Farmer and author Elizabeth Henderson, whose book is Sharing The Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture, recently took a trip to Taiwan to share her knowledge and expertise related to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). She wrote the following essay about her experience.
In their headlong rush to development, the people of Taiwan lost most of their connections to their farming traditions and the rural skills and wisdom of Hakka farmers or the island’s indigenous tribes. But a rediscovery may be underway. Early in the summer of this year, the government proposed to change the country’s laws on farmland, eliminating the protections for small-scale family holdings. The proposal precipitated a visceral response. Within ten days, citizens organized and thousands of people turned out on July 17 when the Taiwan Rural Front planted a rice field in front of the Presidential Palace in Taipei. It was, in the words of a Tao-Yuan planner, “a watershed moment”. Rural organizers invited me to crisscross the island giving talks and visiting farms in the hope that Community Supported Agriculture will contribute to a “rural renaissance.”
|Yi-Zih in the hoop house Community Center at the future Eco Farmpark at Tucheng Farm
Sponsored by the Urban and Rural Development Department of Tao-Yuan County and Chi-Mei Community University, Kaohsiung, from October 18 through 26, 2010, I gave seven talks and led discussions about Community Supported Agriculture in four different areas of Taiwan. Yi-Zih Liou, from the Chi-Mei staff, served as my guide and translator. Two summers ago, Yi-Zih spent a month on a CSA farm near mine in New York State, speaks English well and has a solid grasp of farm realities in both countries. On this tour, I spoke with engineers on the verge of retiring, farmers, community planners and rural-urban organizers. Despite a raging typhoon, over 100 students and teachers came to my talk at the Hsin-Yang-Pin Community College. The practical questions asked at all these sessions revealed that Taiwaners are thinking seriously about how CSA might be adapted to their culture: Why are you doing CSA instead of farmers markets? How big an area do you farm? How much do you charge for shares? How does your price compare with organic vegetables in a supermarket? Why are people willing to do farm work? Do you hire workers, how much do you pay them, how many hours do they work? A farmer who currently grows rice and sweet potatoes asked how we managed 70 crops, how far the members had to travel to the farm and to distribution, how much we spent on equipment, and how much land it would take to do a year round CSA.
At the Nature Farming Club at the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Hsinchu, Chientai Chen, an engineer, shared his determination to change the condescending view the technical people he knows have of farmers. Chientai has a vision of providing training in farming skills for engineers so that they can retire to farms and give opportunities to the younger people who will help out and eventually take over. The Club holds potluck dinners and plans to start a CSA. He led a tour of their cooperative Rainbow Farm, shared by 20 families. They rent three small fields with heavy clay soils tucked in next to an 8-lane highway. I saw a bed of Asian greens and lettuces that a member of the group watered with a hose before getting down to hand weeding, a carefully trellised field of not yet ripe tomatoes in double rows on gray plastic, and a shed for shelter and storage. Nearby, a skilled farmer who teaches Chientai’s group, was growing sweet potatoes in rotation with rice.
From Hsinchu, Yi-zih and I took the high speed train to Meinung in the south. The train station area in Hsinchu was farmland until recently. There are massive new apartment buildings with many empty apartments. Amidst the new buildings the open areas look neglected and weedy, marking time till the developers come. The train was on time, clean and fast with spacious seats. Whizzing past, I glimpsed the countryside – in mountainous areas, little villages with intense plantings of palms, tea, rice paddies. On the plains and wide river basins – more rice paddies, onions, fruit. Large areas of shaded crops – Yi-zih said it was papaya. No wasted space. Houses and factories with rice fields right up next to them. A few small corn fields. A dairy – animals under sheds. A man with no protective clothing spraying a crop. A lone person hoeing. A crew harvesting. Plastic greenhouses, a field of uncovered hoops. Low tunnels. A cemetery. Poultry – also entirely under sheds. In the Meinung area – large plantings of bananas and papayas and what I thought were palm trees, but Yi-zih explained were beetle nut trees.
