投筆從「農」──漂鳥青年三部曲

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2009 / 9月

文‧滕淑芬 圖‧林格立


台灣農業從業人口340萬,平均年齡63歲,每戶可耕地面積0.72公頃,比鄰近韓國的1.3公頃、日本的1.5公頃都小;農業年所得二十多萬元台幣,更只有台灣一般受薪階級的0.4倍。


為了提升精緻農業產值,改善農村人口外流、老化,4年前農政單位大力推廣青年回鄉務農,從漂鳥、築巢,到落地棲息,青年「回農」三部曲能否改變台灣農村面貌,加速農業轉型?

台北縣三芝鄉濱海公路旁的古庄村、鄰近馬偕醫學院新校區旁,4代務農的馬文權和爸媽、姐妹,守著7分地(約2,000坪)大的農地,種植二十多種蔬菜。打赤腳、背微駝、62歲的馬爸爸,每天就在這一層層丘陵地上的26棟小網室裡忙進忙出,舉凡翻土、施肥、拔雜草等粗重工作全由他打理。

入夏後,蔬菜長得快,每天早上兩個女兒會將剛採收下來的小黃瓜、地瓜葉、紅鳳菜、萵苣等蔬菜,拿到三芝市區的傳統市場販售;假日時,觀光客看到「三芝有機農場」的招牌,也會順道進來買菜;再加上二十多位固定客人的網路宅配,透過3種零售管道,才能慢慢消化產量。

自產自銷的小農

馬家正是台灣為數不少的自產自銷的小農代表。

35歲的馬文權身穿印有「台北捷運」字樣的深藍色制服,淡水聖約翰科技大學(原新埔工專)電機系畢業後,他就在淡水捷運站擔任維修工程師,三班制工作,逢輪午班(下午3點到11點)時,大半個白天都在農場幫忙。雖然種菜不是他的主業,但是花大錢在農地上興建網室設施,卻是他的主意。

「三芝一年下雨160天以上,冬天冷,東北季風強勁,蓋網室後,至少阿爸工作時不用穿雨衣,網室內土壤的乾溼度比較好控制,可以預防病蟲害,也可以用小型機器翻土──自從學會使用機器後,阿爸再也不想拿鋤頭了。」馬文權說,6年前農地種的是稻米、西瓜和筊白筍,但三芝日照不足,水稻長得不漂亮;每到收割時,米商從南部開始收購溼穀,到北部已是末期,一台斤溼穀價格和南部(100台斤約850元)竟然差到100元,價格太低,不敷成本。加上,三芝逐漸轉型為觀光休閒業,農會不再低價幫稻農碾米,連自己種、自己吃都不划算,只好另謀出路。

2003年他利用休假到台南農改場進修「設施栽培」課程,回來後就蓋了3米高的簡易棚架,改種蔬菜;不料第二年颱風來襲,設施全被吹倒,只好分批改建,改用較堅固的鋼骨,前後花了約200萬元。他又陸續進修有機蔬菜栽培班、休閒農業經營班、生物農藥與生物肥料班,以及農委會的「漂鳥」和「築巢」營等。

「蔬菜一年平均可以收11次,比起稻米一次,產量提高很多,但問題還是──菜要賣給誰?」馬文權說,小農產量少,自己零賣,客源不穩定,以致無法一次採收完成。但是蔬菜在溫室土壤裡若放到第3個禮拜還不採收,就很難阻隔小型害蟲如蚜蟲、黃條葉蚤等入侵,很傷腦筋。

此外,馬家老爸和姐姐妹妹都不擅長數字管理,「我們家缺少一個人出來負責管理和行銷。」但馬文權擔心的是,如果自己辭職回家,少了一份養家的固定薪水,萬一農場仍只維持目前一年100萬元的營收現況,豈不是賠了夫人又折兵?因此他希望能說服薪水比他低、目前也在淡水工作的弟弟辭職回家幫忙。

農業生力軍來了!

