Engineer pursues rural dream

BACK TO THE LAND::Chen Chien-tai wants to develop 1,000 ecologically friendly, community-backed farms along the borders where urban and rural areas meet

By Chung Li-hua and Stacy Hsu  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Wed, Jan 09, 2013 - Page 5

Turning off the computers that had been at the center of his life 18 hours a day over the past decades, a former Industrial Technology Research Institute engineer has pledged to discover the rural dream that lives within every city dweller and reignite their bonds with the land by promoting Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Born into a farming family in Greater Taichung’s Dadu District (大肚), Chen Chien-tai (陳建泰), 42, had lived a life dominated by computers and the Internet since he left home to attend a college in the technology hub of Hsinchu City at the age of 18.

“When I was a kid, I lived in a place where I could see Dadushan (大肚山)the minute I opened the door. Whenever I walked along the embankment of the Dadu River on my way home from school, I could see fields of red as the sun set,” Chen said, recalling his hometown.

“I also remember an old banyan tree that stood at the entrance of a lane [leading to my home] as if it was a guardian angel for the entire village,” Chen added.

As his career at the institute as a network system integration engineer and researcher progressed, his childhood memories of planting watermelons and weeding with his family faded over time.

However, Chen’s long-buried sense of responsibility toward agriculture was rekindled after he read an online article by writer and farmer Wu Yin-ning (吳音寧) on the controversial Rural Revitalization Act (農村再生條例), which makes expropriation of farmland easier.

The act has been lambasted by farming activists as “a policy seeking to drive agriculture to extinction,” citing regulations that enable local governments to seize farmland after receiving approval from only three-fifths of landowners in a particular area.

Motivated by a sense of mission to safeguard farmers and the nation’s time-honored agricultural sector, Chen wrote an article titled “Constructing a road to bring knowledge into the countryside,” in response to Wu’s piece.

The article helped Chen become acquainted with a number of like-minded advocates, leading to his decade-long participation in agriculture-related campaigns.

“The biggest problem with Taiwanese is that they have yet to decide whether they want to live forever on this land called Taiwan,” Chen said.

After plunging into a farming sector that seemed so familiar, yet strangely different to him, Chen sought to find common ground between the nation’s agricultural industry and the burgeoning technology sector.

“For years, the institute has transferred its technological know-how to industry, why can’t the same be done for farming villages across the country?” Chen constantly asked himself at the time.

The question was answered two years ago by an initiative termed “Food network: bringing knowledge to rural areas” that Chen submitted to the institute, in which he tabled the notion of incorporating non-professional farmers into agriculture-centered communities to boost the nation’s fast-dwindling farming sector.

Among the non-professional farmers were technical specialists, people from farming families and those yearning for a rural life, whose years of experience in all sectors of society could help create a more sustainable agricultural industry, Chen said.

His scheme also called for more substantial exchanges between the agricultural and technological sectors to complement the nationwide promotion of CSA programs.

A CSA is a locally based scheme in which a group of people who have pledged to support one or more farms financially or through contributing labor are entitled to share in the farm’s produce.

Chen’s first CSA project was initiated at Rainbow Farm (彩虹農場) in Sanchongpu (三重埔), a Hakka farming village in Hsinchu County’s Jhudong Township (竹東).

The 600 ping (1,980m2) plot of land on which the farm stands is rented from champion rice farmer Chuang Cheng-teng (莊正燈), who was invited to pass on his expertise as a consultant to the project.

The scheme is currently supported by 16 households, who not only regularly purchase produce — including cucumbers, eggplants, green asparagus and peppers — from the farm, but also occasionally roll up their sleeves to help with farm work.

The distribution distance between growers and consumers is less than 3km, Chen said.

Based on the successful Rainbow Farm model, Chen launched another CSA project last year in Hsinchu’s Cianjia Borough (千甲), a remote Aboriginal community.

While the institute’s Social Philanthropy Committee had given the green light to the Cianjia scheme, Chen later resigned from his full-time position at the institute to spend more time on the project and promote more CSA programs.

Since his resignation, Chen has been cooperating with local Aborigines as a project executor to construct a family-style CSA farm that caters to people in urban areas.

Thanks to the concerted efforts of Chen and Cianjia residents, the farm began its pilot run earlier this month, offering fresh, pesticide-free vegetables to a total of 35 employees at the institute.

Chen hopes to develop 1,000 ecologically friendly CSA farms along the borders of urban and rural areas, threading them together to form an “agricultural necklace” around the neck of metropolitan society.