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Dynamic change on a state tea farm in China.

Dynamic change on a state tea farm in China

Like other socialist countries that have modeled their economic structure and organization on the Soviet Union, China has a state farm as well as a collective and private component of its agriculture sector. State farms are run by the Ministry of State Farms and Land Reclamation (since May, 1982 a bureau within the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries - renamed the Ministry of Agriculture in May, 1988).

Additionally, there are state farms supervised by the Ministry of Public Security as reform-through labor farms, settlements established by the military in far-flung regions and farms run by other institutions. Detailed information on penal or military state farms is sparse. The discussion which follows is confined to farms within the State Farms and Land Reclamation system.

State tea farms are a minor but important component of the Chinese tea industry. Fifteen provinces have such farms, with 50 percent of the area lying in four provinces. Table 1 shows the published statistics for state farms for 1986 together with the figures for the total mature area under tea by province. State farms represent about 4 percent of the national tea area and indications are of a fast rate of future growth in output since they have an additional 30 percent (11,390 ha) of plantations

Table : Table 1. State and national tea area and production by province, China 1986
Mature Area Production Yield
Province State Total State Total State Total
 ('000 ha) ('000 tons) (kg/ha)
National 31.9 803.8 35.0 460.5 1,096 573
Zhejiang 1.9 150.5 4.2 104.3 2,269 693
Anhui 2.4 96.8 5.2 47.0 2,183 485
Fujian 5.6 94.5 4.3 44.2 776 468
Jiangxi 5.0 43.7 2.1 15.8 422 360
Hunan 1.6 96.1 2.0 73.1 1,254 761
Guangdong 6.3 36.4 6.9 26.1 1,089 717
Guangxi 2.1 15.4 3.4 11.6 1,655 752
Sichuan 1.0 79.8 1.1 52.2 1,051 655
Guizhou 2.1 22.0 2.1 12.1 1,016 552
Yunnan 3.1 80.3 2.9 34.1 914 425
"others" .9 88.4 .8 40.0 872 452
Top 4 20.0 254.9 16.2 120.1 809 471
Top 10 31.0 715.4 34.2 420.5 1,102 588

Source: calculated from China Agricultural Yearbook, 1987, p.305 State farms produced 26,000 tons of tea in 1984. Two years later the figure had risen to 35,000 tons or 8 percent of the national total. Yields vary widely across provinces but in all cases state farm yields exceed the provincial average. Of the larger producers, Jiangxi, with 5,000 hectares of mature tea in state farms had yields of only 422 kg/ha in 1986. In Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, state farm yields of over 2,000 kg/ha are nearly four times the respective provincial average. Average mature yields (of 1,094 kg/ha) are about twice the national average. Other observers have been surprised at these figures because, in general, state farms perform poorly.

There could be many explanations for the relatively high yields on state farms: they could be located on better soil types; have better access to irrigation or fertilizers; obtain preferential prices; or have advantages of scale and specialization. In what follows we give an account our impressions of three visits we have made to one state tea farm in Zhejiang - the Yuhang Experimental State Tea Farm.

A description of this farm was included in an article by Patricia Phipps and Cathy Perry in this journal in September, 1977. Keith Forster first visited it in May, 1978 when he was teaching in Hangzhou. Dan Etherington visited the farm in May, 1987 in conjunction with a study for the FAO and then together we visited it on May 20, 1989. Unfortunately this last visit occurred on the day of the announcement of the proclamation of martial law in Beijing. The subject of our visit became sidetracked as hosts and guests alike listened anxiously on a shortwave radio for the latest news concerning developments in the national capital.

The Yuhang Experimental Tea Farm was originally set up as a research farm but formal research activities have since been siphoned off. The farm is located at about 120 [degrees] E, 31 [degrees] N in Yuhang County, Zhejiang Province, about an hour's drive NW of Hangzhou in rolling country of poor red podzolic soils. The elevation at the main office is only 10m above sea level but some fields rise to about 50m.

There are extremes in temperature with the annual average of 16 [degrees] C. Mean January temperature, 3 [degrees] C; mean July, 28 [degrees] C. The overall maximum is about 40 [degrees] and minimum - 13 [degrees] C. There are about 285 frost free days. Annual rainfall is about 1,300 millimeters with July/August (summer) being the dry season. With such seasonal variations, tea production peaks sharply in spring (50 percent of output) with lower production in Summer and Autumn. The tea bushes are dormant in winter.

