Farms need infusion of new blood

Chen Yung-song 陳永松  / 

Mon, Feb 26, 2007 - Page 8

Recently Wu Chin-yi (吳勁毅), a researcher at the Technical University of Munich, suggested "organic farms are the way to save the agriculture industry." I generally agree with his view. But the critical issue is that of the people involved in farming today, only a small minority could be described as happy. The rest are unhappy and unwilling to continue being farmers. How can we expect them to pass on the farming tradition if it will lead to an unhappy life?

Some friends who are also concerned about agriculture and I recently spent a few days touring organic farms around Taiwan. Although we were only able to view a limited number of places, we gained a deep understanding of the plight that farmers and farming villages are facing.

Labor costs are high, there is no younger generation to carry on the work and most of the industry is still producing low-level goods, unable to transform itself and produce less-perishable and higher-quality products.

We visited one small village in Tienliao Township (田寮鄉), Kaohsiung County, that used to have 50 families residing there, but now just eight are left. The prospects for the town look bleak. The labor costs alone nearly match the income from the goods themselves, while a natural disaster could seriously hurt the farmers or put them under for good.

Most of the remaining farmers are around 50 to 60 years old, while some are 70 or 80. These elderly people have diligently planted their whole lives. Farming is their way of life. This dedication is a manifestation of their inborn vitality.

There is even one 80-year-old who uses his long-practiced skills to climb among the trees picking almost 500kg of fruit a day. He implores his children to let him continue because he doesn't want to retire.

Stories like these not only make us marvel at the strength and tenacity of some people, but also sadden us to realize that there may be nobody to pass these farming techniques on to.

When these old farmers retire, will there be anyone to follow them? Last year, the Council of Agriculture promoted two plans to try to deal with the problem. The "Migrating Bird Camp" was designed to provide young people in cities with an opportunity to experience first hand the farming life, while the "Gardener Plan" provided agricultural training for people over 35 with no previous farming experience, as well as people under 35 with some experience.

We don't know how many young people these efforts will be able to draw back to their home villages. Yet we do know that some agricultural and planting techniques cannot be passed down so quickly and easily.

Students often need to live on a farm and get practical experience for between three to five years before they have a grasp of the fundamental concepts. Moreover, it can take a lifetime of effort to truly understand the deeper wisdom passed down from one's ancestors.

Right now there is a pressing need to bring new blood to work the land. But unless one has inherited a farm, the cost of land can be prohibitive. If our efforts are limited just to the two council programs, I'm afraid that won't be enough to realize the goal of the policy.

This is why only 1 percent of the graduates from tertiary agriculture departments actually go to work in farming. This waste of educational resources is indeed regrettable. However, this problem is also related to whether or not the government provides practical incentives or assistance in leasing farm land.

For instance, it implemented a plan to rent land owned by major nationalized industries, such as Taiwan Sugar Corp, to those enrolled in the council's two training programs.

The distinguishing feature of these new farmers is that it is easy for them to take in new concepts and methods which allow them to treat the earth better. This is why it's important to promote organic farming.

Research has shown that naturally grown crops and organic planters produce greater yields and prove more resilient in the face of unusual climate changes. This point is worthy of further investigation by agricultural research agencies.

A relatively feasible solution to the current problem would be to encourage retired people in their 50s and 60s to move to the country and plant crops. This could be a major strength of the Gardener Plan, as more of these people have the economic means to purchase unused farm land.

But it's imperative that these new farms are able to form into farming villages. Even if a new crop of dedicated farmers spreads out around the country, modern computer technology could allow them to join together to create a sales portal for their goods on the Internet. Such a site could become similar to a staging area where techniques and ideas are exchanged or products are gathered and circulated. In this way, the majority of the profits could be returned to the farmers themselves.

I believe that when considering the difficulties the agriculture industry is facing in passing down farming traditions and protecting farming village culture, what is really needed is an infusion of new blood, not a series of top-down policies from agricultural agencies.

We can't afford to wait five or 10 years for the older generation to pass away before lamenting the fact that Taiwanese agriculture has reached the end of its road.

Chen Yung-song is an assistant professor in Ilan University's department of animal science.

Translated by Marc Langer