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Citizen Economy on the Rise

Fallow Fields Yield Organic Gold


With the latest inventory efficiency system and an illiterate management approach, Tenha Organic Farm is giving new hope to out-of-work elderly farmers.



Fallow Fields Yield Organic Gold

By Benjamin Chiang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 393 )

For the past two years, the father of Chou Chun-chi has fielded a constant barrage of inquiries from neighbors, asking whether his son's farm is hiring.

A rising number of young people in the urban areas of northern Taiwan, finding themselves out of work, have been heading back to the countryside  in search of employment.

"From one class per grade level, primary schools in the Hsin Shih area have gone to three classes," relates the younger Chou, illustrating a tangible outcome of the southward migration. A resident of Hsin Shih in Tainan County with a PhD in plant diseases and pest control, Chou Chun-chi says that even if his Tenha Organic Farm could only afford to pay employees a meager NT$750 to toil outside in the harsh elements each day, plenty of people would still be clamoring for such jobs.

The Tenha Organic Farm is situated on 16 hectares between the Tainan airport and Provincial Highway 1. At 10 o'clock in the morning, under the stifling 30-degree-plus greenhouse heat, a 72 year-old woman is hunched over picking lettuce. Before sundown the vegetables will be shipped to the Li-Ruhn organic produce store on Nanjing East Road in Taipei.

In the tomato grove, 57 year-old Tseng Chin-chung works under the hot sun, large droplets of sweat streaming down from his receding hairline as he concentrates fully on his task.

Tseng previously found work doing odd jobs for neighbors, making less than NT$15,000 per month. Two years ago Chou Chun-chi hired him. "Now I make NT$800 per day cutting the grass, and life is good," he says with a farmer's typically pure, kind smile beaming from under a layer of grass clippings stuck to his sweaty face.

Taiwan's largest organic farm, it is a model social enterprise, based on mutual cooperation and collective sharing. It is also a microcosm of southern Taiwanese society's unemployed underclass.

People have found a stable place here to work for the rest of their lives. Among the farm's 24 employees, more than 10, like Tseng, are formerly out-of-work elderly farmers. The roster also includes a retired math teacher, a twenty-something student working part time, and the son of a big construction firm owner. Fearing his son would wander astray in the world, he sent him to work at the farm two years ago.

"We've attracted people from many strata of society that many big corporations would never hire," relates a reflective Chou. Still in its embryonic stage, the farm cannot afford to pay out fixed monthly salaries. However, every staff member makes at least NT$20,000 per month, sufficient for a modest living.

Highly Educated Flock to Agriculture

Organic farming has been red hot in recent years, attracting many highly educated people to the field. Tenha Organic Farm, located in Tainan's Jen De Township, was itself founded by a PhD, a Master's degree holder, and two university graduates with BA degrees.

Three years ago, Chou Chun-chi, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of North Carolina in the United States, left his position as vice president of Yuen Foong Yu Bio-Tech to pursue his dream of organic farming, taking with him colleagues Tom Chen and Chang Wei-huan, and adding organic agriculture equipment expert Lee Wei-yu.

These four thirty-something men pooled NT$18 million in capital and in 2005 leased a sugarcane field owned by Taiwan Sugar that had been left fallow for years, setting out on the pastoral life.

Full of idealism and grand schemes, Chou was not prepared for the challenges confronting the business in the first year. Assuming the best, he was shocked to find that "the organic content of the silt loam soil was very low. It was awful quality soil," he recalls, suitable only for growing ratty vegetables that would never pass muster on the market.

The four highly educated company founders and their idealistic confidence was no match for the poor soil. "If we can't even take care of the soil, how are we supposed to grow a crop?" All Chou could do was spend the next year trying to improve the soil.

A typhoon last October struck an even bigger blow to the four modern farmers' enthusiasm, making them fearful of further setbacks this coming summer.

Cooperative Business, Novel Management

In addition to combating natural disasters, Chou has had to learn the hard way about managing illiterate employees.

With no income flow, Chou Chun-chi was forced to make the bold move to hire three elderly women whose combined ages exceed two centuries. Only when a retired teacher from the Tainan Vocational High School, who prefers to be referred to semi-anonymously as "Mr. Chiu," joined the management team and began guiding the dozen or so elderly employees did Chou, Chen, and Lee become sufficiently free to concentrate on research and development, marketing, and farm management.

"Tenha has adopted the illiterate management approach," explains Lee Wei-yu. Mr. Chiu places baskets out one by one in the afternoon by the fields, each one representing 10 kilos to be picked. The next morning when the dozen illiterate old ladies arrive for work at 7:00 a.m., they see the baskets and get right to work picking the crops.

As part of this method, the workers draw symbols such as circles, triangles, or stars in blue or black marker on their time cards. "The old ladies cannot read or write Chinese characters, so they draw symbols they can understand."

Toyota Zero Inventory Method

Although agriculture is largely subject to the whims of nature, farm manager Lee Wei-yu established a management system modeled on Toyota's, treating the farm like a factory, running at top efficiency and keeping the old ladies occupied at all times. "Pick vegetables at 7:00 a.m., plant at 1:00 p.m.," recites Lee.

Over a span of just three years, Tenha's organic vegetable output has rocketed into the country's top 10.

Tenha has steadily established a firm place in Taiwan's organic market, topping NT$20 million in sales in 2007. "This year we could end up balancing out profits and losses, even growing by several fold," stresses Lee Wei-yu.

Early each morning Mr. Chiu, work log in hand, precisely calculates work hours and performance, producing a production record, which is then processed by Lee Wei-yu via computer, who cross-references harvest dates and production volume.

"Tenha has achieved zero inventory," notes Lee Wei-yu, currently a graduate student at National Chiayi University's Institute of Agriculture. Despite having 16 hectares of land available, the farm uses just a 26.5 square-meter refrigerated space. Harvesting one ton of produce per day, the farm gets it all cleaned, sorted, and packaged within five hours for delivery the same night to organic sales outlets around the island.

Thanks to its comprehensive production planning and extensive daily work logs, when executive director for marketing Tom Chen opens his computer spreadsheets to review the latest yield figures for over 60 kinds of vegetables including lettuce, tomatoes, and cabbage, he finds a day-to-day variation between harvests of less than 10 kilos. "We report precisely to downstream clients on shipping volume, regulating supply and demand," he offers.

Chickens, the Bane of Pests

Although organic farming methods require considerable time and energy expenditure, Tenha never uses pesticides or chemical fertilizers. White insect traps can be seen placed in the fields, luring them with bug pheromones. They also keep 400 free-range chickens, which help eat pests.

They back all this with strict quality safeguards, such as Taiwan's first pure organic certification from the USDA and a QCS quality certification.

"Production yield via organic farming methods gives nothing away to conventional agriculture," says a confident Lee Wei-yu. "Each greenhouse has climbed from an average yield of 200 kilos to 400, and our ultimate goal is 2000 kilos," he adds.

These four middle-aged men have devoted the prime of their lives chasing after a dream of non-toxic organic farming, turning this stubborn 80 year-old barren sugarcane field into Taiwan's most impressive organic farm. Their success has attracted notice from major Taiwanese corporations like Formosa Plastics, Chimei, Uni-President Enterprises, and Taiwan Sugar, each of which has sent personnel to learn from their experiences.

Hard work inevitably pays off, as echoed by the inscription in the farm's office: "Experience Cultivates Fortitude." This team of ambitious modern high-tech farmers has been forged out of this crucible, prepared to take on any challenges as they emerge.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

Chinese Version: 博士與老農 讓荒田變寶地