The farm was started in 1956 on unused wasteland, with a pioneer team of 25 workers and officials. The total area is 700 hectares of which 90 hectares are under rice. The productive area under tea in 1976 was 300 hectares. By 1986, this had increased to 365 hectares but two years later had decreased to 330 hectares.

The total population of the farm is 2,200 of whom 1,369 are permanent workers. With their dependents, they receive many social benefits such as free hospital care and schooling, in addition to subsidized housing and wages. Full time employees work primarily in the tea factories and other business operations that are described below.

Production of tea in 1976 was 786 tons of made tea, giving an average yield of 2,620 kilograms per hectare. In 1986, output was 744 tons and in 1988 750 tons. This implies yields of 2,040 and 2,270 kg/ha respectively. Because of drought conditions earlier in the year, 1989 production was expected to be only about 700 tons. Of the 1986 (1988) production, 203 (250) tons was steamed green tea, 38 (0) tons scented (jasmine) tea, and the rest (about 500 tons) standard roasted (Chunmei) green tea.

In 1986, 4 percent of the production of green tea was of top quality (fetching a price of US$2/kg, which is low by Hangzhou standards) and 35 percent was in the lowest three grades (with a price of about 25 [cents]/kg). In 1988, an additional 250 tons of "crude" tea was bought from other growers for "refining."

There are three tea factories on the farm, two for standard green tea and the other processing steamed tea for the Japanese market. The larger of the Chunmei factories shows its age: the levels of hygiene seem low and the layout of this factory means that it is very labor intensive. The smaller Chunmei factory is more modern but only comes into operation at times of peak production.

The third factory, specializing in steamed tea for the Japanese market, was established with Japanese assistance in 1986. Japanese technicians still visit the plant regularly. The plant is modern, with tea flowing from process to process in a systematic manner. In 1987, the green leaf delivered to this factor also seemed to be of a better plucking quality. Ninety percent of production is allocated for export by directive from the central government. While all the steamed tea goes to Japan, most of the roasted green tea is exported to north Africa.

All "plucking" or harvesting is done with casual seasonal labor from surrounding areas. The pluckers are paid about 4 [cents] (US$) per kilogram of green leaf. The normal requirement is for over 3,000 pluckers but in 1987 the farm could only attract 1,600. The assistant manager explained then that, "Labor is in very short supply because of the economic reforms and the move to urban jobs. We would like to use plucking machines but they require a very even stand of one variety."

The tea fields in 1987 certainly showed signs of very hard plucking: many bare stems or "crows' feet" were in evidence. The hard plucking was confirmed on inspection of the green leaf just delivered to one of the factories. Random selection of handfuls of leaf revealed extremely coarse plucking and great variability, ranging from the normal standard "two leaves and a bud" to four and even five leaves, often even without a bud! It is virtually impossible to make good tea out of such poor leaf. This was to be seen in the final grades of tea coming from the sorting machine. There was a very high proportion of lightweight leaf chips.

Given the problems in obtaining pluckers in 1987, it was no great surprise to find that the farm had begun to adopt mechanical plucking in 1988. The management seem to have anticipated the problem because they had been experimenting with different machines since our first visit 10 years earlier. By 1989, plucking labor was down to 1,100 and these were brought in for the critical first two weeks of the spring flush.

The plucking machines, imported from Japan ("because they are more reliable than the local ones," it was explained), are operated by the permanent labor force. The machines have a small engine that drives a curved reciprocating mower blade against a fixed saw-tooth blade. At the same time it blows air through a series of nozzles arranged just above the blades. This blast of air blows the newly mown tea back inton an attached bag.

Each machine costs about US$1,500 and is operated by a crew of four and plucks about 200 kg/hour. This is about six times as fast as manual plucking.

By our calculations, each machine and its crew replaces between 25 and 30 pluckers. The farm now operates 30 machines. In the spring of 1988, 85 hectares were harvested by machine. By the autumn this had increased to 180 hectares (with lower yield at this time of the year). In the spring of 1989, 200 hectares were being harvested by machine.

