(photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
“If you aren’t good at school, then go into farming!” This is what older rice farmers used to tell their offspring. But younger people, determined not to be farmers, studied hard and escaped from their rural hometowns.
Wei Jui-ting from Chishang in Taitung County and Tseng Kuo-chi from Yuli in Hualien County both followed this path. Yet when their fathers encountered various difficulties with production and marketing, they decided to return home and take up the heavy burden of farming. They have used initiative and expertise that the previous generation lacked to break through the obstacles in their way and grow rice worthy of representing Taiwan.
Getting by on willpower
With the arrival of summer, the ripening rice in Taitung’s Chishang Township forms a sea of yellow. Wei Jui-ting gets up at 5 a.m. on a day off from his day job and fires up his harvester to reap the golden grain. It takes him three days to harvest the rice from his nine hectares of land, and send it for drying and milling.
During this busy period on the farm, Wei, who still works at the Forestry Bureau, sleeps only four to five hours a night. “I get by on willpower.” With sweat pouring off his brow, the 38-year-old Wei says, short of breath: “This is why I didn’t want to work the land.”
Growing up in a farming family, Wei had no real childhood. When it came time to write a school essay on “where I would like to go for fun,” Wei couldn’t think of anything to write. He says: “When I was with my classmates, I didn’t dare admit that that guy wearing ragged old clothes was my father.” After finishing his compulsory military service, Wei was determined not to go back home and farm. He graduated from the Department of Forestry at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology and got a master’s from the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at National Ilan University. Then he put his nose to the grindstone for three straight months in the NPUST library to prepare for the recruitment exam for the Forestry Bureau, which he passed, thereby becoming a civil servant.
In 2009, when the Veterans Affairs Council for the first time called for bids for farmers to manage organic rice farms in Chishang, Wei’s father, Wei Qinan, won operating rights for 16 years with a bid of NT$1.01 million. Topping up his savings with a loan, he spent an additional NT$5 million to prepare ten hectares of weed-choked abandoned land for cultivation before he could begin planting rice.
After going to all the trouble of harvesting his first rice crop, Wei Qinan found he couldn’t sell it, running up against brick walls in all directions. Organic rice produced in Chishang finally was sold to neighboring Guanshan—at about half price! Then, when it came time to harvest his second crop, at first Wei Qinan couldn’t find anyone to do the harvesting, and the rice would have rotted in the fields had he not at last managed to hire a harvesting team from Taitung’s Chenggong Township, on the other side of the Coastal Mountain Range.
After that close call, the elder Wei spent NT$3 million to buy a harvester. Where did he get the money? “From the farmers’ association!” says Wei Jui-ting, meaning that he borrowed it from the association’s credit department. To cope with the shortage of farm labor, Wei’s father went on to buy a rice seedling transplanter, a tractor, and a fertilizer sprayer, as well as a grain transport truck and a flatbed truck for transporting his harvester. Without even realizing it, he had gotten himself NT$30 million into debt.
“Everything he earned went to buy farm machinery! Whenever I went home, I had to listen to my parents arguing about money.” Wei Jui-ting says wryly: “My father knows how to grow rice, but not how to sell it.” Unable to look on any longer, Wei requested a transfer from the Forestry Bureau in Luodong, Yilan County, to Taitung’s Guanshan, and on his days off took rice to sell at organic markets in Taipei, thus beginning five long years of “market life.”
Wei got the feeling that this “market life” was all he would ever know. But in 2018 he began to use blockchain technology to record the condition and growth of his rice through a micro weather station. This drew the attention of the UK’s Financial Times newspaper, which interviewed him and called him the first farmer in the world to use blockchain. He began to see light at the end of the tunnel when he was able to start selling some of his rice overseas.
Turning on the screen of his smartphone, Wei explains that blockchain is characterized by tamper-proof, faithful presentation of data. This means that blockchain records can accurately present the conditions in his fields, guaranteeing food traceability.
“At first it was a buyer from Hong Kong, and then buyers from Canada and other countries, who didn’t trust Taiwan’s organic certification system but did trust blockchain.” Wei has even gotten onto Amazon’s US website with his “Rice Valley” brand. Overseas compatriots living in the US and Canada are thrilled to be able to buy rice produced in Chishang, even at a price of US$29.95 per two-kilo package.
In January of 2019 Wei again worked with the AgriWeather microclimate analysis company to install solar-powered sensors in his fields. He says: “In the past my dad spread fertilizer based on his experience and his gut feeling. Now I look at the electrical conductivity, temperature, and moisture levels of the soil.”
Organic rice for the Pope
The academically minded Wei saw articles from overseas about an organic farming method that “lets nature do the work,” and studied it until he could apply it. He uses imitation predatory birds, setting up eagle-shaped kites and putting out lifelike models of owls, to scare away small birds that would eat his grain. At harvest time he puts out teal decoys to attract real teals to eat apple snails, giving his fields a fun and interesting appearance.
In August of 2019, Wei was inspired by the book The Man Who Sent Rice to the Pope, by the Japanese rural civil servant Josen Takano. Believing that the Kaohsiung 139 rice he cultivates is every bit as good as the Japanese Koshihikari cultivar, he got the crazy idea of delivering some to the Vatican. On his behalf, the ROC Embassy to the Holy See gained an audience with Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who accepted the rice and said that it was just in time for use in the Pope’s after-mass lunch. Pope Francis even sent Wei an apostolic blessing parchment and a crucifix in return, and expressed appreciation for his goodwill.