The visit to Meinung was intense. We met up with Tseniong (Cheng-yang Chang) the director of the Chi-Mei Community College who had made contact with me in the first place three years ago and arranged for me to give seminars via skype for people in his community. It was his idea to translate Sharing the Harvest into Chinese. He was having a meeting with college staff at a pottery that had been a tobacco drying house. The potter-chef prepared a wonderful meal of local produce for us including sweet potato greens and a dish of green tender stems that looked like thin green scallions, but tasted like a leafy green that I was told is a specialty of the area. After the meal, Sen-lan Huang, a colleague of Tseniong’s, whom everyone calls Poppy, gave us a guided tour. First he took us to his family’s house – a traditional Hakka home with a central hall where ancesters are honored. He told us that his village area had 880 inhabitants, 150 over 65. Sen-lan and others agreed that Taiwan is only 30% self-sufficient in food and most of the farms are very small with O.72 acres the average size. Sen-lan was one of the first in the area to convert to organic. When his father died, he and 2 brothers divided his land – each got 1/3 acre. The yard looked like a farm-homestead – food drying projects underway, tools, boxes, a new Taiwan-made walk-behind tractor, banana trees, Red Dragon cactuses, weeds, a small compost pile.
A younger farmer, Ku-wen Ching, who rents Sen-lan’s land, showed us two rice fields where the rice was almost ready to harvest but had been damaged by the heavy rains from a recent typhoon. I also saw raised beds with assorted bak choi, Chinese cabbages, trellised tomatoes and beans. Ku-wen rotates rice, rice, then sweet potatoes and other root crops followed by 2 years of bananas. Their land abuts huge fields owned by the Taiwan Sugar Co, now governmental, where they grow sugar cane and soy beans. The government wants to use 100 acres for a dam, bermed water storage for use by industry. Sen-lan is leading a protest.
We drove to nearby land that Ku-wen and 7 other organic farmers rent from Taiwan Sugar. They have a big roofed-over packing area with walk-in cooler, space for washing veggies, storage, tables. Their lease, just renewed, is for 2 ½ years. This farm is certified organic by one of four organizations accredited by the Taiwan government. Yi-zih said a Meinung researcher compared Taiwan standards with the US and the European Union and found the Taiwan standards higher, prohibiting copper and other common organic materials.
Ku-wen showed me an “ecological” pond, dug to provide a breeding area for dragon flies, frogs, and toads with a small pen of poultry on the bank. He complained of snails in their rice. There were 200 foot long beds with young sweet corn – transplanted 8” apart in double rows 3’ apart. In six large hoophouses (about 30’ by 150’) were beds of Asian greens. Ku-wen said that is the only way they can grow vegetables in the summer when it is very hot with torrential rains. One house had cherry tomatoes that were badly diseased – septoria? – and infested with white worms. Then more beds of sweet corn with a wire super-structure to allow the entire area to be covered with netting for the squash and melons they grow in the winter. In addition to the rice, bananas and vegetables, Ku-wen also dries daikon radishes and grows bean sprouts. He sells to local schools, at farmers markets and stores. Taiwan government policy requires that schools purchase organic vegetables for lunches once a week or at least once a month! I asked him how many hours he works – he said he makes a living, working 6 days a week, 10 – 12 hours a day, doing both growing and distribution. The farm has its own delivery truck and attractive packaging for the organic rice.
Ku-wen hires some workers: he pays long term workers 800 Taiwan dollars (TD)/day for harvesting and planting work, and 1000 – 1200 TD/day for heavier lifting. (The exchange rate fluctuates at around 30 TD per US dollar.) He said the workers belong to a laborers union and the union covers their health insurance and workers compensation. The national minimum wage is 97 TD/hour, just raised from 95. Retail workers usually earn 1200 TD/hour I learned.
Our final stop for the day was the field where the rice from the July 17 demonstration is growing. They plan to harvest it November 14 and take it back to spread out to dry on the road in front of the Presidential Palace in Taipei.
That evening, my talk – “CSA in Era of High Oil Prices”– took place at the elementary school attended by Tseniong’s children. The school has an attractive garden area and a rice paddy where the teachers and children produce enough organic rice for the lunches of the 90 children who attend. They also grow vegetables. About 60 people came to the talk, including Hsi-Yin Chen, the editor of the translated edition of Sharing the Harvest.* She announced at the gathering that Business Weekly Publications, one of the biggest publishers in Taiwan, would have the book ready in January 2011.
