The CSA in Taiwan (Province of China)

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Elizabeth Henderson, “The CSA in Taiwan (Province of China)”, October 2011.

As a result of the Chinese translation of my book, Sharing the Harvest, the director of the Community College in Kaohsiung, and two small not-for profits, Green Formosa Front and the Community Empowering Society, brought me to Taiwan (Province of China), for a whirlwind week of lectures and farm tours in 2010. This fall, together with an organic rice breeder from Thailand and a mushroom specialist from Bhutan, they brought me back again for a more elaborate tour .

In the course of these intensive visits, I have given formal presentations on how to organize a CSA at four community colleges, a major university, a technical institute, a farmers’ coop, the Tao-yuan regional government, a bookstore and a restaurant.  I have met with groups of farmers, rural organizers, university classes and elementary school programs all around the island and dined with enthusiastic supporters of local organic agriculture, people who call themselves the Rural Front.  I have visited ten rural and urban farming projects and heard the stories of many more in personal meetings and conferences. Here are the outstanding memories from my October 2011 trip.

Hsinchu CSA and Farm-to-School Project

Although we have only spent a few days together, Chientai Chen seems like an old friend.  An engineer in the Creativity Laboratory at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) in Hsinchu, he has been charged with community outreach. In 2010, I visited Rainbow Farm, his first project, a cooperative garden where institute members are learning organic growing methods. Along with Tseniong, Chientai attended the CSA conference in Beijing where I heard his presentation on the CSA model he believes will generate enough income to make farming attractive and his vision for saving farmland in and around Hsinchu.  With ITRI support, he is organizing a CSA farm to provide employment for a community of indigenous people who live in the city.  The men do construction work. Several hectares of agricultural land lie fallow next to the barracks where these families live. Chientai believes the women could farm the land. He has a plan for a 60-member CSA – the members, mainly ITRI employees, will assist two full-time farmers in growing the food and provide educational activities for the children.

A related Hsinchu project that is farther is a farm-to-school project. Tung-Jye Wu, known as TJ, the direct of the Green Formosa Front, is somehow responsible for instigating this assisted by Chientai. They took me to eat lunch at an elementary school that is celebrating its 50th anniversary.  The organic food for the lunch comes from indigenous farmers 100 km away. It is one of eight schools served by these farmers.  With only 138 children, 20 to a class, the school is designed around a central garden.  The classrooms open onto an outdoor corridor that is lined with sinks.  Buckets catch the water which the children then use to water their garden.  The attractive young woman principle, who rides her bike to work, made a point of introducing me to the school cook and her assistant. They took me to observe a 2nd grade class on global warming. In answer to their teacher’s question about why CO2 is increasing, the children listed factories, cars, and meat production.  At first I worried that this class would give the children nightmares, but it ended with a whole series of actions that they can take and are taking themselves – recycling, avoiding bottled water, turning off lights, gardening.

Conference on Organic Agriculture – College of Hakka Studies

The central focus of the Hsinchu visit was a conference on organic agriculture at the College of Hakka Studies of National Chiao Tung University. The modern and attractive college building is round – inspired by traditional Hakka architecture, with a central garden space, and surrounded by the preserved ruins of traditional Hakka homes and gardens.

[ “The Hakka are Han Chinese who speak the Hakka language and have links to the provincial areas of Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and Fujian in China.

The characters for Hakka in Chinese come from words indicating “visitors” or “travellers” and distinguish the Hakka from the Tujia (“natives”). The Hakka’s ancestors were often said to have arrived from what is today’s central China centuries ago. In a series of migrations, the Hakkas moved, settled in their present locations in southern China, and then often migrated overseas to various countries throughout the world. The worldwide population of Hakkas is about 80 million, though the number of Hakka-language speakers is fewer. Hakka people have had a significant influence on the course of Chinese and world history: in particular, they have been a source of many revolutionary, government, and military leaders.” {Wikipedia} — Ed.]

There is a deep irony in this site. Until the construction of the college, there was a living Hakka community of people who used the old houses and gardened on this land. Most of the community was bulldozed to make room for the college and neighboring commercial area.

My contribution to the conference was a talk on starting a CSA.  As though to confirm that my efforts have been worthwhile, one of the presenters was Yi-Li Chen, a farmer who was turned on to CSA by attending my seminar last year.  He had been doing organic agriculture for a decade and CSA has been the answer to his marketing needs. At his Green Farm, he is doing a high tech version, involving members who are mainly high tech workers in the farm work, communicating with them through website, email and Facebook.  He even has a webcam at the farm so that members can see him work, and, he added with a grin, he can watch his wife.  He is engaged in a research project on the farm’s carbon footprint.

I listened in on a SWOT workshop – analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of CSA in Taiwan. The participants listed these factors:  Farmland diminishing.  Tight budgets.  Cuts in agriculture.  Hi tech cannot solve ag problems.  Taiwan does not have land for industrial ag. or oil.  Lack of clean water.  CSA and food storage – to change imports – CSA equals local consumption – warehouse in each region for storage.  90% of energy is imported.  Lots of cheap imports.  CSA pricing important.  Important to grow what members want.

