How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out

Yao Minji
Urban factory work used to be the big drawcard for migrants seeking their fortunes, but now many are tapping new opportunity by tilling the soil on the outskirts.
Yao Minji

Editor's note:

Rural revitalization is a growing trend across China, as the country explores a symbiotic growth of cities and villages, promoting common prosperity for everyone. This series explores how "rurbanomics" – an approach that emphasizes the interrelatedness of rural and urban economies – may work in a metropolis like Shanghai.

How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out
yao minji / SHINE

Strawberry fields rented by former migrant worker Zhu Xiaosheng from Shandong Province

Shanghai is famed for its futuristic skyline, bustling nightlife and modern outlook. Much of that development owes to migrant workers who came to the city looking for a slice of prosperity.

However, nowadays, many migrants from other provinces are establishing themselves on the outskirts of the city, where urban affluence converges with agricultural opportunities.

As a Shanghai native, I often took foreign friends to visit watertowns, farm-stay hostels or strawberry-picking farms in outlying areas. We would pass by the small factories that mark the rural-urban conjunction.

"You didn't go far enough to find the real farming areas," said Zhu Xiaosheng, a Shandong native and former migrant factory worker, now based in Shanghai. "There have been a lot of changes over the last 10 years or so."

Huang Baomei, the daughter of local farmers in Pudong, also didn't go far enough.

"Ten years ago, even I wouldn't know where to find farmland," she said. "I know it was somewhere down the road, but I don't know exactly where and who was doing the farming."

The city's rapid urbanization enticed thousands of people like Zhu from rural China and like Huang from outlying Shanghai to work in factories, many of which were located in suburban areas. They thought it was the door to a better life. But times have changed.

In the last decade, more government focus has been placed on Shanghai's outlying rural areas, turning vast tracts of the city's fringe into the other side of the coin, where prosperity was concerned.

How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out
yao minji / SHINE

A grapefruit yard in Shuyuan County.

Local residents like Zhu and Huang found themselves with more options than working in factories or moving into inner-city areas.

It was 13 years ago when Zhu, then in his 40s, came to work in a factory in Shuyuan Town in the Pudong on the outskirts of Shanghai near the sea. A year later, he quit the job and returned to farming in the same area.

"I didn't realize at the time that there was farming here in Shanghai," he recalled. "Compared with a factory job, I was more familiar with farming. Now there are many migrant farmers like me. Actually, most farmers in this area are not locals."

According to the last agricultural census in Shanghai, done every 10 years, about 530,000 people were working in agriculture by 2016. Among them, more than 60 percent were aged 55 years and older, while fewer than 30,000 were 35 or younger.

Today Zhu rents about 13,000 square meters of farmland and employs migrant farmers like himself. His pre-pandemic annual income exceeded 200,000 yuan (US$28,700), some of it from drive-by business.

"Business should be good this year; look at all these cars," he told Shanghai Daily at a roadside produce retail site. "We get a lot of purchases from rural cooperatives and from people who drive past."

How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out
yao minji / SHINE

Zhu Xiaosheng who came to Shanghai as a migrant worker 13 years ago is now a migrant farmer who rents over 20 acres of land.

Zhu mostly plants strawberries, adding varieties of melons in the summer.

The saline soil near the sea is best suited for fruit production, especially grapes, strawberries and Shanghai's famed, super-sweet 8424 variety watermelon.

The Tianbo agricultural cooperative, the largest in Shuyuan Town, purchases food from many migrant farmers like Zhu. The company also has its own farm land, employing with both native and migrant farmers.

"When people say that Shanghai has changed so rapidly, they are mostly talking about urban Shanghai," said Liu Ren, general manager of Tianbo.

"But the majority of Shanghai is actually more rural, and we have seen dramatic changes in the last decade. These outlying areas are cleaner, better planned and offer a more convenient lifestyle in a variety of ways."

Liu, now 40, moved from an inner-city sales job back to his rural hometown about seven years ago.

"I'm familiar with the area and 8424 watermelon cultivation," he said. "I saw huge potential here. Some young people are returning to rural areas, not to farm the land but to their expertise, like marketing, to help the local agricultural economy."

How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out
Ti Gong

Watermelon greenhouse owned by Tianbo

How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out
Ti Gong

Shanghai's famed, super-sweet 8424 variety watermelon

Older people like Huang are also returning, though not necessarily to full-time farming. Not only has she returned to her hometown in suburban Shanghai and taken up farming as a hobby, but her children also have more opportunities than when Huang was young and everyone viewed factory work as a pot of gold.

Huang was born in the 1960s to a local farm family, shortly after Shuyuan Town was administratively transferred to Shanghai from adjacent Jiangsu Province in 1958. After graduating from middle school, she went to work in small workshops, like most of her classmates.

"I never worked on the land as such, apart from maybe helping my parents when I was very little," she recalled. "Everybody wanted to work in a factory back then. Everybody wanted to go to the cities."

By the 1990s, Huang had her own small factory, employing about 20 workers and doing subcontracting work for local pen companies. She returned to her rural hometown around 2010, seeking a more relaxing pace of life.

"With more time to spend, I took up farming in my own back yard, like most of my neighbors in the village," she said.

"It's just for fun, not for business, so it isn't that tiring," she added. "My two kids don't really need to do grocery shopping, at least not for vegetables or chicken. They get the real farm-to-table food here."

Her children and many of their friends don't harbor ambitions to "go to the cities." The nearby Lingang development zone provides a variety of different job opportunities that were previously non-existent. Huang's son works in an information technology company, and her daughter is an administrator at a child-care center.

"Business has been up and down, but I'm still confident about my choice to return to suburban Shanghai," said Liu, the salesman-turned-agricultural manager. "I can see people, policy and planning converging, and that signals big potential ahead."

How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out
yao minji / SHINE

Huang Baomei and her neighbors pick up farming in their back yards as hobby.

How'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Easily, as it turns out
yao minji / SHINE

Suburban Shanghai has been going through drastic changes.

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