The next morning, Tseniong saw me off on a quick train back to the north to Tao-Yuan for a formal luncheon with the top brass of the Urban and Rural Development Department followed by a 3-hour seminar on CSA for county planners. The department struggles with planning and trying to save farmland in a rapidly developing area. Factories spring up without official permits. During the question period, a tiny woman, an active member of the Homemakers Union Consumers’ Cooperative, gave a passionate speech about the dangers of chemical residues in food and the need to buy local farm products. Like the Japanese coop on which it is modeled, the cooperative sells a wide range of products from local organic farms.
Despite the pounding rain (I later learned that mudslides from this typhoon washed a bus-load of mainland Chinese tourists over a cliff), after my talk we drove to a community center where they have services for elderly people. The neighborhood is exposed to a lot of industrial pollution, so it is not a good place to grow food. In their garden, they grow flowers. On the roof top, they are doing hydroponics, and worry that the fertilizer may contain chemicals. They serve meals cooked using the vegetables in a community kitchen in the basement and they have planted vining plants that grow up the side of the building to provide window screens.
On Friday, we drove to Hsin-Yang-Pin Community College. The storm was at its wildest, with gusts of wind and rain. Defying the storm, many people crowded the paths through the new gardens where they are teaching organic gardening, nutrition and cooking. I have never had my photo taken so many times. The head teacher was a few steps ahead of me wherever I went, snapping photos in the rain! In their very attractive community hall, I gave another version of my intro to CSA talk, emphasizing what community organizations can do to provide support. The Director General of the Urban and Rural Planning Dept, Yung-Taan Lee, explained that he is hosting a series of speakers with hands-on experience. His department is working on a ten-year plan for Tao Yuan. The water supply is critical: there are 3000 ponds, built during the Japanese Colonial period (1895-1945). Each pond can irrigate 100 hectares, so the county is funding a series of projects to save them. The 2000 ponds in private hands are at risk of development for other purposes. He mentioned that Taiwan is not a member of the UN so must find other ways to be involved in the effort to stop global warming. The world knows about the Taiwan economic “miracle,” but it is urgent that the island also address issues of wind, water and soil.
|In the greenhouse at Power Farm
Director Lee accompanied us on a tour of the Power Farm, the creation of Te Kueimr Huang. Located in a village in a more rural part of Tao Yuan County, the Power Farm is a remarkable project. Mr. Huang grows rice, involving the 600 children at the nearby school in planting, weeding and harvesting. They sell the 20,000 kilos of organic rice for 5 TD a kilo. Huang makes compost tea using bacillus subtilus, vermicompost, and his own soil mix of minerals, compost, and some sort of fiber. From the appearance of his plants, he has an excellent formula. He uses yellow sticky traps for pest control. He designed and constructed an original greenhouse – the cost is an affordable 10,000 TD (approx. $350 USD) enclosing 1000 square meters, space to produce enough food for a family. His land is next to one of the ponds, 10 hectares in size, 2 – 3 meters high, where he raises fish using natural methods with a harvest only every other year. He says renting the pond for commercial fish production results in pollution. A Water Association, a committee of local villagers, owns and maintains the pond and the path around it as a park and uses the farm as a center. Huang has a vision for an eco-village with a small income for each household. He and his wife served us Northern Hakka food – roselle (hibiscus family) red flowers, sticky rice balls stuffed with shrimp/onions/pork/mushrooms in soup with greens, bitter melon, and pickled pumpkin and plums. Meeting Huang, I felt I had finally encountered a representative of the great Chinese agricultural tradition I first read about in F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China (1911).
My guides drove me to Taipei where on Saturday, a young woman named Zhi-Han, who is on the staff of the Community Empowering Society of Taiwan, picked me up at 9 am to take me to Fang-He Junior High School to give a talk to a class of people of various ages who are studying community organizing. The Community Empowering Society of Taiwan is a small ngo headed by Chih-Pen Yang with the mission of helping citizens organize to have a say in environmental issues and local development. Zhi-Han is in charge of typhoon recovery, working with 41 communities including the community college in Meinung and several indigenous groups in the East.
