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Putting Down Roots
Date: 2016-11-01    
Selected as a mentor by Taichung’s Agriculture Bureau, Wu Chien-won, right, loves to share his experiences with apprentices on his farm.

As Taiwan’s farming population ages, the government is working to draw people back to the sector.

Chen Jhih-wei (陳志維) grew up in a farming family in a rural suburb of central Taiwan’s Taichung City. He had hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps, but was convinced to pursue a different path by his parents. “I love working on a farm and being close to nature, but my father wanted me to find a career with a stable income,” he said.

The 35-year-old instead became an engineer at a major electronics manufacturer, but never gave up on his original ambition. Then one day, he heard about the Next Generation in Agriculture program launched by the Taichung City Government’s Agriculture Bureau. Designed to inspire young people to pursue a career in farming, the scheme finds apprenticeships for participants on successful farms and provides them with financial support.

Chen said he has learned much since beginning his placement in July. “My father’s attitude is changing now that I’ve shown him what I’ve learned.”

Hsu Wei-ting (徐韋婷) is another relatively recent addition to the ranks of Taiwan’s young farmers. Three years ago, she quit her job as a biomedical sciences research fellow at Taipei City-based Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s foremost scientific institution. The 30-year-old has since been running a fungus farm set up a decade ago by her father in her hometown in the northeastern county of Yilan. Under her management, the family business has attained organic accreditation.

“On the whole, I get more out of life than when I was living in the city,” Hsu said while serving customers at her stall, which was set up in an area especially for young farmers at a large agricultural market organized by the Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture (COA) Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 in Taipei. “The produce harvested on the farm is safer for my family as well as my customers. And I get more quality time with my parents.”

An organic fungus farm in Yilan County run by 30-year-old Hsu Wei-ting

Growing Support

Taiwan’s farming population is aging rapidly, with the median age of full-time and part-time farmers sitting at roughly 62 years. Those who make a living solely from the land are 57 on average, according to Chang Chih-sheng (張致盛), director of the Farmers’ Service Department under the COA.

To reverse this trend, the central and local governments have developed programs to attract young people to the profession. One flagship COA project, launched in 2014, offers interest-free loans of up to NT$5 million (US$153,850) to around 100 promising farmers aged 18 to 45 annually. To date, 321 people have been offered funding through the scheme. Recipients are given a three-year period in which they can use the money on business expansion projects. They also receive up to two years of one-on-one mentoring from agriculture experts, who are compensated by the COA.

“The greatest thing about being selected for the project is the knowledge I’m gaining from my mentor,” said Lai Heng-yu (賴恆裕), who joined the program in December 2014. The 38-year-old owner of a vegetable farm in southern Taiwan’s Pingtung County was paired with a retired official from the COA’s Kaohsiung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, one of seven such facilities the council operates around Taiwan. “If I have any problems on my farm, I can just call him and get the solution,” he said.

Lai has also received support from the Swallows Fly South project launched by the Pingtung County Government in 2014. The initiative encourages young people interested in agriculture to return to their hometowns by offering grants and apprenticeship opportunities on selected farms. Through connections he made while taking part in the program, Lai said he learned of an opportunity to rent a tract of farmland at a good price.

Meanwhile, the COA is promoting the involvement of nongovernmental organizations in encouraging young people to take up farming, urging agricultural associations around Taiwan to help young farmers launch their own organizations. More than 2,300 young people have joined 16 such newly formed groups, through which they can exchange opinions and share resources.

Young people are increasingly turning to agriculture to make a living. At present, about a quarter of the population in the sector is between 15 and 44 years old.

Wen Wei-yi (溫偉毅), 36, returned home five years ago to take over his family farm in southern Taiwan’s Chiayi County, where today he grows bitter melons. He is also the vice president of the Chiayi Youth Farmers’ Fellowship.

“The group helps build mutual trust and solidarity among young farmers through leisure and sports activities. And as a team, with the assistance of the COA, we can achieve otherwise unlikely goals, such as convincing major sales outlets like Costco to accept our produce,” said the farmer, whose fruit has been stocked by the U.S. retail giant in its stores around Taiwan since early summer.

Value of Mentoring

Many central and local government programs aim to inspire young people to take up farming while exposing them to modern agricultural practices. Take the Next Generation in Agriculture initiative, for example. Geared toward people aged 18 to 35, the program launched in July 2015 places participants on successful farms, enabling them to learn best practices. Furthermore, participants receive NT$30,000 (US$925) per month during their one-year apprenticeships so they can focus on their training. A total of 47 people, mostly from farming families, have graduated from the program and 41 of them still work in agriculture.

“Participants’ fathers tend to follow traditional practices, whereas our experts, who were selected based on their success in the industry, can tell them how to work in a more efficient manner,” said Wang Jui-ching (王瑞卿), chief secretary of Taichung’s Agriculture Bureau. “In addition, we offer classes in marketing and branding.”

Wu Chien-won (巫建旺), 59, has been growing vegetables in Taichung’s Dongshi District for 27 years. He is one of the 21 veteran farm owners currently involved in the Next Generation in Agriculture program. “What benefits trainees most is our experience in handling emergencies like outbreaks of disease or approaching typhoons. And, having worked in agriculture for decades, I have good connections in the sector, which can make it easier for my apprentices to find and purchase farmland,” he said.

According to Wu, the ultimate value of the program is that it establishes lasting relationships between experienced professionals and newcomers. “They can always seek advice from me even after they complete the program,” the farmer said. He is currently mentoring two young men, including Chen, who work and learn on his vegetable farm starting at 7 a.m., Monday through Friday. “I felt my way along when I began farming,” he said. “I know how different the situation would’ve been if I had a mentor by my side.”

A three-day COA-organized agricultural market took place in Taipei City this fall. The event included a wide variety of fresh and processed produce, as well as an area of stalls set up for young farmers from around Taiwan.

Agriculture’s New Image

Government efforts to enhance interest in agriculture are being aided by society’s increasingly positive perceptions of the industry. “Farmers’ social status was low in the past,” said the COA’s Chang. “Many thought people worked in the fields because they didn’t perform well in school.” With the adoption of modern techniques and new marketing concepts, however, this image is changing.

In addition, young people’s growing awareness of the importance of food safety is leading more farms to focus on growing certified organic produce, which requires few to no chemicals and is highly regulated. “Consumers are willing to pay more for safe food today,” Chang said.

Improved marketing strategies are also leading to increased profits. Today, farmers earn more because they are cutting out middlemen by selling their produce via the internet or directly to consumers at markets like those organized by the COA. According to Hsu, nearly 60 percent of her fungus is sold online, with much of the remaining stock snatched up at local food fairs in Taipei City on weekends.

Slowly but surely, young people are being drawn to the fields, motivated by incentives such as the freedom of the outdoors, benefits of healthy foods and opportunity for profit. For farmers like Lai, who used to work as a computer repair technician on a monthly salary of little more than NT$30,000 (US$925), the financial benefits of being a farmer are clear. Currently, he makes a monthly net profit of more than NT$50,000 (US$1,540).

Like many young farmers in Taiwan, Chen is confident that the future will bring good harvests. “If I manage well and work hard, I’ll make more from my family farm than I did at my old job,” said the man who formerly earned NT$60,000 (US$1,850) per month as an engineer. With government support and continued shifts in perspective on the merits of agrarian living, the next generation of aspiring farmers is breathing new life into Taiwan’s agriculture industry.

Write to Oscar Chung at mhchung@mofa.gov.tw

 


PHOTOS BY CHEN MEI-LING AND COURTESY OF NATIONAL FARMERS' ASSOCIATION, ROC


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