Water rights – 1906 Japanese brought rice that must be irrigated – before that, 1200 different varieties and all dry land.  Now only 20 grown. Possible to raise yields of rice.  Example of Cuba – more self-sufficient.  

Their vision: Since the island is small – maybe integration – all CSA farms in 1 system – more variety for each CSA.  All products through CSA network.  CSA as food insurance company to guarantee enough to eat. CSA rings around cities – when people move, they will consider which CSA they will belong to as well as which school for their children.  Link small CSAs with more distant specialty farms.

Seven days around the island

Our trip took us all the way around the island in seven days. North of Taipei, we visited a project near Hilan that is in the early stages of developing a CSA. Mrs. Chun, chief of coop, welcomed us and explained their work. The Tsin Chien Cooperative started by growing rice using organic methods and investing in their own mill. In 2010, the first year, 12 farmers, ranging in age from 28 to 78, grew 11 hectares of rice.  In 2011, the coop grew to 15 farmers and 15 hectares of rice, as well as tea, soy beans, wheat, green onions, a specialty of their region, and other vegetables.  They have a half-time book keeper, who also farms, and they have hired a full time manager to handle sales.  So far, a local hotel is willing to buy most of what they produce.  The coop is planning sales to individuals, hoping to attract them to the village for farm work and stays.

The most ambitious project I observed was in Hualien where we spent a whole day with Wang Fu-yu, affectionately referred to as Da Wang (Big King). A small man, Da Wang brims with cheerful, magnetic energy that attracts people who want to learn from him.  Infected by the buy local passion, Da Wang began helping small organic farmers he knew to market their produce. Soon he had organized a sort of hub in a shop he rented in the city. Abandoning a graduate program in planning, Da Wang has built the hub into a food subscription service, a sort of cooperative CSA. Currently, 40 farms sell through his shop supplying weekly boxes year round to 200 households and irregular orders to another 100 customers in Hualien and shipped to Taipei. He pays the farmers monthly, gives cash advances when they need them and helps find labor. We had lunch with the big team of volunteers who help assemble the boxes.  The shop also sells crafts – a young woodworker camps out in the back room and carves spoons and forks. The boxes include bread baked at the shop, and locally caught fish. He took us to witness the fish harvest (pretty brutal for the fish) and subsequent bargaining over their purchase.

Da Wang is investing profits from the vegetable box business into the next phase of the project.  He says he has built this investment money into the price with the acquiescence of the subscribers.  In the small nearby village of Ping-He (Peace), inhabited by a mix of indigenous people and retired Chang Kai Shek soliders, he has rented a house that he is using permaculture design concepts to turn into a home for his family, a produce center, and rooms for a hostel for back packers.  He hopes to employ 20 of the Amis villagers, in various value-added enterprises and the veg box work.  He showed me a map of the empty homes which he hopes to repopulate with the young people who attend the organic farming training program underway on village land. One of the teachers is an ancient villager who has mastered the trick of growing greens through the hot, steamy Taiwan summers. We met a student from the first year who has already settled in Ping-He.

That evening, I gave a talk on CSA at a cafe in Hualien – the place was packed with standing room only, a very receptive audience, lots of good questions, and at least 15 people asked me to sign copies of the Taiwan translation of my book.

Our whirlwind tour took us by train around the south end of the island and back up the east side where we headed inland by car.  We toured a traditional Hakka home, dined in an elegant pottery/restaurant, and made a quick stop in a village to meet an 83 year old farmer who has become a symbol of farmer resistance to WTO. I continued on to the National Taiwan University in Taipei to attend the Bow to the Land Festival, an annual student-run event celebrating local organic food held outdoors on a busy university walkway with folk music blasting, and booths for farmers, the Rural Front, and indigenous people with products to sell. In a bright red tent that quickly filled up with an audience of students and some of the farmer exhibitors, I gave a slide talk on CSA.

The San Cheng Experiment

The last day of our tour took us to the San Cheng Experiment, a class project by university students at the New Ruralism Center spearheaded by Sen Lin Cheng, a professor of planning. The students are trying to save from development a small farming village on the outskirts of Taipei.  The class has found ways to connect the Liao family senior farmers with a local elementary school and the families who live in the gated housing projects that dominate the once rural landscape. We met an 89-year old lady who is still growing half an acre of vegetables for sale and participated in a ceremony of birthday congratulations to the clan matriarch who is 94. Wherever there is open space in this area, the farmers, some as young as 60, have created gardens, but they do not own the land they cultivate.   We visited the Hakka style homes of the Liao family, and the temple that they had to move to make room for the road to the 20-story apartment buildings that polluted with their effluent the Wu Chong Creek, once the center of fishing, swimming and socializing for this little community. The university students are teaching classes in local history at the school and hosting farmers markets to enlist the housewives as steady customers to support the farmers. It will be interesting to see how this evolves in future years.