Sitting on a long wooden bench in a small spartan room, a group of 10 men and women dip chopsticks into bowls filled with five varieties of rice.
In complete silence and keeping a poker face, each samples just a few grains, chewing thoughtfully before jotting down his or her comments.
There are no accompaniments except for bottled water, and they are forbidden to exchange opinions before they filling out the form.
Taiwan's rice tasters are judging different varieties of grain grown by local farmers and the group, a unit under a laboratory of state-owned Taichung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, repeats the routine sampling process twice a day.
Their records are being used by the agricultural authorities to recommend the best quality rice to growers, as part of a strategy to help the country's beleaguered rice farmers.
The aim is to improve the flavor and quality of the rice so farmers can compete on quality rather than price in the face of cheap overseas imports forced on them by membership of the WTO.
"Taiwanese are close to Japanese and Koreans in their taste of rice. They prefer rice which is a little bit sticky," says Dr. Sheu Chih-seng, head of the laboratory.
Rice is judged by its appearance, aroma, flavor, cohesion and tenderness, he says.
Though the team's work may go unnoticed by the nation's 23 million people, Sheu is proud of his team for helping one of Taiwan's biggest and oldest industries.
"Since its establishment in 1982, this laboratory has laid a solid foundation for Taiwan's good-quality rice production system," he says.
The rice research and development efforts have become more important to Taiwanese farmers since they came under mounting competitive pressure following the Taiwan's entry in 2002 into the WTO.
As part of its WTO terms, Taiwan is required to import at least 144,720 tonnes of rice each year, slash government subsidies to the farming industry, and lower tariffs on agricultural imports.
In the face of massive foreign rice dumping, agricultural authorities have had to order tens of thousands of domestic rice farmers to leave their paddies idle.
"Because of the relatively high production cost, Taiwan rice growers can hardly compete with their peers from elsewhere in the world," says Shih Chin-hsiung, head of Taiwan's non-profit Excellent Farmers Association. "Labor costs accounts for some 60 percent of the cost of domestic rice farming."
The size of Taiwan's total paddy area has shrunk to some 130,000 hectares, down from a peak of some 350,000 hectares in the 1980s, according to tallies of the Council of Agriculture.
"Having their rice paddy lay idle is the last thing rice farmers would like to see. It is not the right remedy to address the problem," says Lo Nien-hsing, who owns four hectares of rice paddy in the central Changhua county.
Tens of thousands of hectares of rice paddy have also been diverted for industrial uses and planting of economic crops like sugarcane, maize, red beans and green beans, as well as sweet potatoes.
On average, Taiwan's rice farmers make only NT$30,000 (US$960) on every hectare of rice paddy per each half-year harvest, Shih says.
"A majority of local rice growers are now only part-time farmers. They spend much of their time running small businesses or working in nearby factories. Few farmers here can survive only by growing rice," he adds.
In order to highlight their plight, a farmer's son planted a bomb in a Taipei park in November 2003 with a note accusing the government of threatening the survival of local farmers.
Sixteen more bombs either covered with rice or with rice left nearby were found in parks, telephone booths and commuter trains in the capital over the following few months. Two of the devices exploded but caused no injuries or major damage.
The man nicknamed the "rice bomber" for his trademark of sprinkling rice on the homemade explosives was arrested in November last year and is awaiting trial. Sheu's team hopes to peacefully solve some of the problems rice growers face by coming up with 16 types of grain to enhance their income.
One of the big successes discovered so far is a cultivator called "Tai-Keng 9" which produces particularly good quality grain.
"It tastes very good. Besides, as it is also strong in disease and insect-resistance, so a lesser amount of pesticide is needed," says Dr. Chen Yung-wu, head of the Station.
A typical beneficiary is Chiu Chwei-chang, a farmer from Chihshang, a town in the relatively unpolluted southeastern county of Taitung. Chiu saw the price of his "Tai-Keng 9" rice surge to NT$500 per kilogram after he won the first prize in the island's first ever rice competition sponsored by the government in August last year.
"I had never realized that there would be such a day by growing rice," Chiu says.
On average 1kg of "Tai-Keng 9" fetches around NT$70, nearly twice the price of other cultivators.
Despite the high price, the "Tai-Keng 9" is proving popular not only with choosy Taiwanese consumers, but also Japanese and Koreans, Chen says.
As of now, "Tai-Keng 9" has been planted on 20,000 hectares of rice paddy nationwide. But to Sheu's team, there is still room for the improvement in "Tai-Keng 9."
"It is not suitable for growing in high temperature," Sheu says.
With that in mind, Sheu's team developed a new cultivator called "Taichung 191" which a proud Chen hails as "the best cultivator of rice ever available in the country."
"Taichung 191" is available on some local markets, carrying a whopping price tag of NT$350 for a 3kg pack, or NT$116 per kilogram.
The relentless rice research efforts are hailed by Shih of the Excellent Farmers Association, who says the list of high-quality rice cultivators has "given ammunition to Taiwanese rice growers fighting to compete with imports."
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