吸引年輕有衝勁,可以帶進新觀念的生力軍加入農業,讓老農慢慢退休,就是近年農委會舉辦漂鳥營、築巢營的目的。

自2006年開辦以來,3年內漂鳥營共培訓了3,198人,進階的築巢營則培訓了1,115人(參加過漂鳥營,才能參加築巢營),課程規劃多依照各農改場的專業,設計出設施栽培、有機農業、熱帶花卉與熱帶水果、水產養殖、香草與保健植物等課程,參加者不乏高學歷的年輕菁英。

東吳大學會計系、台大會計所畢業的吳國聖,38歲,原在台北社子花卉廣場擔任總經理特助,負責園區行銷。2007年報名參加桃園和台東農改場的設施栽培、香藥草植物的課程,爾後經過農委會徵選,還到德國農場參訪一個月。

在鳥語花香的花卉園區工作2年後,他投入50萬元成本,以月租3萬元,租下園區40坪的店面,以藍、白色打造出一家地中海風格的「和香草說說話」花園,販賣香草植物、花草茶包和飲料餅乾等,每月營收約15萬元,將生活、工作與興趣結合。

常有人問笑臉洋溢、陽光型男的吳國聖,為何不去當會計師賺大錢卻投入農業?創業又有何困難?

從小喜歡花草的他說,「看到綠色生命一天天長大,就很快樂。至於創業困難,正是我的困擾──好像沒什麼困難耶。可能因為我很健忘,即使有一些小問題,也不足掛齒!」對於未來,他希望能在台北南區再開一家花店,也可能擴大規模,規劃一個香草主題農場。

有規模才有經濟

農業類型百百種,從花卉、種苗、良質米,到果樹、畜牧、休閒農場等,回農青年要從哪入手,才能養活自己或一家人?真是一大考驗。

今年6月中開課的桃園農改場「築巢」營隊,有13名學員,其中有科技公司業務、醫療器材公司中階主管、工研院工程師、基金公司經理人、旅行社導遊等。5天課程中,規劃了設施蔬菜產業、穴盤育苗技術、蟲害防治、設施搭建等課程,接著就會帶領學員參訪桃園附近的多位「農業達人」,讓學員實際了解農業生產與後端的行銷現況。

參訪農場之一的桃園楊梅鎮「紫城農場」,每年供應1,500萬株蔬菜苗給菜農,在北台灣可列入前5大育苗場。

53歲的場長林應樹原是紡織廠主管,30歲時因父親車禍受傷,他毅然辭職回家接管1.5公頃大的苗圃,並到桃園農改場受訓,吸收農業知識。

14年前他大手筆花費上千萬元,逐步將露天苗圃改建成簡易溫室和4.5米高的鋼骨溫室,裝設自動播種機,從穴盤排放、翻土、填土到播種,完全自動化。林應樹比較說,人工播種一天8小時只能播100盤,自動化後,效率提高到1,000盤;以前人工灑水要3小時,現在只要按下電動鈕就好了。

除了投資設備,要讓種子發芽率高、20天後長成3-4公分高的健康幼苗賣出的關鍵,還在介質土。林應樹花了3年時間改良介質、不斷實驗,最後發現以牛糞混入稻殼、椰殼,經過半年發酵後的介質,營養成分最均衡,種子發芽率也從5成提高到9成。

若以一株育苗1元的賣價來估計,紫城育苗場的獲利率約在10-20%,看似豐碩,但卻是林應樹帶著兩女、兩子投入的結果,讓不少參訪學員感嘆,務農真是高投資、低報酬的行業。

第三部曲──棲息

吸引青年回農,已是農政單位的政策,從3-5天的漂鳥、築巢營,以大專生為主的農場見習、農村夏令營等,農委會希望藉由舉辦各種農業體驗營,在10年內培訓3萬名生力軍。

以漂鳥營和築巢營來說,前3屆共培訓了4,313人,但最後真正投入農業者大約只有一成(448人),且其中多數是像馬文權這樣家有土地的「準農家子弟」;「外行人」投入比例不高的原因,大多卡在土地、資金和行銷上。

原來在會計師事務所工作的梁書鳴,2006年放大假,帶著太太、兒子到法國和荷蘭鄉村各玩了一個月,很喜歡這種恬淡的鄉村生活,也想離開都市叢林,讓下一代在自然環境裡成長。

回國後太太李晨均就報名參加桃園農改場漂鳥營,甚至挺著懷著第二個寶寶的大肚子,到桃園八德蔬菜產銷班第3班實習了將近半年。

2007年1月他們決定投入設施蔬菜,開始找地,但夫妻倆在八德人生地不熟,也不清楚農地的優劣性,半年後透過產銷班班長李傳添的介紹,才在八德附近租下1.2公頃大的農地(一年租金12萬元),投入800萬元資金(貸款500萬元),蓋了40棟溫室。

