Farm workforce withers as young people leave

Updated: 2012-02-29 08:20

By He Na and Han Junhong (China Daily)

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Lure of city lights draws youth away as parents remain to work the land, He Na and Han Junhong report from Gongzhuling in Jilin province.

He may not need it any more, but retired farmer Li Shiwu still refuses to be parted from his farm tool.

"My wife threw it away once," the 70-year-old said as he carefully polished the tool. "It was just after we'd agreed to rent out our land. I was very angry and made her get it back."

Farm workforce withers as young people leave

When the plowing season starts across China in spring, most farmers who take to the fields will be in their 50s or older. For people in towns and villages that rely on the strength of their agricultural industry, such as this elderly corn farmer in Xixiang village, Shandong province, the lack of interest among younger people in farming is a worrying trend. Land transfers are one solution, while experts also want to see more training offered to farmers. [Provided to China Daily]

Li has spent his entire working life toiling in the fields of Nanxing village in Northeast China and had hoped one of his daughters would take over the family farm when he retired. However, all six refused to return from the nearby city where they live.

"Most youngsters today hate farm work; they complain that it's too hard, dirty and pays too little," the pensioner said. "My daughters and sons-in-law think so, not to mention my grandchildren. They don't even want to visit during holidays because they say it's boring."

As the average age for a farmer increases, finding young people who are willing to pick up the baton has become a pressing problem in rural areas, which cannot compete with wages and lifestyles offered in cities.

Yet, community leaders say there is a solution: liberating farmers from the land.

Since the 1980s, young people - mostly men - have been flocking to cities for better opportunities, leaving the elderly and infirm behind to take care of the crops. Even government incentives for farmers such as subsidies, seeds and machinery have been unable to stem the flow.

Data from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security show the migrant workforce reached 242 million in 2010, more than double the 98 million recorded five years earlier.

Li, the retired farmer in Jilin province, said his daughters all moved to cities soon after they were married. "My youngest works at an automobile factory in Changchun," he said. "She told me that the money she earns in three months would take me an entire year sweating in the fields."

Those born in the countryside after the 1980s are often referred to as second-generation farmers, but in reality the majority either do not like working in the fields or have no knowledge about how to run a farm.

"I like life in the city," said Sun Wei, 29, who was born and raised in a Jilin village but now works as a car salesman in Beijing. "I know nothing about crops, so why would I go back? I'd sooner die than be told I had to go to bed before 9 o'clock every night."

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