DONG'E COUNTY, China—Baili Ming has had a successful shopping trip. She walks away with a new wok and an order of seed corn for the upcoming planting season.
It's approaching harvest time in the Yellow River valley. Retailers have brought busloads of farmers — many of them women — to a field demonstration in Shandong Province to show off the quality of corn grown from seed supplied by DuPont Pioneer, an Iowa-based company.
Pioneer knows its audience. If customers pre-order enough seed to plant 5 mu—almost an acre—they receive a wok; 10 mu, a steamer pot; 15 mu, jugs of cooking oil; and 50 mu, a humidifier for their home.
Smallholder farmers, female or otherwise, are a necessary customer now for Western seed companies like Pioneer. But they're not considered the future of Chinese agriculture.
Baili's husband works in a steel mill, and that provides the family of four's main source of income. She decides what corn hybrids to buy and how much.
"I make the call," she says through an interpreter, as she carries her new wok. A pink purse dangles from her arm, matching her pink-trimmed sneakers.
The Chinese government wants to improve corn yields, and its strategies include boosting the professionalism of farmers and encouraging land consolidation. Those left to tend the land now are often the women, the old, and the sick.
The government "wants the men to come back and stay and operate the farm," said Fred Gale, a senior economist who specializes in China for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "They want people who will take farming seriously."
Gale said growers who operate 50 mu—about 8 acres—could make as much money or more as they would in a factory.
This area, where farmers plant wheat in October and corn in June, is dominated by families farming just 1 mu, or 667 square meters. A mu is a traditional Chinese measurement that reflects how small farms are in this country.
As millions of Chinese migrate to cities for jobs and labor becomes scarce, many smallholder farmers are deciding to rent their land to larger growers or pay others to plant and harvest their crops.
A look at the numbers makes it clear why Pioneer and other seed companies would benefit from consolidation. In the summer corn area, 270 million farmers operate on 37 million acres, said Robert Wang, general manager of Denghai Pioneer Seeds Co., DuPont Pioneer's joint venture partner for this part of China.
To reach those farmers, Pioneer uses about 400 dealers and 14,000 retailers.
"It's a challenge for business. The population of farmers is scattered," Wang said.
Consolidation is happening quickly, but don't expect U.S.-sized operations, Wang said. The average farm size in the U.S. as of 2012 was 434 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture.
Wang believes the farms in this area will stabilize at around 200 to 300 mu (33 to 50 acres), with a few operators handling 1,000 mu or more. Most farmers are not ready to manage that size, he said.
Baili is one of the larger growers among the women here, with 10 mu. Today, she has decided to pre-order enough to plant half that, or about $50 worth of seed. A retailer who owns a mechanized planter will help her plant the seed for an additional charge.
She came from about 40 kilometers away to attend the field demo. She has bought Pioneer seed for five years because of its good performance, she says. A drought has ravaged this area, but she still hopes for a good harvest — about 550 kilograms of corn per mu, or the equivalent of 130 bushels an acre. She says she expects to make about $1,667 from her 10 mu.
In a province where the per capita GDP is about $9,000, that's not insignificant.