文質彬彬、一臉書生樣的梁書鳴說,他也曾考慮經營觀光休閒業,到台東太麻里觀察市場,但休閒業的投資更大、回收更慢,他沒有本錢承受長期財務壓力。「蔬菜長得快,操作簡單,我要養家活口,立刻就得有現金收入。」

打造「農地銀行」平台

為了讓有心務農者不再靠運氣「找地」,2007年8月,農委會設立了「農地銀行」資料庫,希望打造一個透明的農地資訊平台,讓無心耕作的農戶釋出農地,以活化農地利用。

初期,由於不少老農憂慮一旦他的農地租售後,將失去農保和老農年金資格而影響出租意願,因此2008年11月,農委會協調內政部修訂「農民健康保險條例」,保障農保年資15年、65歲以上的老農退休租售農地後,農保資格不受影響,並可繼續領取每月6,000元津貼。

同時,農委會也號召全國302家地方農會,加入農地租售服務行列。由於過去農民向農會信用部貸款時,常以農地做抵押,長期下來,農會手上持有不少農地資料,正好可利用「農地銀行」的機制,服務新、舊農民,為租貸或買賣雙方提供清楚的土地資訊,如土壤酸鹼值、水源、適合哪種作物、政府提供哪些低利貸款等配套措施,農會也可以從中賺取5%以下的仲介費(也有農會免費服務),活絡農會經營體系。

目前「農地銀行」已有273家農會加入,建置了1萬3,195筆土地資料,自開站以來成交1,926筆土地,約為607公頃(其中農會法拍占53%),比例不算高。

分析原因,農民「有土斯有財」的觀念仍重,加上原本農委會補助每公頃休耕土地最高一年9萬元,扣除種植綠肥成本後,農民實際可領取約6-7萬元;在領取補助金與出租之間,農民往往會評估哪種方式較划算。

為了擴大農業經營面積,去年9月農委會推出「小地主大佃農」政策,今年更祭出優惠的獎勵條件,只要小地主願意將一年2期的休耕地長期出租3年以上,農委會就以「休耕農地出租獎勵金」的名義,每年補助10萬元(其中補助地主8萬元,補助佃農租金2萬元),希望達到農業「規模經濟」的目標。

非浪漫想像

親近土地是人類的本性,然而,不論漂鳥或築巢的體驗,都只有短短3-5天,容易因一時熱情對務農產生浪漫幻想,實際投入後才後悔抱怨,今年開始,農委會又進一步規劃了為期30天的農業短期職業訓練(45歲以下失業青年優先),鼓勵有志從農的青年,跟著農業達人實習一段時間,確認自己未來可以忍受日曬雨淋的生活,並審慎思考將朝生產、休閒或農產品加工的發展方向後,再開始租賃田地。

更重要的是,「市場與通路沒有掌握前,不要太過冒險辭掉工作、投入大資金,尤其菜價波動大,想種菜的人,最好從一分地的簡易設施做起。」桃園農改場場長鄭隨和強調,市場對了,就賺錢,否則就得忍受「菜金菜土」、暴漲暴跌的風險。

他以5-9月正是綠竹筍產季為例說,全台綠竹筍產地約有7,000公頃,北部就占了5,000公頃,集中在台北縣三峽、五股、八里,以及台北陽明山、士林、木柵等地,如果自己家裡有土地,可以從兼業入手,因為種在地底下的綠竹筍很好管理。「甚至清晨5點去挖,拿去市場賣完,還趕得及9點上班!」鄭隨和說。

其次,像桃園全縣的設施蔬菜約有300公頃,到了颱風季,萬一南部蔬菜泡湯,北部消費市場就嚴重缺菜,設施蔬菜在北台灣很有競爭力。不過到了冬天,市場就明顯反轉,南部蔬菜送來北部後,北部菜價大受影響,甚至可能虧本,這時就要靠穩定的行銷通路來支撐。

鄭隨和建議,新農民應放下單打獨鬥的觀念,加入當地產銷班,透過產銷班的集體採購和議價能力,也可以買到較便宜的育苗、肥料、機器設備等農業資材。不過,新農民人脈不熟,要加入當地產銷班,並不容易。

