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Organic, Sustainable... Profitable


To counter both climate change and the threat of agricultural imports from China, Taiwan's farmers are switching to healthful, sustainable farming methods, creating new green business opportunities.



Organic, Sustainable... Profitable

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 450 )

The sun rises behind Mount Ali, boisterously awakening the tea bushes on Jiayi County's mountain slopes.

With a mane of white hair and a pale blue shirt, Chung Hsu-chun radiates vitality as he drives his small truck up the mountain to his tea plantation. In August last year, when Typhoon Morakot hit southern Taiwan, Chung narrowly escaped death. He was lucky enough to be out inspecting the damage at his tea plantation when a mudslide buried his home. From that moment on the 62-year-old tea farmer could no longer avoid a nagging question: How could he muster the courage to continue running his 30-year-old tea plantation at an altitude of 1,200 meters?

On top of the serious trials the disaster had brought, Chung faced still other problems. While Chinese farm products are not yet flooding the local market, cheap Vietnamese tea leaves have already arrived. Chung asked himself: How could this tea plantation, which helped him start a family and buy a car and a house, survive against foreign competition? How could he overcome these obstacles to improve the family's livelihood?

The answer that Chung found was redefining himself: He no longer sees himself as someone who fights nature to reclaim wasteland for cultivation, but as a protector of the land. He no longer uses chemical fertilizer, but instead plants trees throughout his tea plantation and all around it, employing the most soil-friendly farming methods on the plot of land that has supported him over the past three decades.

Emphasizing a healthful and sustainable new green agriculture is the best solution for Taiwan's farmers as they face climate change, international competition and a flood of Chinese farm imports after the planned Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China goes into force.

Council of Agriculture chairman Chen Wu-hsiung, who doubles as associate professor at the Department of Agricultural Economics at National Taiwan University, notes that the Taiwanese government is gradually changing its thinking as it realizes the need to address climate change and the international competition that local farmers face. In the past government measures focused on improving the structure of the agricultural sector and raising farmer incomes. But now healthful and sustainable farming should become the top priority. This also means many new business opportunities for Taiwan's farmers.

The hope of green farming is now blossoming in Taiwan.

In Taibao City in Jiayi County, Yeh Li-ren did brisk business for more than ten years exporting flowers and other plants. Yeh, who once won the Council of Agriculture's Shennong Award for contributions to agriculture, made a monthly income of NT$480,000. But he has no scruples admitting that floriculture involves the heavy use of pesticides, because the products will only be beautiful if "not a single insect survives." Yeh says he had his big wakeup call when he saw his health checkup report, all in red, and suddenly wondered, "What exactly did I gain from the past dozen years?" After shipping the last batch of his products, Yeh immediately switched to non-toxic production, turning his entire farmland of about 6,000 square meters into an organic vegetable farm.

Green Farmers Gain Dignity

Yeh not only plants organic vegetables, but also pays attention to maintaining the farm's ecological balance. He personally dug out the farm's water reservoir and irrigation ditches, and he collects rice bran, king trumpet mushrooms and sawdust from the surrounding area to make organic fertilizer. At a second-hand fair at his children's school, Yeh put up a stall to promote his organic vegetables.

Yeh says since switching to organic farming he has been in a "very good mood." Customers now knock on his door to buy vegetables and thank him for growing healthful produce. "I've been selling stuff for so many years, but this is the first time I'm being thanked for my efforts," says Yeh. "Green farming gives farmers a sense of dignity."

Even in Kaohsiung County, which is plastered with heavy-industry factories, the buds of green agriculture have begun to sprout.

The Community College of Chishan District in Kaohsiung has been promoting green agriculture in the Chishan and Meinong areas for more than 10 years. It was the first civic organization to promote farmers' markets, where local farmers directly sell their produce. Community College head Chang Cheng-yang says that Typhoon Morakot not only dramatically changed the topography of southern Taiwan, but also farmers' attitudes toward nature. In the past only a small minority of farmers cared about the ecology of their farms. But in the wake of the typhoon disaster, the farmers sought the help of the community college on their own initiative. They invited experts to hold classes on organic farming in Liouguei, Taoyuan and other disaster-stricken areas. More than 100 farmers have already attended such courses on green agriculture.

But if green farming is to be fully developed throughout Taiwan, the government has a crucial role to play.

In mid-June the Council of Agriculture convened a meeting on adjusting agricultural policy in response to climate change. The meeting concluded that Taiwan needs to switch to healthful farming that is "low risk and low carbon."

Yet when it comes to concrete action, the government seems to do the opposite of what it preaches.

For example, it has disseminated slogans promoting organic farming for more than ten years. Yet today only about 3,150 hectares or 2 percent of Taiwan's arable land are cultivated with organic farming methods. While the government calls for sustainable farming, it continues to subsidize chemical fertilizer production.

Two years ago Greenpeace International published a report which identified chemical fertilizers as one of the main sources of greenhouse gases. According to the report, chemical fertilizers account for between 17 and 32 percent of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

Upon retirement, Charles Huang, a former chairman and CEO of Taiwan Synthetic Rubber Corp. (TSRC), has devoted himself whole-heartedly to promoting green farming. Huang asserts that the government's self-contradictory policies are to blame for the island's inability to develop a sustainable agricultural industry.

The Council of Agriculture distributes pesticides to farmers through the local farmers' associations. And state-run Taiwan Fertilizer is a large producer of chemical fertilizer, which it sells to farmers at low prices. "The left hand encourages organic farming, while the right hand subsidizes non-organic farming," says Huang. The government's two-faced strategy stands in the way of making Taiwan's agriculture greener and more competitive.

