Comparing the sustainability of smallholder and business farms in the North China Plain; a case study in Quzhou

Zhan Xu*, Zhengyuan Liang, Jiali Cheng, Jeroen C.J. Groot, Chaochun Zhang, Wen Feng Cong, Fusuo Zhang, Wopke van der Werf

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


CONTEXT: With labour migration to cities, Chinese agriculture is witnessing the emergence of business farming and an enlargement in farm sizes. Farm size enlargement triggers a wide range of managerial adjustments that may affect the sustainability of crop production practices. There is little empirical information on cropping practices and the sustainability of crop production of business farms as compared to traditional smallholder farms. OBJECTIVE: Here, we made a comparison of cropping activities and sustainability performances between smallholder farms and business farms. METHODS: Data on cropping activities and crop management were obtained by a survey among 486 smallholder farms and 19 business farms in 35 villages across Quzhou county on the North China Plain. After collecting data, we calculated sustainability indicators at the crop and farm scales. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Business farms were about 15 times as large as smallholder farms (14.6 ha versus 0.8 ha) and they had more self-owned machinery. There was no significant difference in the number of crop species cultivated on smallholder or business farms. However, business farms allocated less area to grains and more area to cash crops with high economic benefit, such as stevia and vegetables, than smallholder farms did. Business farms showed some environmental benefits, e.g., business farms used 21% less irrigation water and had 28% lower N surplus. However, there were also trade-offs with business farms having 32% lower dietary energy output per unit area per year than smallholder farms. These differences were associated with better management and lower cropping index (number of crops per year) on business farms as compared to smallholder farms. These results indicate that business farms achieved improvements with respect to environmental externalities of agricultural production, when compared to smallholder farms, but the contribution to grain production was comparatively low. SIGNIFICANCE: This study shows that scale enlargement of farming in a Chinese context is no panacea for achieving improved crop production sustainability.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103896
JournalAgricultural Systems
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024


  • Business farm
  • Crop allocation
  • Cropping system
  • Smallholder farm
  • Sustainability performance


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