Mon, Mar 30, 2009 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Economic slump sees Taiwanese get back to nature

By Y.L. kao  /  CNA , TAIPEI

An increasing number of Taiwanese have shown an interest in recent months in the Council of Agriculture’s Wandervogel program, which aims to inject new life into the nation’s aging agricultural work force and encourage young people to go into farming, the council said.

Although registration for this year’s Wandervogel classes has yet to begin, the council has received nearly twice as many telephone inquiries about the program compared with the same period last year, said Ni Pao-jen (倪葆真), the official in charge of Wandervogel.

“You don’t make as much money as many others do, but working on the land offers a stable income in such a bleak economic environment,” Ni said. “That is definitely a contributing factor to the program’s popularity.”

Many of the people interested in signing up for the program are also lured by the attraction of living a simple, idyllic life on a farm, officials said.

As an example, Ni cited a message posted on the council’s Web site by a self-proclaimed “poor engineer” who wanted to sign up for the program.

In the message, the engineer said: “I have been asked to take unpaid leave recently, making me worry about what my future holds. I would rather get back to nature.”

Since the program was launched three years ago to provide hands-on farming experience for people aged between 18 and 35, 3,856 people have attended the camps, 1,136 of whom have advanced to the training phase, while 448 have gone on to work in the field, a recently released report showed.

While there are no statistics on how many of the program’s participants were unemployed, experts said that agriculture could act as a safety net and a stabilizer when the economy is in dire straits.

“Everybody has to eat. The agricultural sector has historically been largely recession-proof and it can provide good returns if you are earnest in your undertaking,” said Lee Shu-jen (李淑珍), an associate professor at Taipei Municipal University of Education.

Because of the growing interest, the council plans to hold more than 50 camps this year to allow another 1,000 people get a taste of making a living from farming.

Trainees usually first attend a three-day camp to experience life on a farm, then they are trained in practical farming techniques before deciding whether they want to go into the field.

Those who opt to make the transition are provided with guidance and other support services by the council.

As much as agriculture may serve as a buffer for the unemployed, the program has also been a haven for the highly educated. Around 80 percent of the 448 people who have gone into agriculture after graduating from the council’s program, such as 27-year-old Hsieh Hau-cheng, hold a university or college degree.

A year ago, Hsieh was working as a highly paid information technology engineer, earning an annual salary of NT$1 million, but he quit his job because he was overloaded with work. After Hsieh joined the program, he spent a year preparing for the transition and then invested NT$4 million in a strawberry farm in Taoyuan County.

By late last year, Hsieh’s strawberry farm was generating an average NT$100,000 profit per month, to the envy of his former colleagues in the IT sector, most of whom have been forced to take unpaid leave by their companies.

Hsieh’s success was not entirely a surprise, as young people who specialize in information technology seem to have a better chance of success in the agricultural sector, said Chiu Chun-lien (邱春連), head of the promotion department at the Hualien City Farmers’ Association.

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