1995年因八德傳統市場拆遷,種菜二十多年的李傳添,出面號召雞肉小販、水電工等一群農業門外漢,成立八德蔬菜產銷班第3班,一步一腳印從大家一起學習種菜開始,10年後成為桃園地區蔬菜共同產銷的大家庭。目前擁有11名班員,雇用兩百多名分級、洗菜、包裝員工,共同管理31公頃菜園、二千多棟設施蔬菜,夏季每月出菜量約2萬公斤,年產值八千多萬元。

「漂鳥」成「留鳥」

靠著11名班員強大的向心力,甚至拿出營運收入4-7%成立班基金,補助班員購買農業資材,租地興建集貨場、添購自動包裝機等,八德產銷班以單一品牌行銷、穩定供貨量,從傳統市場打入拍賣市場,以及愛買、大潤發等量販店。

2005、2006年榮獲農委會全國10大績優產銷班與神農獎的班長李傳添說,產銷班每增加一名班員,都要經過全體班員討論、同意,並報請縣政府農業局審核,而技術尚不純熟的新農民,能否被接受,就要看他們的實力。

「要有打死不退的決心,以及鍥而不捨解決問題的能力,」一年半前以新農民身分躋身八德產銷班的梁書鳴說,從生產技術、管理到市場回收,問題層出不窮。例如,第一年加入產銷班時,以為所有蔬菜都可以透過產銷班銷售,結果去年4月產量不多的小番茄收成後,才知道產銷班只共同運銷葉菜類蔬菜,沒有行銷經驗的梁書鳴只好把小番茄送給親戚朋友吃,好在吃出口碑後,第二年就有人預訂。

「新農業運動」讓台灣農業吹起一股年輕「回農」風,有些漂鳥仍在空中徘徊,尋找最佳棲息地;有些漂鳥克服萬難,已成「留鳥」,開始撫育下一代。他們的腳踩在土地上,重新思索生命和土地的聯繫,甚至邁開大步、注入新創意,也讓台灣農業亙古綿長,活力再現。

回農青年資訊補給站

一:參加受訓課程(漂鳥網站http://straybirds.coa.gov.tw)

營隊 資格 主辦單位
農業體驗營(原漂鳥營) 18-35歲青年 各農會
築巢營 參加過農業體驗營者 各農改場
大專生農業體驗營 18-35歲在學學生 台大、宜蘭大學等5所大學
農村夏令營 10-17歲青少年 各農會
農業短期職業訓練 45歲以下無工作青年優先,受訓期間可領取1萬元生活津貼,結訓後可引介到民間農場工作。 各農改場
園丁營 專業農民的進階訓練 各農改場

二:農地租賃平台──農地銀行(http://ezland.coa.gov.tw)

三:「小地主大佃農」政策(農委會網站http://www.coa.gov.tw)

資格 門檻 補助內容
新農民(18-55歲),承租近2年休耕農地,租期達1-3年以上,自有土地加新租土地達一定面積以上者,由政府補助部分租金。 農業科系畢業。
實際從事農業生產滿2年,或參加產銷班2年以上。
登記有案農場主。
參加各類受訓課程,受訓時數達40小時以上者。
補助長期農地租金貸款利率0%,經營貸款利率1%。
補助大佃農朝向企業經營所需的設施費用。
補助承租休耕農地改善生產環境費用。

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Take Me Home, Country RoadsThe Government Tries to Rejuvenate Agriculture

Teng Sue-feng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

Taiwan's farm population is 3.4 million people, with an average age of 63. There are 0.72 hectares of arable land per household, less even than in neighboring Korea (1.3 hectares) and Japan (1.5). The average annual income of a person in the agricultural sector is just over NT$200,000 per year, only 40% that of salaried employees.


To increase the production of high-grade agricultural goods, and to address the problems of decline and aging of the rural population, the national rural policy-making agencies have been promoting a "return to the farm" among younger people. Part of this effort is the establishment of short-term training sessions for would-be farmers, called the "Piao Niao" and "Zhu Cao" camps. (Piao Niao, literally meaning "stray birds," echoes a German word, Wandervogel-"migratory birds"-which is what early 20th century German back-to-nature youths called themselves. "Zhu Cao," in keeping with the bird metaphor, means "nest-building.") Can these government programs really change rural Taiwan and speed the transformation of agriculture?

