What’s growing in Taiwan

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All that tasty food comes from somewhere. While in Hong Kong we heard the people say that they would try to purchase the most expensive food from Japan, followed by good quality food from Taiwan. Many tried to avoid the industrial garbage coming from China, for its notoriously not-what-you-think-it-is status.

The agriculture of Taiwan blew us away. Of anywhere in the world I have traveled, Southern Taiwan appeared to have the most diverse and advanced horticultural systems. Within one square kilometer we spotted orchards of cherimoya, guanabana, betel palm, coco palm, mountain apple, banana, mango, next to fields of onions, lettuce, choy, beans, and cover crops. In some areas the flooded paddies not only grew rice but taro and water caltrop. As I rode the train north along the west coast we gained an elevated perspective. The farmers were busy diverting the water in the fertile river beds to plant corn and other commodities. Next to the rivers, in protected vineyards, the family farms cultivated trellises of dragon fruit.

The average farm in Taiwan is only 2 ha (~5 acres). The slow food movement teaches that this correlates with diversity and economic stability. Unfortunately the industrialists of Taiwan don’t feel the same. I dug up this website full of big-farming propaganda (http://www.taiwan-agriculture.org/), stating that they need more consolidation of small farms to make more efficient agro-industry (bad idea guys).

Most of the agriculture we saw appeared to use conventional inputs (we spotted hundreds of empty bags of synthetic fertilizer on the margins of the fields). Numerous instances we saw small spray rigs, usually man-driven, working across the fields. Only in the flat paddies did we see use of cover crops on fallow land. If we could only speak Mandarin, we could provide a more complete perspective. Until the next trip I guess.



  1. harnh said,

    January 10, 2011 at 8:20 am

    ” If we could only speak Mandarin, we could provide a more complete perspective.”

    Mandarin could work, but Taiwanese would be a few notches better.

    What would you had provided? And could you elaborate a bit more on why is it a bad idea to consolidate small farms? I mean, I have guava and plum farmer relatives as well, and of course they don’t want the cooperate to take away what they’ve been doing for the past century or so. But what’s your perspective on that? what could be the precious lost?

    • January 10, 2011 at 10:41 am

      I suppose we should have said, “a better perspective.” Compared to our travels in Mexico, where we were able to engage in conversations with farmers and hear their own views directly, in Taiwan we could only observe visually. Our wariness of government advocated consolidation of farming stems from Earl Butz’s policy in the U.S. of “get big or get out” in the 1970’s. Since then we have seen the disappearance of mid sized family farms, increased dependence upon (and deeper corporate entanglement with) government subsidies for large commodity farms, and the decreased financial stability of small family farms. Your relatives should be free to without manage their guavas and plums as they so choose, involving the “cooperate” only as they choose to(cooperative? corporation?). In America and India the consolidation of farms and mono-cropping has led to inefficient use of the land and has produced less nutritious food. One activist who has spoken out on this issue is Vandana Shiva (see her essay “Monocultures, Myths, and the Masculinisation of Agriculture“).

      • harnh said,

        January 10, 2011 at 10:24 pm

        I meant to say “corporate,” sorry about that.

        Thanks for your link on Shiva’s essay, that was very helpful.

        I truly believe Taiwan should definitely not take the road of “get big or get out,” since “quantity” should/would never be our niche. It’s actually very prominent that every time the farmers endure a “disaster-free” season, the overproduced corps would turn into soil-cheap market values (that’s the expression of the farmer actually), and the unsold products would turn into waste.

        I’ve read on a few news articles where the counsel of agriculture has tried with success to advice and direct the upgrade of corps with national quality examination etc. I thought that’d be a good direction.

        I especially like your idea of gourmet garden farming idea. This is actually the most fundamental way of farming, and I’m quite sure the way people make their way of living back in the agricultural days.

  2. January 10, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Since then we have also seen ever lower prices, for consumers.

    • January 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm

      Gavin, thank you for your comment. If you mean “since the consolidation of family farms into large, corporate entities,” we may share a few further thoughts:

      Undervalued food is a not a good thing. Cheap calories from subsidized corn have poisoned the population with junk food that is costs less than real food. Prior to WWII we had ~40% of the population involved in agriculture, now this number is less than 2%. Thanks to Mr. Butz and the forces that destroyed a large part of our populations’ livelihoods, we now have widespread diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Without cheap calories you would not see $1 hamburgers and $.50 coca colas.

      We believe one part of the solution to be development of more direct-marketed agriculture. In our experience during the last three years of poor economic conditions, many successful producers have been gourmet market gardeners. These small, diversified operations sell through farmers markets, cooperatives, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farm-to-school programs, and local restaurants. Their business models are the least affected by changes in petroleum prices (something nationwide distributors will always suffer from the most) and imported commodities (their clientele demand local).

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