Su Hsiu-lien (蘇秀蓮) married when she was 18 years old and then left Hualien County with her husband to find work elsewhere. In her twenties, she moved back without him.
“He and I were living in Taipei but couldn’t afford to keep our son and daughter there. My in-laws were raising them in Hualien, and that’s where I wanted to be,” Su, who is an Amis Aboriginal, said to the Taipei Times.
Now divorced, Su is the owner and manager of a farm in Hualien County. The 44-hectare Pangcah Organic Farm (邦查有機農場) yields 21 certified-organic products such as lettuce, peanuts and sun-dried rice. Opened in 2009, the farm is already turning a profit, on an operating model that’s surprisingly tech-savvy for the region. The company’s employees post the latest available produce on Facebook, and communicate with customers via e-mail. Every week, Su creates a harvest and production plan, plugging variables like temperature and precipitation into a spreadsheet.
When Su was growing up, her village had neither a computer, nor anybody who knew how to use one. At the age of 27, she decided to learn because her business wasn’t thriving. “When I first started out with farming, there were no profits, so I had to do other things to support the children,” she said. “Hualien has lots of contract work, like planting trees for landslide prevention. The salary is high, but the work is backbreaking. Very dangerous. I did it twice, and thought that it was not sustainable, so I went back to organic farming.”
This time, she wanted to get it right. So she signed up for a career training class that was offered by international nonprofit World Vision. She wanted to learn about the latest farming techniques, but didn’t expect to be learning about computers, too.
“When I first saw the computer, I wasn’t even sure how to turn it on,” she said.
“I’ve never been a good student — I never finished high school. The computer classes were challenging, and maybe a bit worse than school lessons because I was always afraid I would press the wrong thing and break the machine.”
Still, Su picked up quickly. She learned how to touch-type, which drastically reduced her operation’s long-distance phone bills. She also learned how to use Facebook and other Web platforms to market her produce directly to at-home consumers, who today make up the bulk of her orders.
By the way she manipulates her smartphone, it is hard to tell that information and communication technologies are new for her. “This is one of our order forms,” she said, swiping her mobile phone’s touch screen to zoom in.
She toggles out rapidly and shows me her Facebook page, then a photograph of an oversized pet rabbit that has free range of the farm. She pulls up an active chat with an employee. “Sometimes if they have a problem and I’m not there, they send me a photograph of the situation so I can give feedback,” she said.
Pangcah Organic Farm currently employs 15 people full-time. Five are single mothers, most are Hualien natives and all have recently learned how to use the computer, a PC at the back of the administrative office.
“They experienced all the problems I had. They wondered why the cursor wouldn’t behave. They thought Facebook was so complicated.”
“Some said, ‘Can’t I just farm and not learn this?’” Su said. “But I said no, this will make you better and the farm better. We will get through it together, as a team.”
Complaints have since dwindled and the staff now line up to use the computer for fun during their lunch break. One of their favorite pastimes is looking at their neighborhood using Google Earth, she said.
But for Su, the computer remains a province of the workplace. “I don’t really know how to play any games on it. Not even Happy Farm,” she said.
She added, “Though I do enjoy text messaging a lot. Makes it easier to check on the kids.”