Selling produce at a loss is best desperate vegetable growers can hope for, Duan Yan in Shandong province and Hu Yongqi in Beijing report.
Last year was better for Xu Yuguang, a Shandong farmer. The price of Chinese cabbage rose to 1.6 yuan (25 cents) per kilogram and he made a tidy profit. This spring, he got only 0.14 yuan each for his 15,000 kg of new harvest.
A farmer loads cabbages onto a motor tricycle in Zaohu village, Qingzhou, Shandong province, on Saturday. [Zhang Tao/China Daily]
His family had worked hard for months to cultivate the crop and he lost 0.16 yuan for each kilogram he sold.
"The three mu (0.2 hectare) of Chinese cabbage cost me about 4,500 yuan to grow," said Xu, 41. A wry smile tugged at his mouth as he loaded cabbages from the field to his motor tricycle. "Now I'm selling them at 2,100 yuan in total." That's about $690 in cost and $322 in revenue.
Even so, Xu considers himself lucky. He managed to get rid of his cabbages before they started rotting. Some of Xu's neighbors found no buyers.
The sudden drop in wholesale prices this spring hit vegetable growers across the country, although consumers in the cities would not know it. The Ministry of Commerce said the wholesale price of 18 types of vegetable dropped an average of 9.8 percent last week from the week before and 16.2 percent over three weeks.
The National Bureau of Statistics said on Monday that Chinese cabbages were selling wholesale at 1.79 yuan per kg. A year ago, the price averaged 2.8 yuan.
Farmers have crushed the vegetables and tilled them into the soil or fed them to livestock. The land needs to be cleared for the next round of planting. But many farmers said they have no idea what to plant next.
The heavy loss proved too much for Han Jin, 39, a farmer in Jinan, capital of Shandong province. The price of the cabbage he grew, a different variety from Chinese cabbage, dropped to 0.16 yuan per kg. He committed suicide on April 16.
Many voices in the marketplace lay the blame on the relatively warm and sunny winter that led to bigger harvests, but experts say weather is only one of the factors that cause prices to plunge.
Chen Jianquan, 32, a farmer from Qingzhou city, Shandong province, waits in his truck at one of China's largest vegetable wholesale markets in Shouguang. It was Saturday afternoon, and Chen had arrived with a ton of Chinese cabbage at 1 am. Most of it still had not been sold. [Photos by Zhang Tao / China Daily]
In Dongxia township of Qingzhou city, where Xu lives, almost all the farmers in his village and others nearby had planted Chinese cabbages in their greenhouses. Xu paid 900 yuan - more than 40 percent of his revenue - to the workers he hired for the harvest.
"The vegetables are dead cheap but laborers are more expensive. I also need to provide their lunches." Xu sighed deeply as he said he had no clue why cabbage is so cheap this spring. "Even a plate of fried cabbage in the restaurant costs 10 yuan."
A large truck was parked on the roadside, waiting to ship Xu's vegetables to the vegetable wholesale market in Shouguang city, 50 kilometers away. The market, one of China's largest of its kind, was built in 1984 in response to an oversupply of cabbage. The year before, 25,000 tons of unsold Chinese cabbage ended up rotting on the ground. The idea behind the market was to concentrate the produce in one place and make it easily available for potential buyers from neighboring cities.
"I've never seen the price of vegetables so low before," Chen Jianquan, 32, said on Saturday as he lay in his cabbage-filled truck. The vegetable grower had been at the market waiting for buyers since 1 am. It was afternoon, and he had sold less than half of his 1 ton of cabbages.
"I can't leave until I sell these cabbages, because after another two days, the price will drop even more when the vegetable is not as fresh," Chen said. He looked with envy at dealers 20 meters away. "Looks like they just sold theirs."
The successful dealer, who gave only his surname, Wang, said he and his driver had been at the market since the day before.
Cutting the links
Sold! Chinese cabbages are moved from a farmer's truck to the buyer's. The vegetable wholesale market was built in 1984 after the Chinese cabbage harvest of 1983 outstripped local demand.
Despite the losses to farmers and dealers such as Xu and Chen, consumers have not yet benefited from the low wholesale prices.
Liu Chang, who lives in Beijing's Chaoyang district, said she had read about cheap vegetables being thrown away like trash. "At the groceries downstairs, I'm still paying 2 yuan per kg for cabbage."
The latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics, released on Monday, show Chinese cabbage selling in 50 cities for 1.79 yuan per kg April 11-20. The price was 1.75 yuan in the same period last month.
Cheap agricultural products don't equate to cheap food on the dining table because there are many intermediaries between farm and bowl. As the prices of petrol and labor have risen over the past several months, the costs of harvesting, packaging and transporting produce have stayed high. The State Council has repeatedly ordered local governments to reduce the intermediate links for agricultural products.
Xu and other farmers said the threshold for providing goods directly to supermarkets is still too high and complicated for individual farmers like themselves.