2009 / 9月
Teng Sue-feng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
Twenty-six-year-old Xie Haocheng has a deep passion for farm work. With his naturally dark complexion, you could say he was born for the rural lifestyle. But this is no country bumpkin: the environment he has created for growing strawberries looks like something only an engineer could think up.
Xie Haocheng, whose highest academic degree was vocational high school, worked as a computer repair technician for Hewlett-Packard in Taiwan, and until early adulthood he had absolutely no connection with agriculture at all. In 2007, just on a whim, he joined the "Piao Niao" agriculture experience camp held at the Taoyuan District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (ARES), and reached the amazing conclusion that his future lay not in technology, but in treading through the fields.
Xie, who loves strawberries himself, can consume a catty (600 grams) per day during picking season. "Strawberries are very popular right now, and very profitable as well. The only reason some people won't eat them is that they are afraid of pesticides, so I decided to raise mine pesticide-free." After completing the camp, Xie spent three months doing an internship with Lee Chuang-ming, the vice director of the Taoyuan ARES, who is also known as "the father of Taiwanese strawberries." With Lee he learned about every step in the strawberry-growing process.Go-ahead from the gods
Farming starts with land. Xie, from Taipei, put his quest in the hands of a realtor. He looked at plots from Keelung to Miaoli for a year until finally, in the middle of last year, he found some farmland in Daxi, Taoyuan County, less than a kilometer from the Shihmen Reservoir. There are no factories in the area, and the water and soil are untainted. The only problem was that there was a temple directly opposite the parcel, and Xie's parents were worried that the fengshui could be unlucky. They finally agreed that Xie could rent the land if he got the approval of the deity in the temple, so Xie went and asked, and got eight straight positive responses! He now rents 4000 square meters (four-tenths of a hectare) of land for NT$10,000 per year. In the end, Xie's dad, a taxi driver in Taipei, also moved out to Daxi to lend a hand getting the farm up and running.
The traditional method of cultivating strawberries was just to plant them in the soil, but then picking required a lot of bending, and was bad for the back. But 20 years ago a new system for raising strawberries was invented in Japan, using tubular-frame racks that come up to waist level or higher. You just set up the racks, and fill them with a growth medium; you can even set up two or three tiers, multiplying the cultivated area, and hook up an automated watering system as well. The strawberries thus grow in neat rows, and not only do farmers themselves no longer need to break their backs, tourists can come and have a pleasurable time picking their own.
In Taiwan's main strawberry growing areas in Miaoli County, there are 400 hectares devoted to the crop, all planted directly in the soil. Four years ago the county's agricultural authorities tried to promote the use of racks, but that was just when the international price of materials was soaring, and it would have cost NT$500,000 for each 1000 square meters of land. So most farmers, though willing in principle, took no action, and today there are only 10 hectares equipped with strawberry racks in all of Taiwan.
Though the racks already cost quite a lot, Xie has gone further to protect his precious berries, building a greenhouse to shelter them from rain and covering the ground in plastic to deter the spread of disease or insect pests. Inside the greenhouse are exhaust fans, thermometers, barometers, water pipes, fertilizer mixers, and more, all controlled by machine. Water and fertilizer are given to the plants at preset times. The equipment cost NT$1 million.
Xie relates: "Strawberries grown in Miaoli County are planted in the ground, but the soil doesn't retain the nutrients very well, which means they need piles of fertilizer. But with mine, I add just a bit of fertilizer several times a day, dripping it directly onto the root systems, so I can get the same results with just one-fifth the fertilizer. That saves me about NT$20,000 a year."
Strawberries are temperate-zone fruits, so in subtropical Taiwan the growing season is from December to April. But Xie has his sights set even higher. "If the growing conditions are properly controlled, it may be possible in the future to grow strawberries in the summer." This is why he didn't shrink from the NT$3 million expense of putting up an orchid-quality greenhouse.
Moreover, in order to win the trust of consumers, Xie sent his first batch of berries to the Taiwanese branch of SGS of Switzerland, the world's largest quality inspection organization. He now proudly hangs the certificate "pesticide-free" on the side of the greenhouse.
Xie originally assumed that if tourists came to the farm to pick their own berries, there would be no worries about sales. But this year the Lunar New Year holiday fell in early February. When the strawberries were bursting with ripeness in late February and early March, the vacation period had passed, and he only sold 40% of his crop. On such short notice he also couldn't find any processing plants to take the rest, so they went to waste. He estimates that he lost NT$600,000 in potential income.High-tech thinking
It is not only with strawberry racks that Xie's growing methods surprise-you should also check out the corn that he planted early this year. Besides having 1000 stalks of corn planted in the soil, there are also 6000 corn stalks in bags made from non-woven fabric. Inside each bag is soil mixed with the fibers of coconut husks, the dregs from Chinese medicine, and organic fertilizer. Black plastic is spread under the bags, so that the corn never comes into contact with the ground.
These bags, 55 cm in radius and about 30 cm deep, are generally used in growing flowers and plants for private gardens. Last year a visitor to the farm, noticing the weeds flourishing in the corn, suggested to Xie that he give the bag method a try. "I used to have to hire more than 30 people to pull weeds, but two weeks later they had grown back as high as your knee," says Xie with exasperation. As a bonus, the bags-equipped with handles on each side-are easy to relocate should the landlord suddenly terminate the lease. Also, the nutrients in the soil don't leach away, so you can cut your fertilizer use in half.
Due to inexperience in his first year, Xie did not earn nearly very much from the farm. But, ever hopeful, he expects to break the NT$1 million mark in revenues this year, and he plans to repay all of his NT$3 million loan in three years. Given his youthful energy and determination, success seems just around the corner.