However, by our assessment the quality of plucking was just as bad as before - indeed worse if the weeds that are also mown down ever get into the processing system (Photo 3, quality of plucking). Management informed us that the farm no longer produces tea in the top grades.

The traditional curved plucking "tables" or surfaces, which show up well in the photographs, indicate that the rows form hedges and do not cover the ground entirely. This encourages the growth of a substantial weed population, which is not the only disadvantage for mechanized plucking but forces the machine operators to work in three dimensions. Our judgment is that both the quality of product and the speed of operation would be greatly assisted by moving to a flat plucking table. This would in turn permit the use of a simpler (cheaper) straight cutting blade and allow the operators to work in only two dimensions.

Gross value of output from the farm in 1986 was approximately US$3.3 million, to which tea contributed about US$1.2 million. Net profits were US$175,000 of which US$40,000 came from tea. Thus, although the property started as a specialist tea farm, non-tea income has become increasingly important. Initially, the rationale for these non-tea operations was to provide employment for the labor force in winter but in many respects the tail now wags the dog.

Today there are four industrial enterprises managed by the farm: the Hangzhou Electrical Control Equipment Factory; an industrial alcohol plant, producing Ca(OH)2; a construction team; and a new, massive poultry business in the final stages of commissioning. This last operation covers some 50 hectares and currently has 200,000 layers which will produce 400,000 kg of eggs in 1989. When operating at full capacity it will produce about 2.5 million kilograms of eggs - one third of the annual requirements of the nearby city of Hangzhou (population about 1 million).

These rural industrial developments are certainly impressive, as is the foresight of the management.

However, one can but wonder at the wisdom of provincial planners in centralizing egg production in such massive enterprise when small-holders on mini plots are looking for opportunities to earn alternative cash incomes.

Enormous changes have taken place in the management of Chinese agricultural holdings since 1978. The communes have been broken up and a wide range of household responsibility systems has evolved. The state farm sector has also been involved in the management reform program. Some state farms have been subdivided into family farms. The Yuhang State Tea Farm experimented with alternative responsibility systems from 1983 to 1985 but then abandoned the attempt.

The current management of the farm believes that the subdivision of state farms has been successful where the farm had taken over peasant land. However, this state farm had been established on new land with labor from the city of Hangzhou. The workers had no historic loyalty to the land they opened up and were used to industrial work regimes. Thus, in this case, subdivision did not work. Furthermore, as the management explained, "the arrangements of a large estate are too complex [for subdivision] and here we have added complexity of four substantial industrial enterprises."

This state tea farm has been dynamic and innovative since its formation. It shows the signs of having all the advantages usually associated with large scale tea plantations in other countries. Here, agricultural production is specialized and spatially concentrated. Management is well trained and experienced and has easy access to the latest technology from tea research institutes because many experiments are conducted on the farm fields and in the factories.

The farm has planted the most suitable varieties. It has had privileged access to investment capital, to fertilizers and to overseas technology. Its processing factories have a guaranteed supply of fresh leaf and do not have to rely on bidding for uncertain quantities and qualities of crude processed tea at prices which in the last few years have skyrocketed. Finally, the farm is guaranteed its export market. This last factor is, however, a two-edged sword because prices are often below those on the local market and there appears to be little incentive to aim for quality rather than quantity in production.

PHOTO : Fields of tea surround this huge poultry enterprise that currently has 200,000 laying hens producing 400,000 kilograms of eggs. At full capacity, 2.5 million kilograms of eggs are expected to be produced.

PHOTO : These harvesters are using a Japanese plucking machine. It is estimated that these can do the work of at least 25 hand harvesters.

PHOTO : This is the larger of the standard green tea factories at Chunmei. It is a labor intensive establishment, seen by the authors as obsolete.

PHOTO : The question arises: can a mechanical plucker do a proper job? This is a poor job, with tea leaves badly picked and foreign objects (weeds, not the pen) included in the harvest.

Table : Table 2. Zhejiang province and Hangzhou municipality tea areas and production, 1986
Location Area Output Yield
 (ha) (tons) (kg/ha)
Zhejiang 1,852 4,201 2,269
Yuhang Farm 365 744 2,040

Source: China Agricultural Yearbook, 1987, p.305; and field notes.
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Author:Etherington, Dan M.; Forster, Keith
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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