A career-changing choice turned military pilot Chang Wei-jan (張威然) into a farmer who manages Taiwan’s largest cinnamon plantation.
Chang attributes his successful growth of 5,000 cinnamon trees at a plantation in Nantou County to his love for tilling farmland and insistence on using organic farming methods, he said.
Cultivating trees requires skill, Chang said, adding that he has introduced new technology to extract essential oils to produce marketable goods.
Photo provided by Chang Wei-jan
He also started teaching classes on environmentally friendly farming techniques, he said.
Last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Council of Agriculture chose Chang as one of 30 “agricultural ambassadors” to represent Taiwan in exchanges to India and Thailand.
“My plantation covers 5 hectares, at a plot near Puli Township (埔里). Originally it was just wild growth with trees and bushes,” he said. “No one had cultivated this land for at least 30 years, so its soil and natural ecology were well preserved.”
“It would seem a waste of good land to use fertilizers and pesticides when planting our first trees, so I took up organic farming to conserve all of its natural vitality. We also use trees of varying height to allow space for cultivating cinnamon seedlings,” he said.
Fate led Chang to cultivating cinnamon, when his father developed a stomach problem and traditional medicine indicated the spice could help, he said.
Traditional medicine often uses Cinnamomum cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon, in tonics for treating digestive tract ailments, Chang said.
Planting the trees did not go smoothly at first, as they started in Changhua County, where the cinnamon did not grow well, he said, adding that they later learned that slopes at not too high an altitude were good for growing the trees.
“At that time, we had just obtained this land in Puli, and we followed the advice of Forestry Bureau officers for conditions and proper spacing for planting the seedlings,” Chang said. “Now we have about 1,500 trees per hectare, and they are growing very well with the favorable hills, good soil and clean water of Puli.”
Chang said he has always loved the outdoors, which led him to serve as a pilot in the military, where he often flew Chinook helicopters, transporting people and goods for relief work during natural disasters.
During his military career, Chang witnessed from above how soil and rock was churned up by the 921 Earthquake in Nantou County’s Jiji Township (集集) on Sept. 21, 1999, which left a deep impression on him, and underscored the importance of water and soil conservation, he said.
Just before the military was to promote him to lieutenant colonel, Chang’s family obtained the plot of land in Puli, and needed more family members to help on the plantation, which led him to a crossroads, he said.
“It was a choice between operating a helicopter and a mower. Most people would choose the helicopter, but I chose the mower, because I had great expectations for making strides in Taiwan’s agriculture,” he said.
Chang retired from the military and returned home to manage the plantation with his elder brother.
“I could have retired after serving 20 years, but our family’s land cannot be tended later on. So it came down to a personal decision, and also that he had the dream of making it with agriculture in Taiwan,” Chang said.
“I believe in our generation of young farmers. We can recreate Taiwan’s agricultural miracle, because everyone is willing to learn and share,” he said.
“In Taiwan, we are mostly small farmers, and we need to organize and network, and collectively elevate our knowledge and skills. When we do that, we can produce agricultural products on a large scale for the market,” he said, adding that his philosophy is to share his knowledge and his creative energy with other farmers.
“For cinnamon used in traditional medicine and in food preparation, the ingredients require cinnamon tree branches and bark. However, Taiwan lags in the cinnamon industry and has to rely on imports,” he said. “If someone has suitable land, and they have the interest, I will pass on the cultivation techniques and skills to them.”
Chang said he hopes to work with more young farmers who have the same aspiration and goals.
“I believe Taiwan can develop its own cinnamon industry, and I expect this will happen,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jason Pan
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