Wei Jui-ting, his voice filled with patriotic fervor, says: “The shipping costs are NT$50,000 each time, but from the beginning I have never intended to make money from this, but rather to let the Pope know, ‘Taiwan really cares about you!’”
Wei Jui-ting, a child of a farming family who left his rural hometown behind, later returned home and now uses technology and expertise to market his rice around the world. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Dongfon rice: Tseng Kuo-chi
Tseng Kuo-chi, who likewise left his rural home in the Dongfeng ward of Hualien’s Yuli Township for over a decade, found himself to be a second-generation debtor when he returned to take over the family farm. Heir to a debt of NT$10 million, Tseng, who has a background in architecture, got out of difficulties with economies of scale. His operation has become the largest specialist zone for the cultivation of beans and paddy rice in all Taiwan.
Leaving home at a young age
Twenty-two years ago, when Tseng was working in an architectural firm in Zhongli, Taoyuan County, he received a phone call saying that his father, Tseng Wenzhen, had been buried alive in an accident involving irrigation works. He was saved from the brink of death, but his doctors estimated that he would have to stay in the hospital for at least half a year.
Tseng, who at that time was preparing to take his architect’s license exam, could not help but blame himself for his father’s severe injury, and at age 27 resolutely decided to return home to take over the family business.
Tseng had left Yuli upon finishing junior high school, so he was a stranger to the neighbors, who didn’t even know that Tseng Wenzhen had this son. “At that time, not only did I have no understanding of organic rice cultivation, nobody was eating organic rice. Also, I didn’t like at all what I saw of my father’s animal waste composting plant, which I thought of as just ‘fooling around with excrement.’”
Economies of scale
Tseng met with a series of difficulties after returning home. The first problem was with the organic fertilizer plant, which was run as a cooperative. Although today Tseng understands that organic fertilizer is the foundation of organic agriculture, at that time stockholders who had invested in the plant discovered that there was no profit in organic fertilizer, and many of them demanded to withdraw their investments. His father, hoping to keep people happy and believing that all the money was hard earned by the blood and sweat of farmers, agreed to allow them to get their investments back in full. As a result, out of 36 investors only six remained, leaving Tseng Kuo-chi under enormous financial pressure.
The second problem was with actually growing and selling organic rice. In rural areas the population is aging and there is a shortage of labor. At first Tseng used the same traditional methods as his father had, but he soon realized that he could only escape from his difficulties if he made changes. He boldly adopted methods that his father’s generation had not dared to try, using mechanized cultivation to overcome the shortage of manpower, and from there he realized that he could only increase his income by achieving economies of scale.
Tseng’s father opposed these changes at every turn, but the results proved Tseng to be right. For example, his father, who had farmed paddy rice all his life, could not accept rotation between wet paddy cultivation and dry field cultivation. But Tseng Kuo-chi said that weeds are the worst thing for organic farming, and professors at National Taiwan University and National Chung Hsing University all suggested “wet‡dry rotation,” alternating between growing one crop of paddy rice and one crop of beans.
Dongfon Organic Farm became Taiwan’s first large-scale demonstration area for wet‡dry crop rotation.
Tseng also worked with the Hualien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station to study how to use mechanization to replace human labor and increase production, and to assist small local farmers with conversion to organic farming. Building on the existing fertilizer cooperative, the area of land being farmed organically was expanded, enabling the “Huadong Organic Agricultural Products Processing and Production Cooperative,” as it became, to grow from its original cultivated area of seven hectares to the 130 hectares it has today. Tseng received a Shennong Award, recognizing him as one of Taiwan’s top farmers, in 2017.
Creating the Dongfon brand
In 2004, Tseng brought together agricultural products produced by the cooperative including rice, organic fertilizer, and wendan pomelos, and drew on the community’s name of Dongfeng to create the “Dongfon” brand name, with the cooperative producing and selling their goods themselves. His gentle voice becoming even softer, Tseng says: “I have to thank the Venerable Master Jih-chang, founder of the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, for his continual support. He promised to buy our organic rice and sell it through the Leezen organic food stores, so we have had no worries over how to sell Dongfon rice.”
In addition, Tseng cultivates Tainan 16 rice on ten hectares of land. In his eyes this is a variety of rice that is well worthy of representing Taiwan.
He calls Tainan 16 “Slender Beauty.” At first it suffered the drawback of low yields. But this issue was overcome thanks to improvements made by Dr. Chen Rong-kuen of the Tainan District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, who also personally came to Dongfon Organic Farm to give advice on adjusting the schedule for planting out seedlings. Thanks in part to Tseng’s expertise in the use of organic fertilizer, the rice grains produced have a crystal-like clarity, and after cooking the rice is soft and sticky with a glossy sheen. It can even be said to surpass Japan’s Koshihikari rice.
In 2018, this rice won Tseng third place in the organic rice division of the “Best Taiwan Rice” competition, organized by the Agriculture and Food Agency of the Council of Agriculture.
“My dream is to grow the best-tasting organic rice in the world.” From leaving home to returning to build the largest organic rice and bean farming zone in eastern Taiwan, Tseng Kuo-chi has discovered in his hometown the sense of identity and pride that comes with being a farmer.