Greening the city is the main topic this year for the community organizing class that meets Saturday mornings. The instructor is an energetic man, Tung-Jye Wu, who seems to be one of the main instigators of the July 17 action I described earlier. TJ, as he is called, has a great sense of humor and greets the absurdities of life with a loud, spontaneous laugh that gets everyone laughing with him. He is the Executive Director of a small not-for profit named the Green Formosa Front. Their focus is the WTO, and climate change. I talked for half the class and the students asked questions for the rest of the time, a lively bunch. We ended with the obligatory group photo opportunity.
Then they took me to a small, but entirely organic farmers market tucked between two sky scrapers. We tasted some exquisite oolong tea – I am bringing some home. They introduced me to the male co-convener of the Taiwan Green Party. The organizer of this market, Zhi-Han later told me, is the “Rice Bomber.” In protest against Taiwan joining the WTO, 15 years ago, he placed little bombs with rice in them in a few government buildings. Someone later told me that these bombs were not even as powerful as a small fire cracker, but the Rice Bomber did 5 years in prison.
Next, we drove across the city – Taipei is truly impressive with a broad river down the middle- and up into the hills to another community college at Bei-tou, famous for its sulphur springs. For a smaller group that included 6 organic farmers, I gave another talk on CSA, this one more focused on how-to. There were fewer questions as the day was getting late and they wanted to show me the Bei-tou Farm – a spectacular series of terraces nestled among dense woods with a view of the city below. On terraces ranging in size from maybe 40 square feet to several hundred, they are growing vegetables and citrus trees. Amidst a swarm of mosquitoes (which luckily preferred Zhi-Han to me), the two women farmers led us up their winding path and told about their struggle to make enough money from their work. They are able to sell all their fruit at a stand below the farm where many tourists come to the national park and hot springs. They also deliver 5 weekly baskets of 7- 8 vegetables and fruit to people who pick up at the Community College. Their customers, mainly old ladies, pay at the end of each month. To communicate with these customers, they use the phone instead of the Internet. The value of the contents adds up to 400 TD based on market prices. A few other customers have asked for home delivery, but cannot pay more for it. The two farmers say they have limited production capacity so cannot supply many more shares. Both of these women married into the family that owned all this land for a century or so before it became a national park. They are allowed to continue living there and farming. Their husbands work at the farm part time and also work in construction.
Sunday was supposed to be my day of rest with a trip to the National Museum. Instead, Zhi-Han took me back up to Bei-tou to a class in tie dying organized by the Farmers Association. About 20 people, women, children and a couple of men were learning the art of tie-dying. The class met at a Buddhist temple built by the Japanese. The teachers were staff from the Farmers Association, a former farmer and a woman who still grows and sells vegetables and flowers, as well as teaching traditional crafts. The Farmers Association, which has 4 divisions – training, certification, promotion and insurance – includes 99% of the island’s farmers, and is organized by geographical area. The Taipei region has 9 sections. Zhi-Han did not know whether there is a unifying national leadership. Mr. Yang told me the staff person teaching this class is more liberal than most of the Association, which sounds like the Taiwanese version of the American Farm Bureau.
For my last day, we headed out earlier than usual to Tucheng Farm on the site of a former military base, a small rural oasis just beyond a highway and a busy metro stop. The base encompasses 96 hectares. There had been a plan to build a prison and a church wants to develop housing. Ren-Ji, a would-be farmer and organizer, hopes to save it as an eco-farm park. His vision is to recreate a village with organic farmers, using solar power and modern innovations – the opposite of a modern city – with an after school program for children. With the prison out of the picture, Ren-Ji and friends plan to reopen the farmers market although the ground is low and wet.
Within the boundaries of the base, the army still holds 27 hectares. 20 families also live there, with several well-developed market farms and a no-permit factory. Ren-Ji said 1/3 of the resident families like his idea for an eco-farm park, 1/3 want to sell out to developers and 1/3 are undecided. He wants to take it slowly and have a democratic process. Helen, a Taiwanese woman who has lived in Oregon for 30 years, and an American lawyer named Robin Winkler are among the volunteers involved in this project. Robin and the other members of his firm get weekly baskets of vegetables from the farm at the modest price of 250 TD a week, paying by the month after receipt of the produce. The farm also sells to assorted neighbors and has a booth at a traditional market where both farmers and hucksters sell. I saw a pond with geese, skillfully planted beds – about an acre – and 2 very well managed hoop houses with greens guarded by many fine spiders and pheromone traps. This land passed the government test as chemical free. They have not tried for organic certification yet. The heavy rains and wind of the typhoon, followed by high temperatures with continuing humidity, destroyed a lot of the uncovered greens and turnips.
