Preface to the Taiwanese Edition
A CSA Mission to Taiwan
By Elizabeth Henderson
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.”
Sharing the Harvest is a detailed introduction to Community Supported Agriculture mainly in North America with some examples from around the world. For farmers and community groups in Taiwan taking their first cautious steps in CSA, this book will provide many models to consider for adaptation to the local culture and conditions. At this moment in Taiwan history when the pressure to develop farmland is so intense, CSA may show a way to preserve existing farms, inspire the founding of new ones and give a new meaning to “Made in Taiwan.”
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 main 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 they might adapt CSA: 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 for 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.
From Hsinchu, Yi-zih and I took the high speed train to Meinung in the south. 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. After a meal of local vegetables, fruit and rice, 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.
A younger farmer, Ku-wen Ching, who rents Sen-lan’s land, showed us two rice fields where the grain 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, and work 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. 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.
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 this Chinese version of this book.
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.
On Friday, we drove to Hsin-Yang-Pin Community College. The storm was at its wildest, with gusts of wind and rain. (I later learned that mudslides from this typhoon washed a bus-load of mainland Chinese tourists over a cliff). Defying the storm, many people crowded the paths through the new gardens where they are teaching organic gardening, nutrition and cooking. In their very attractive community hall, I gave another version of my introduction 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 my talk is part of a series of speakers with hands-on experience that he is hosting. 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. The 2000 ponds in private hands are at risk of development for other purposes, so the county is funding projects to save them. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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 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 pay at the end of each month. The value of the contents adds up to 400 TD based on market prices. 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 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.
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 greens and turnips that were not under cover.
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 introduction 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 a restaurant in Bei-tou. 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. 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.
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 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 fine flavor and high nutritional value of fresh, local food compliments the extraordinary Taiwanese cuisine. The CSAs I observed are hesitant beginnings, but the time appears ripe for a full flowering. This new model, linking farmers and their customers in sustainable collaborations, can build on the richness of the ancient Chinese food traditions and CSA could sweep the island as an antidote to the excesses of industrialization and globally sourced food.