of Agricultural Chemicals in China,” 7012. 3 Lowder, Skoet, and Raney, “The Number, Size, and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms, and Family Farms Worldwide.” 4 Huang and Ding, “Institutional Innovation and Policy Support to Facilitate Small- Scale Farming Transformation in China,” 228. 5 Ji et al., “Are China’s Farms Growing?”, 48. 6 Masters et al., “Urbanization and Farm Size in Asia and Africa.” 7 Cai and Lu, “Take-off, Persistence and Sustainability,” 215. 8 “Rural Population - China | Data.” World Bank. 9 “China Statistical Yearbook 2016,” section 4.2. 10 Ibid, section 8.23.
11 Landesa, “Summary of 2011 17-Province China Survey’s Findings.”
12 Huang, “China’s New-Age Small Farms and Their Vertical Integration.”
13 Cook, “Surplus Labour and Productivity in Chinese Agriculture.”
14 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of Land Certificated Program on the Farmland
Rental Market in Rural China.”
15 Deininger, Impacts Of Land Certification On Tenure Security, Investment, And Land Markets.
16 Wang et al., “Wage Growth, Landholding, and Mechanization in Chinese Agriculture.”
17 Huang, Liangliang, and Rozelle, “The Effect of Off-Farm Employment on the Decisions of Households to Rent out and Rent in Cultivated Land in China.” 18 Wu et al., “Policy Distortions, Farm Size, and the Overuse of Agricultural Chemicals in China,” 7012.
19 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program on the Farmland Rental Market in Rural China.”
20 刘江，“近5年农民工收入年均增8.8% 累计培训农民工超1亿人次.”
21 Huang, “China’s New-Age Small Farms and Their Vertical Integration.”
23 Special thanks to Professor Louis Putterman for this insight.
24 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program.”
25 “Notice of the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the General Office of the State Council on Further Stabilizing and Improving Rural Land Contracting Relations.” 26 United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “Ownership with Chinese Characteristics.” 27 Zhan, The Land Question in China.
28 Cook, “Surplus Labour and Productivity in Chinese Agriculture.” 29 “Decree of the President of the People’s Republic of China (No. 73) Law of the People’s Republic of China on Rural Land Contracting.” 30 United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “Ownership with Chinese Characteristics.” 31 Brandt, Rozelle, and Turner, “Local Government Behavior and Property Right Formation in Rural China,” 629. 32 United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “Ownership with Chinese Characteristics.” 33 Ma et al., “Tenure Security, Social Relations and Contract Choice.” 34 “Decree of the President of the PRC (No. 73) Law of the PRC on Rural Land Contracting.” 35 Ji et al., “Are China’s Farms Growing?” 36 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program.”
37 Teets and Hurst, Local Governance Innovation in China, 21.
38 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program.”
40 “China Statistical Yearbook-2016,” section 4.2.
41 Wu et al., “Policy Distortions, Farm Size, and the Overuse of Agricultural Chemicals
in China.” 42 刘江，“近5年农民工收入年均增8.8% 累计培训农民工超1亿人次.” 43 Wu et al., “Policy Distortions, Farm Size, and the Overuse of Agricultural Chemicals in China.” 44 Ibid.
45 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program,” 3.
46 World Bank, “Cereal Yield (Kg per Hectare) - selected countries | Data.”
47 Ibid.; author’s calculation.
48 World Bank, “Crop Production Index (2004-2006 = 100) - Selected Countries.”
49 Krusekopf, “Diversity in Land-Tenure Arrangements under the Household Responsibility System in China.” 50 Ibid. 51 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program.”
52 Wang, Riedinger, and Jin, “Land Documents,” 223.
54 Ibid., 226.
55 Ma et al., “Tenure Security, Social Relations and Contract Choice.”
56 Macours, “Insecurity of Property Rights and Social Matching in the Tenancy Market,” 898. 57 Wang, Riedinger, and Jin, “Land Documents,” 223. 58 Ibid. 59 Ibid. 60 Huang, Guan, and Jin, “Scale Farming Operations in China,” 196.
64 MacDonald, Korb, and Hoppe, “Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming,” 47. 65 Wang et al., “Wage Growth, Landholding, and Mechanization in Chinese Agriculture.” 66 Wu et al., “Policy Distortions, Farm Size, and the Overuse of Agricultural Chemicals in China.” 67 Tan, Heerink, and Qu, “Land Fragmentation and Its Driving Forces in China.” 68 Hu, “Household Land Tenure Reform in China,” 177. 69 Ibid., 178. 70 Tan et al., “Do Fragmented Landholdings Have Higher Production Costs?”
71 Cook, “Surplus Labour and Productivity in Chinese Agriculture.”
72 Cook proposes that quotas may contribute to agricultural over-employment by forcing households to dedicate enough labor capital to farming to meet quotas during the most productive seasons. However, it is equally plausible that farm labor surpluses primarily result from the limited supply of off-farm jobs. 73 Wang, Riedinger, and Jin, “Land Documents,” 223. 74 Data from: Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program.” Author’s calculation. 75 Cook, “Surplus Labour and Productivity in Chinese Agriculture,” 21. 76 Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program.” 77 Data collected by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy.
79 For details on the study’s sampling strategy, data collection methods, technical variable definitions, etc., see: Zhang, Cao, and Bai, “The Impact of the Land Certificated Program.” 80 While potentially useful data was collected on land rented out as well, it seems to have been skewed by data collection limitations: the study seems to have disproportionately sampled those families who were present within the village (or who could be readily reached by phone). Thus, it includes very few migrant families who rented out 100% of their land. Therefore, I only use the data on land renting rather than land renting out. 81 Ibid. 82 The original study’s results regarding machinery ownership were skewed by log transformation issues with the “agricultural assets” variable, which measured log of asset value by 10,000 yuan. Because most farmers who had machinery had less than 10,000 yuan of machinery asset value, the data contained many negative values of this variable for machinery owners, whereas non-owners were coded as zero value. This issue was fixed for the present paper by transforming nonzero values to give a log of asset value by yuan, rather than by 10,000 yuan.
84 See table 7 (appendix).
85 See Appendix for full.
86 Wang et al., “Wage Growth, Landholding, and Mechanization in Chinese Agriculture.”
87 Duffy, “Economies of Size in Production Agriculture,” 389.
88 Huang, “China’s New-Age Small Farms and Their Vertical Integration.”
89 刘江，“近5年农民工收入年均增8.8% 累计培训农民工超1亿人次.” 90 Vermeulen, Campbell, and Ingram, “Climate Change and Food Systems.”
91 Huang, “China’s New-Age Small Farms and Their Vertical Integration.”
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