We walked through an area where they are growing coffee and tasted some – strong, French style. On land that belongs to the family of Li-Lan Liu, a teacher who is running for the office of village chief in the November elections (she is co-convenor of the Green Party with the man I met at the organic farmers market) they have started their cooperative eco-farm park – it is 3 months old. They have built a stage, gardens with herbs, and a hoop house with attached kitchen as a social center. I saw flowers, bananas, and roselle flowers growing. They served me another great meal of food mainly from this farm – 2 dishes with bamboo shoots, 2 plates of different greens – sweet potato greens, spinach, rice, fish, pomelos. In one of the abandoned army bunkers, they plan to put a museum. The two farm women from Bei-Tou arrived and I gave my intro to CSA talk again. We had a long discussion about how to get started with CSA. Robin and Helen declared they would relaunch their CSA with payment up front and a work requirement.
Yi-Zih, who had stayed in Meinung to attend classes, joined us at Tucheng. With Zhi-Han, we went to a traditional tea house in the oldest section of Taipei where they process and sell tea. After a brisk walk down the oldest streets, TJ and Yang took us to dinner in Bei-tou where they had arranged for Yi-Zih and me to spend my last night in a hotel so I could experience the sulfur springs. (I did not tell them that my every shower in Wayne County is in sulphur water…) At dinner, I asked about their two ngos. Each has members (only 60 – 100) and a board. Funding comes from very small dues and from projects, many funded by the government. Things were better under the previous administration which was less enamoured of the WTO and development. The Green Formosa Front is an IFOAM member. The two men, slightly older, seasoned activists, and the two young women, their paths not yet clear but with an instinct for things natural, treated me as an honored guest. I hope Taiwan agricultural history will repay richly their generosity to me.
|The assembled at Hsin Pin Community College Farm
Traveling from Rochester to Taiwan and back gave me a lot to think about. From a city struggling with population loss due to the flight of industry, I flew to an island that has developed faster than almost anywhere in the world. People with deep rural traditions are reawakening to the urgency of protecting their land, a struggle we share. The CSAs I observed are hesitant beginnings, but the time appears ripe for a full flowering. Tiki (Chinese for cooperation, close to “Teikei,” the Japanese term for CSA) could sweep the island as an antidote to the excesses of industrialization and globally sourced food. The Taiwan Rural Front plans to return after the elections in late November with the rice grown from the plants of their July 17 protest. They will use the streets in front of the Presidential Palace to dry the rice and then sell it to raise money to continue their efforts. At 6 am, as I was about to step on the bus for the airport for the 25-hour trip home, Mr. Yang, of the Community Empowering Society, suddenly appeared bringing me a Taiwan Rural Front t-shirt. With that kind of energy and dedication, rural organizing in Taiwan has a promising future!
*The publisher of the Chinese edition of Sharing the Harvest is Business Weekly Publications, Inc. It’s a branch of Cite Publishing Ltd., which is one of the most biggest publishers in Taiwan.
The editor is Hsi-Yin, Chen. Her e-mail add: [email protected]
The translating group:
李宜澤 Yi-Tze, Lee：Foreword、Acknowledgment、Introduction、CH1、2、6、 Afterword許敏鳳 Min-Fong, Hsu：CH9、10
林震洋 Huck, Chen-Yang, Lin： CH3、4、5、11蔡晏霖 Yen-ling, Tsai：CH7、8、12呂欣怡 Hsin-Yi, Lu：CH13、14、15、16、17、18
劉逸姿 Yi-Zih, Liu：CH19、22
林大有 Ta-Yu, Lin：CH21、23、24
All photos courtesy of Elizabeth Henderson.
Sharing the Harvest is available now.