China’s Loss of the Traditional Dairy Farmer

China’s Loss of the Traditional Dairy Farmer

Communal dairy feeding center in Yunnan, China

With China’s growing wealth and demand for western diets, the Chinese government is posed to dramatically increase agricultural production, with goals of becoming more agriculturally self-sufficient. A laudable aim- but it’s questionable if their strategy is undermining the economic stability of rural villages and livelihoods of traditional farmers.

China’s Agricultural Revolution (as it has come to be known) is mainly characterized by a climate of corporate agriculture expansion as the Chinese government has adopted policies aimed at supporting industrial intensive farming. Meanwhile, the traditional dairy farmer has fallen to the wayside. Historically, Chinese dairy cows grazed the fields while farmers sold their milk to local milk processers, who in turn packaged products and sent them to market. The Agricultural Revolution, however, has resulted in corporate buy-out or closures of local processors. Only two companies now dominate processing, Mengnui and Yili. Not only are Mengnui and Yili processing plants located far from traditional dairy villages, but they also don’t accept traditional hand-milked product. This leaves small-scale farmers with few options- work with the meager local demand for traditional dairy products, or relocate their grazing cows to an indoor “automated milking system farm,” for daily machine milks before being sold to the processors. A third option is to leave the sector altogether, a choice many local farmers are being forced to accept.

However, the Agricultural Revolution hasn’t stopped at the loss of local processing. The industrial dairy factory farm model, with tens of thousands of cows confined indoors, is rapidly making its way onto the Chinese landscape. Resultant may be flooding of the market with cheap dairy products. With the expansion of corporate factory farms, one of the small-scale farmer’s last hope’the automated milking system farm’may soon fade away into a page of history. Only time will tell if the meager demand of local, traditional dairy products will remain a niche, or if corporate, factory farmed brands will eventually consume that market as well.

But regardless of what the future holds, there is no question at the present time, China is witnessing the loss of the traditional dairy farmer, as well as the loss of outdoor grazing cows.

Photo courtesy of ILRI/Flickr (Credit: Stevie Mann)