According to the logic of corporate management, Huang argues, green agriculture must aim to produce top quality products using the fewest possible resources. Therefore, kitchen waste, which used to be carelessly discarded as trash, is the core of green farming, because it can be collected, processed and used locally. After tracking the kitchen waste cycle for a long time, Huang found out that one third is used to feed hogs, one third is burned as trash, and one third is discarded at random. If all kitchen waste were collected and composted for fertilizer, Taiwan could save the more than NT$100 million that the government spends annually on chemical fertilizer subsidies. At the same time, using organic fertilizer from kitchen waste instead of chemical fertilizers would reduce water and soil pollution, creating a win-win situation for all sides involved.

Getting the Goods to Market

Also crucial for the successful development of green agriculture is market development.

Huang Ke-hsian, who grows organic cucumbers, melons and gourds in Pingdong and Kaohsiung counties, warns other farmers against switching to organic farming before they even know where their customers are.

"If people get into organic farming only to save the planet, green agriculture will not last long," Huang insists. "You can't just take care of producing and forget about selling."

Huang learned this important lesson from experience. Like other industries, farming involves more than just producing. Marketing green agriculture requires the input of more expertise.

The most difficult part is breaking the market stranglehold of the established wholesale distribution system. Chiu Te-sen, administrative deputy general manager of Rhorganics Farm in Meinong Township, Kaohsiung County, complains that a few wholesalers control the prices and marketing channels for Taiwan's farm products. These wholesalers use their negotiating clout to buy at low prices. But since production costs for organic produce are at least 20 percent higher than for non-organic products, organic farmers find it very difficult to sell through the established wholesale system. But if wholesalers don't buy their produce, then organic farmers can't get their products to the customer, thus forming a vicious cycle.

Therefore, a growing number of organic farmers are struggling to free themselves from the traditional marketing and distribution system. They are selling their products directly at independent organic farmers' markets.

Farmers Give Themselves a Helping Hand

It is late afternoon as Meinong farmer Liu Chie-hsing delivers a load of organic papayas and squash in his pickup truck. Then he carefully lines them up for display at the "Farm Shop" in Kaohsiung City. Yeh Hsing-chen, a consultant for the Breeze Market Volunteer Association, is busy inside the small store checking and signing off deliveries. The store of around 40 square meters and the company behind it were jointly established by several organic farmers as a sales outlet. It exclusively sells healthful organic products that were grown without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, or genetic modification and using farming techniques that do not damage the ecological balance of the farms.

Yeh Hsing-chen once studied organic farming in Japan. Three years ago the farmers held a trial farmers' market on the plaza in front of the Kaohsiung County Women's Institute. They called it Breeze Market and invited local organic farmers to set up stalls once a week to sell their green produce.

Initially, each stall sold an average of just NT$500 in produce a day. But now that organic food has become popular, sales average NT$5,000 per stall. Last year, the market's annual turnover topped NT$10 million. Yeh realized there was a business opportunity. So she joined hands with the 33 farmers who regularly participate in Breeze Market, pooling NT$1 million in funding for a majority 52-percent stake in the planned store. The rest of the money needed to found the company came from people who support organic agriculture. The "Farm Shop" is run as a dedicated platform for organic farming.

Yeh, who grows organic tomatoes in Tianliao, Kaohsiung, hails the store as a good tool for farmers to get more marketing savvy. By taking distribution in their own hands, the farmers can quickly collect information on the consumer side and immediately feed it back to production. At the same time they can get familiar with packaging, product information and other marketing skills.

Meanwhile, green agriculture is not only blooming in the southern rural areas, but also in the densely populated urban north.

Knowledge Input for the Countryside

The top interest of Chientai Chen, an expert on information networks at the Creativity Lab of the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), is not nanotechnology or cloud computing, but the future of Taiwan's farm towns. Chen, who grew up in Dadu, Taichung County, proposed a program at ITRI last year that aims to entice professionals nearing retirement to go to the countryside to help establish a sustainable food supply system.

Chen's in-depth studies have underscored the precision production and complex marketing required in agriculture. He believes that in order for Taiwan's entire agricultural industry to shift to organic farming, knowledge must lead the way.

"The more I do this, the more I realize – farm towns are harder to run than TSMC," Chen jokes (referencing Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, one of the island's biggest high-tech companies).

His plan targets people with a consciousness of ecology and sustainable development who are set to retire in one to seven years, encouraging them to move to the countryside upon retirement. He wants to create an information platform for farm towns that allows these veteran recruits to infuse rural communities with expertise, funding and social networks.

Chen himself has teamed up with several ITRI colleagues. Together they rented a 970-square-meter plot of land in Sanchongpu, Hsinchu County, for NT$2,000 per year to experiment with a community-based agriculture project. On this experimental farm, personnel are divided into groups of ten, with each group composed of both managers and supporters. Four managers are in charge of planting such crops as okra, cucumbers and green beans. The supporters invest money, weed and water the fields, while the whole group shares the risks. The tech-savvy novice farmers have learned from local farmers about paddy cultivation, irrigation and fertilizer use. On their own fields they only use environmentally friendly methods.

"I hope that in the future we can hear a world-class dialogue in the farm fields," says Chen. This is his dream of invigorating Taiwan's rural communities with the help of expert knowledge, and a moving vision for Taiwan's new green agriculture.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz