By Xinhua writers Xu Feng, Chen Jun, Liu Baosen and Shen Yang
BEIJING, March 2 (Xinhua) -- Zhang Baohua is no ordinary farmer. Not only is he toiling in the fields well into in his 60s, but he insists on growing traditional crops such as wheat and corn.
His fellow villagers in Zhangqiu City, east China's Shandong Province, grow scallions, which are far more lucrative .
Vegetables promise higher profit but prices tend to fluctuate, Zhang said. "Grains are a safer choice."
Zhang's love for grains, obstinate at first sight, is not difficult to understand. Grains are important for China, a country with a population of 1.3 billion.
Mouths being fed is a priority for Chinese leaders. But it is a daunting task due to urbanization and more farmers deciding to abandon their fields to seek fortunes in cities.
As Chinese law-makers convene this week to discuss policies in the annual parliamentary session, rural issues concerning agriculture, the countryside and farmers will undoubtedly take center stage.
China's grain output stood at a record 602 million tonnes in 2013, up 2.1 percent year on year, marking the 10th consecutive year for growth in grain production.
Around 90 percent of grain output was rice, wheat and corn, according to Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Central Agricultural Work Leading Team, a top decision-making body for agriculture-related work.
The amount of grains China imports is not high. More than 97 percent of key grain supplies, including rice and wheat, come from domestic crops, he said.
Though authorities have vowed to make more efforts to ensure "absolute" security of staples and maintain grain self-sufficiency, there is limited room for grain production to keep rising before the country has to find solutions to a host of problems.
For starters, lured by better employment and salaries, as many as 260 million farm workers have left the countryside for cities. A side effect of the exodus is a vast amount of land being left uncultivated.
The trend is not easy to reverse as countryside youths tend to follow suit and embark on their urban journey when they are old enough. A recent poll showed that only 7.7 percent of the new generation of farm workers is willing to work the fields of their fathers.
That cities keep growing and encroaching on farmland only adds insult. China faces an uphill battle to keep 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) of arable land, an amount considered as a "red line" minimum to ensure food security.
To rise to these challenges is not easy, but with consistency and ingenuity seen in the country's policies, China's growth story can continue.
In January, the Chinese government unveiled its first policy document for 2014, underscoring more rural reforms and the development of modern agriculture.
This is the 11th consecutive year that the No. 1 document has focused on rural issues.
During the central agricultural work conference in December, the authorities drove the point home that solving rural issues is key in building China into a moderately prosperous society.
"If China wants to be strong, agriculture must be strong. If China wants to be beautiful, the countryside must be beautiful. If China wants to get rich, the farmers must get rich," according to a statement issued after the conference.
Tackling countryside problems should be at the core of the central authorities' work, the statement added.
Though China relies heavily on urbanization for growth, it knows reduced farmland will be a heavy price. To prevent city expansion from further eroding farmland, the country will limit land use in cities with over 5 million residents, according to Jiang Daming, minister of land and resources.
Aside from a consistent policy focus, China, as the world's second largest economy, is better positioned to provide fiscal support for rural areas. Last year, nearly 1.38 trillion yuan (225.4 billion U.S. dollars) was channeled to fund agriculture and rural areas, up 11.4 percent year on year. This has helped improve infrastructure and living standards in the countryside.
Innovative farming entities such as family farms and agricultural cooperatives are emerging and being encouraged.
Governments at all levels are speeding up work related to land-use rights registration, an essential step if individual farmers are to transfer their land to big farm owners. The ambitious reform package released last November required that family farms are provided with policy and fiscal support, including allowing big farms to mortgage the management rights of their land for bank loans.
Encouraged by all these developments, Zhang Baohua registered his own family farm last year, with some 700 mu of land he rents from those who abandoned farming. Last year he pocketed 150,000 yuan from corn alone.
"I've spent most of my life growing grains. I will continue to do so because working in the field puts me at ease," he said.