In early June, I traveled some 3,500 miles across China by train. The high-speed trains provided a brief (literally) glimpse of a wide cross-section of the Chinese countryside in a large circle from Beijing to Xian to Chengdu to Shanghai and back to Beijing. The bullet trains travel at speeds of 140 to 180 miles per hour. Nevertheless, the trip provided a broad view of the terrain, infrastructure and agriculture through much of central China. My trip ranged from latitudes near Beijing, equivalent to northern Kansas, and south to Chengdu, equivalent to southern Louisiana. This was certainly not a complete picture as China extends farther north to latitudes equivalent to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, in the northeast to latitudes equal to central Mexico in the far south.
Obvious in most regions is rapid infrastructure development. Many new roads, bridges and railroads are under construction. Most prominent are hundreds of new high-rise housing complexes, often located outside of cities in conjunction with new industrial developments. I saw wind and solar farms and many buildings with solar panels on the roof. Rural areas are marked by small villages and single family, or what appeared to be small multi-family, dwellings in the midst of very diverse agricultural production.
China is mountainous in many regions, with high plateaus and deserts in the west and plains and coastal deltas in the east. The views were dramatic in many regions with the mountains reminding me of my youth in western Montana. Agriculture dominates the plains in broad expanses and occurs in every valley and available space in hilly and mountainous areas. Despite being roughly the same size, China has just over 11 percent arable land compared to nearly 17 percent in the U.S., which means that China has roughly 22 percent less arable land. This fact combined with the huge population means that China has roughly 0.2 acres per person for crop production compared to 1.2 acres per person in the U.S. It was fairly easy to identify major crop production in the form of wheat (perhaps some was barley), corn/sorghum and rice in passing. Most farms are small and often included a diverse mix of crops that appear to include field crops plus a wide array of vegetables and fruit production (impossible to identify specifically at high speeds). Greenhouse production was observed in many regions, either in conjunction with other crop production or in large specialized farms with many greenhouse units.
On the plains south from Beijing, I saw grain — mostly wheat — nearly ready for harvest at the beginning of June. Farther south, harvest was underway, and still farther south, most of the harvest was complete. Some mechanization was evident in the form of combines and tractors. These were small scale by U.S. standards — it appeared the combines had 8- to 10-foot headers and the tractors were probably 30 to 60 horsepower. In some cases animal power (water buffalo) was being used, mostly further south in rice paddies.
Rice production became more prevalent moving south and corn/sorghum occurred intermittently in all regions. It was apparent that most farms rely heavily on manual labor. Crops are often being produced in small plots and on terraces or steep slopes that preclude or limit the use of mechanical technology. My general impression is the land is used and managed intensively and has been, in some cases, for several thousand years.
Livestock were notably absent in passing. China is, by far, the largest pork producer in the world and is making big investments in large-scale modern production facilities, though I was not able to visit any on this trip. I have no doubt that more traditional small-scale hog production was happening in the regions I traveled but were simply not visible or obvious in passing. More surprising was the lack of visible beef cattle, even though I traveled through major beef production regions. I saw very few beef cattle in the many miles I traveled, the largest group being a dozen or so cattle grazing along a stream. I will have more about cattle production and beef consumption in China in the next article.