Bringing the Farm to the City
A decade ago, he set off bombs to protest the deregulation of Taiwan's rice market. Today, the "Rice Bomber" is using more peaceful methods to bring consumers closer to the soil.
Bringing the Farm to the CityBy Jenny Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 519 )
Children joyfully gather around a water buffalo, extending their small hands, eager to pet the peaceful beast. In another vegetable field nearby, children are competing to see who can catch the most food-eating insects.
All this is happening not in a rural village but at an exhibition site set up by 248 Farmer's Market founder Yang Ju-men in Taipei's upscale Xinyi district – part of his ongoing "Lead Jade Seed Project."
On these terraced fields set amid a concrete jungle, Yang is mounting a food revolution. Ten years ago, he tried to trigger a different kind of revolution, setting off rice-sprinkled explosives to protest Taiwan's opening of its rice market to foreign imports, one of the concessions Taiwan had to make to gain entry into the WTO. The "Rice Bomber" got a jail sentence for planting the bombs, but he also drew sympathy and eventually received a pardon from President Chen Shui-bian in 2007. Now, as the father of children aged two and five, he has embraced a different approach to selling his organic vision, founding the 248 Farmer's Market.
His two identities over the past decade have transformed how he thinks about Taiwan's agricultural sector. Yang has come to realize that a true revolution can only be achieved by changing people's attitudes and behavior rather than setting off explosive devices.
Over the past five years, the minds Yang's revolution has targeted are those of farmers. He has scoured Taiwan for small farmers who use eco-friendly farming techniques and posted details of their methods in a "Diary of Farm Visits" on his website. He has also established a more transparent marketing system, bringing farmers to Taipei to sell their produce directly to consumers.
What started as 20 canvas tents on a 200-square-meter lot in an alley off Zhongxiao East Rd. has now grown to seven outdoor farmers' markets in the Greater Taipei area and four brick-and-mortar stores, including a space in the A11 building of the upmarket ShinKong Mitsukoshi Department Store in Xinyi District, all under the 248 Farmer's market umbrella. In running the company, Yang has observed that consumers are the key to the entire production system. Only by changing long-held buying habits and behavior can Taiwan's agricultural system return to good health, he contends.
Don't Romanticize Farming
Yang discovered that because most modern consumers live in urban areas, they have become isolated from the land and the countryside, not only losing their sensitivity to the environment and changing seasons but also lacking rudimentary knowledge about produce. Most people's understanding of food, Yang says, is based on processed or fast food, resulting in an entire legion of urban consumers unfamiliar with what different fruits or vegetables look like in their natural environment and how they're supposed to taste.
Even Yang's family has faced such a predicament.
"The children usually stay with their grandmother. If they don't want to eat rice, they eat noodles. If they don't want noodles, they're given cake and cookies. If you give children too many choices, they'll ultimately choose to eat what makes them feel happy," Yang says.
His children have complained that they don't like going out with their father because he doesn't buy them snacks.
To change his children's mind-sets, Yang takes them to 248 Farmer's Market outlets to teach them about organic produce. Through exhibitions that bring terraced fields and water buffaloes into the heart of the city, he also helps other busy parents give their children a chance to plant vegetables and experience transplanting rice seedlings without having to travel long distances.
Elementary schools in eastern Taipei have used the 248 Farmer's Market site in Xinyi District for educational field trips, with more than 20,000 students having visited the Seed Project exhibition since it opened at the end of December.
Yang's idea of the perfect educational activity, however, is not necessarily the kind of experience that satisfies the youngsters' curiosity.
"I like to take people to rice paddies to transplant seedlings when the sun is stronger or it's raining a little. If you're strolling over ridges in a rice field, sickle in hand wearing a traditional bamboo hat, on a day when the weather is too comfortable, you'll think that farming is a romantic pastime," Yang says.
"But if the sun is pounding down, and you're sweating and drinking water when you can, you'll find that farming isn't that easy, and your appreciation for food will naturally grow stronger."
When Yang takes people on tours of the Seed Project exhibition, he covers the entire food cycle, from the cultivation process and harvest times to cooking methods, giving consumers suggestions along the way. He spends the most time trying to debunk the "standards" Taipei consumers have for produce.
Urban consumers often believe in food myths, such as small cucumbers having to be pencil-straight and have ends of equal diameter, or carrots having to be bigger than the diameter of one's thumb. But Yang says that vegetables in the field are never perfectly uniform.
He believes that consumers have paid a heavy price for their "Taipei standards" without even realizing it. Because of excessive demands put on the appearance of produce, farmers have resorted to using more fertilizer and pesticides to increase the proportion of "special grade" produce in their overall yields.
The Uglier, the Tastier
Yang has also learned that Taiwanese consumers are not very accepting of bitter tastes and insist on eating cruciferous vegetables, such as bok choy and cabbage, year round. These leafy vegetables are hard to cultivate during the summer when they are feasted upon by insects, however, so farmers must increase the amount of pesticides they use to maintain a constant supply. Morever, Taiwanese consumers' appetite for sweet fruit has driven increases in the use of acid inhibitors and sweetening agents in fruit crops, Yang says.
At a 248 Farmer's Market counter in a department store, one housewife peering at the oranges could not help but blurt out: "Your things are really ugly." The clerk immediately grabbed an orange and a guava that had black spots from bruising and cut them open for the customer to taste to prove that a flawed appearance did not affect the fruit's taste. At the outdoor product markets, it's common for vendors to take half an hour to explain the concept before getting a skeptical consumer to make a purchase.
Dressed in a T-shirt, blue jeans and sandals, Yang stands out in the fashionable department store. He actually dislikes working the booth there because of an aversion to the sound of cash registers. But he sticks to the task to prove that small farmers' produce can still be sold in a high-end retail outlet.
Li Chien-cheng, a manager with the 248 Farmer's Market, says that because even its smallest outlet sells produce from more than 100 farms around Taiwan, simply coordinating deliveries can take a lot of time.
"But we don't want to be the same as typical distributors and work with a few big farms and wholesalers. We want to give more small farmers opportunities," Li says.
The "Huatien Organic Market" in Hualian has been part of the 248 Market's supply chain for only a year, but its sales by volume have increased 30 percent over that time, giving the nine single fathers and mothers who run the cooperative welcome support.
Huatien's special projects manager Chao Tzu-lun travels from Hualian to Taipei once a week to sell the cooperative's vegetables. Harvested every Thursday and sold the next day, the vegetables appeal to consumers because of their freshness and safety, to the point now where a third of the produce Chao delivers to the 248 markets every week is reserved in advance.
"Even we had our doubts in the beginning whether people would buy things that would normally be tossed out at the point of production," Yang says somewhat sheepishly, holding a small, black orange and a few small sweet potatoes.
But today, the company's NT$50 million in annual sales proves that Taiwanese consumers are finally willing to accept produce with outer imperfections as long as it tastes good.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier