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UPDATED: May 25, 2015 NO. 23 MAY 28, 2015
Is Professional Accreditation Necessary for Farmers?


A total of 182 well-educated farmers in west China's Shaanxi Province recently received senior professional certificates. Farmers who want to become senior professionals must undergo mandatory government training and possess knowledge of modern agricultural techniques and management skills. Their income must also be 20 times higher than the average net income of local farmers.

A little more than half of these recipients were below the age of 40, the oldest being 55 years old and the youngest 22. The Shaanxi Provincial Government launched the agricultural training scheme last year to encourage people to join the agricultural industry and cultivate their agricultural expertise. This province has more than 10 million farmers; as of now only 266 of them have been titled a "high-level professional farmer."

While this scheme was designed to encourage agricultural modernization by holding up successful farmers as exemplars, some think that most of these so-called professionals are pseudo-farmers. Also, this certificate creates new inequities as certified farmers enjoy many favorable policies for which ordinary farmers are not eligible.

Bolstering farmers' status

Chen Guangjiang (www.gmw.cn): In 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a pilot program in 100 counties to produce farmers equipped with technical and marketing knowledge. It has taken this initiative at a time when farmers are pouring into cities for employment, raising the question of who will be left to plant crops. In these pilot counties, training, accreditation and policy support have been put in place so that farmers can continue to inhabit a reliable profession that can support themselves and their families. The future of the agricultural industry and national food security depend greatly on these professional farmers.

Although the number of certified farmers is still small, the accreditation program is an innovation in keeping with farmers' interests. The certificate is a good thing for farmers to earn by further engaging themselves with the industry. Some worry that the certificate is yet another excuse for the local government to bleed money from farmers. While it's necessary to ensure agricultural training programs are scientific and standardized, this newly launched accreditation system should not be dismissed out of hand.

Tie Yonggong (Beijing Times): Some people are confused: Farmers don't receive salaries and they don't hold a post in an organization, so why then are they being granted professional titles? The fact is that agricultural production and business operation also require professional acumen. In many Western countries, training professional farmers is seen as an important measure to promote agricultural modernization. Farmers there generally have a high level of education and possess a sound grasp of agricultural techniques, financial knowledge and modern agricultural machinery. They generally inhabit the middle- and high-income groups.

Of course, the national situation in China is different from elsewhere. Here, farmers mostly tend to a small piece of land with the family working as a unit. In the face of an outflow of agricultural workforce and an aging rural population, the matter of who will remain to take up the mantle is an increasingly pressing one. It is therefore only a matter of time before the sector becomes more professionalized.

Escalating inequality

Bi Xiaozhe (www.gmw.cn): This certificate is beyond the reach of most farmers, and constitutes a symbolic token to nudge the farmers toward equipping themselves with more techniques and knowledge. Applicants have to go through a very complicated accreditation process. This necessitates taking time from one's daily work for training and tests. For most, this would be unfeasible, as they owe their very livelihood to this work. Of those who have received certificates, some are successful entrepreneurs, some are retired senior civil servants and others are experienced researchers. The social resources and technical capabilities they possess are far greater than those of ordinary farmers, who usually don't have the funds or resources to meet the professional accreditation criteria. Many of the so-called high-level professional farmers are newcomers to the profession, "job-hoppers" who boast various advantages. Their route to success is thus not easily emulated.

The decisive factor in promoting rural and agricultural development is the enhancement of farmers' capabilities, rather than the attainment of this or that professional certificate. Only when they are equipped with advanced farming techniques in addition to market-oriented thinking can we expect the vast majority of Chinese farmers to be able to live a more comfortable life.

The government is supposed to be issuing policies to help encourage farmers to start their own businesses, together with providing technical and resource-based support. It would be more advisable to help more ordinary farmers benefit from scientific progress and market resources than to nurture a small clique of senior professional farmers.

Wang Chuantao (Beijing Youth Daily): At a time when agriculture is beginning to depend more and more on modern science and technology, and when young farmers, having been affected by urbanization, are increasingly losing their grasp of traditional techniques, making crop sowing a profession will help accelerate the modernization of China's agricultural sector.

However, the introduction of the accreditation system may make many farmers feel that although they have worked the land their whole lives, their status has slipped out from underneath them owing to their inability to attain a professional certificate.

Making farming a profession does not mean one should necessarily need a certificate to prove that he or she is professional. For thousands of years, China was, and remains, an agricultural society. Historically, there existed no thresholds for farmers, no demands on their educational background or income level, and no need for certificates issued by the government. After they receive the certificate, farmers will be subject to favorable policies concerning bank loans and land transfers. As a result, the certificate seems to be nothing more than a guarantee of privileges. Policy-wise, farmers should be treated equally, while the accruement by some of special support through obtaining a certificate goes against the spirit of ongoing reforms in China.

Wu Min (www.rednet.cn): Many of these so-called professional farmers are by and large not farmers in the real sense of the word. They come from cities and have leased land that used to belong to local farmers. With their certificates, they can avail themselves of policies inaccessible to ordinary farmers. We are now worried that the high-level professional farmer certificate will encourage outside parties to encroach upon the territory of traditional agricultural producers in a bid to grab the resources the latter party depends upon for survival.

Setting up a system to nurture professionalism within farming is doubtless an important step toward the reification of agricultural modernization, and it will boost farmers' incomes. However, the newly issued certificates seem, on the face of things, bizarre. If in the first instance, applicants are required to reach a certain level of income, this program actually does little to fulfill its purportedly developmental role. If the scheme falls down in this respect, it will be ineffectual in encouraging farmers to embrace modern agricultural practices and will be perfunctory and largely tokenistic. Moreover, the certificate will represent a bugbear for ordinary farmers as they find themselves reclassified as inhabiting the lower echelons of this hierarchy.

China is a large agricultural country, so it's necessary to bolster farmers' status and increase professional standards. This, however, is not something that can be easily achieved simply through the provision of training and the issuance of certificates. More pragmatic measures should be taken to foster more inclusiveness, instead of benefiting a small cadre of so-called high-level professionals, most of whom are fair-weather farmers. 

Copyedited by Eric Daly 

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