Watching Jiang Wannian and Ping Cuixiang harvest a sixth of an acre of daikon seed in the north-central province of Gansu feels a little like traveling back in time.
In a dry valley ringed by dusky mountains, on a brick-paved lot, Jiang drives a rusted tractor over a hip-deep mound of dried plants. As they crush down, Ping, Jiang’s wife, plunges a homemade pitchfork into the straw and arranges it for another pass. Eventually Jiang and Ping work side by side, wiry figures with tawny skin. It’s hot, but they are swaddled in clothes to protect themselves from the dust and the sun. They have handsome faces, taut and lined from years of laboring outdoors, and they turn them skyward as they throw fine chaff up and watch ruddy seed rain down. This rhythm continues for hours. In a singsong voice Ping encourages the wind, murmuring, “Blow, blow!” Machines can do this work in minutes, but they are too expensive for Jiang and Ping. Instead they still thresh the daikon by hand, just as farmers did centuries ago.
Jiang and Ping represent one story of China and its farms. More than 90 percent of all farms in China are less than 2.5 acres, and the average farm size is among the smallest in the world. But this is not the only story. Over the past four decades China has caught up to the agricultural development that took the Western world 150 years to achieve—and reimagined it to boot. Every kind of agriculture is now happening all at once: tiny family farms, gleaming industrial meat factories and dairies, sustainably minded high-tech farms, even organic urban ones.