Tucked away deep in the Chiayi-Tainan plains is Tainan County’s Houbi Township (後壁), a village comprised of traditional brick homes, semi-paved roads, farming equipment hardware stores and retro-style shaved-ice stalls and hair parlors, in which a group of rice farmers — with an average age of more than 75 years old — work happily, almost religiously dedicated to their tasks all year round.
Most of town’s farmers have worked their fields for more than half a century. However, after 80-year-old Huang Kun-bin (黃崑濱) — affectionately known as Kunbinbo (Uncle Kun-bin, 崑濱伯) — inadvertently landed the lead role in a 2005 rice-farming documentary, Let It Be (無米樂, literally “riceless joy”), the voiceless workers began to receive more national attention.
The documentary focused on the economic hardship farmers in Taiwan face today, making many people realize where their rice comes from and that the supply may one day run out if nothing is done to save the farming industry.
The Taipei Times interviewed Kunbinbo and his rice production unit manager (a type of non-governmental agricultural organization), Tammy Huang (黃麗琴), last November and discovered that he had actually achieved greater heights than his starring role in the film.
“Young people today do not want to stay in the suburbs and take over the family rice fields because farming is laborious and extremely low-paid,” Tammy Huang said.
Among the 100 or more farmers who work collaboratively under her unit, the youngest farmer is 49 years old.
“Kunbinbo is the only ‘second generation’ farmer in the village, and he only chose to be a farmer out of obedience to his father’s wishes,” she said.
“Farming on a 1-hectare piece of land [the average size for today’s independent farmer] for six months makes about NT$60,000 (US$1,778) to NT$85,000 — on a good harvest,” she said. “If a typhoon wipes out your crops — as happened last fall — the government compensates the farmers NT$16,000 per hectare for each growing season [six months].”
To help the farmers increase their competitiveness and income, Tammy Huang began to market her production unit’s rice as gourmet food instead of a commodity. She also helped elderly farmers start growing Tainung 71, a strain of rice that gives off the fragrance of taro when cooked and costs 20 percent more than traditional rice.
A year after the release of Let It Be, Kunbinbo was in the media spotlight again when his Tainung 71 was named “Taiwan Champagne Rice” in 2006 by the Council of Agriculture.
At an auction that year, a bag of Kunbinbo’s rice sold for NT$1 million, but he promptly donated the money to his production unit for the construction of a new storage tank and went back to farming without missing a beat.
“I cannot relax just because I won a prize, I have the responsibility to maintain the quality of my rice,” Kunbinbo said, smiling as he looked at his field.
“The other farmers and I, we watch each other and remind ourselves that consumers buy our rice because we put our hearts into growing it, because it is of good quality and therefore the quality must not slip,” he said.
Two years ago, Tammy Huang initiated a program where some of the farmers — including Kunbinbo — began to grow organic rice.
“Currently we have 6 hectares [out of 120 hectares] in the unit that grow rice organically,” she said.