In Guzhuang Village, along the North Coast highway in Sanzhi Township in Taipei County, close to the new campus of MacKay Medical College, fourth-generation farmer Ma Wenquan and his parents and sisters tend about 6700 square meters of agricultural land where they plant more than 20 kinds of vegetables. Ma's father, barefoot, slightly stooped, and 62, spends his days going in and out of the 26 small net-covered structures on the terraced hillside, turning the soil, spreading fertilizer, pulling weeds, and handling other physically onerous tasks, all by himself.

When summer comes, the vegetables grow fast and furious. Every morning Ma's two daughters take fresh-picked cucumbers, sweet-potato leaves, gynura, lettuce, or whatever happens to be ready that day, to sell in the traditional market in Sanzhi town center. On weekends and holidays, tourists who see the Sanzhi Organic Farm sign turn in and shop, and the farm also delivers direct to the homes of a couple of dozen or so customers who order through the Internet. Through these three marketing channels, the year's production is gradually consumed.

Small farms on their own

The Ma family is representative of the many small farms in Taiwan where the owners do all the growing and selling by themselves.

Thirty-five-year-old Ma Wenquan, wearing a dark blue uniform printed with the Chinese characters for "Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation," graduated from the Department of Electrical Engineering at what is now St. John's University in Danshui, after which he worked as a Taipei MRT station maintenance engineer. Working on a rotating three-shift schedule, on days when he had the afternoon shift (3:00-11:00 p.m.) he would spend a good part of the morning helping out on the family farm. Although farming is not his specialty, it was his idea to invest a large sum of money to build the net-covered structures.

"It rains more than 160 days per year in Sanzhi, it is cold in the winter, and the northeast seasonal monsoons are fierce; at least with the greenhouses up Dad can work without wearing raingear. Also, it is easier to control soil moisture inside the greenhouses, they minimize damage from insects, and the soil can be tilled with small-scale machinery." Wenquan says that now that his father has learned to use the machines, he doesn't want to pick up a hoe ever again.

In 2003, Ma Wenquan used his vacation to take a course in "facility cultivation" (also known as "protected cultivation") at the Tainan District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (ARES). After returning he put up simple three-meter high enclosures and began planting vegetables. Unexpectedly, the next year a typhoon completely destroyed the facilities. All he could do was to rebuild them a couple at a time, this time using stronger steel frames, spending about NT$2 million for the whole process from start to finish. He also took courses in organic farming, recreational farming (for city tourists), organic pesticides, and organic fertilizers at other agricultural improvement stations, as well as attending the Council of Agriculture's Piao Niao and Zhu Cao camps.

"You can harvest vegetables an average of 11 times a year, compared to once a year for rice, so naturally you get a much higher production volume. The problem is," says Ma Wenquan, "Who are you going to sell the vegetables to?" He points out that small farms have small production volumes, and when they retail on their own they don't have regular customers, so they can't harvest and sell everything at one go. But if vegetables in the facilities get to the third week and you still don't pull them, it is difficult to prevent small insect pests from getting into the nets, which is a real headache.

Here comes the cavalry!

Attracting vigorous young people with new ideas to ride to the rescue of agriculture, thereby allowing older farmers to retire, has been the main objective of the COA in sponsoring its Piao Niao (stray bird) and Zhu Cao (nest-building) camps, which provide "agricultural experience" and "advanced agriculture," respectively.

In the three years since they were launched in 2006, the Piao Niao camps have trained a total of 3,198 persons, while the more advanced Zhu Cao camps have trained 1,115 (you have to have attended the former to be eligible for the latter). The design of the curriculum has basically followed the areas of expertise of the various ARESs. Classes include facility cultivation, organic farming, tropical flowers and tropical fruits, aquaculture, and herbs and medicinal plants. Participants have included some elite young people with very advanced educations.

Nicholas Wu, now 38, got his BA in accounting from Soochow University and an MA in the same subject from National Taiwan University. He was formerly special assistant to the general manager of the GardenMall on Shezi Island in Taipei, responsible for marketing. In 2007 he signed up for the classes in facility cultivation and medicinal plants offered respectively by the Taoyuan and Taitung ARESs. He was then selected by the COA to spend a month on a farm in Germany.

After working for two years in the GardenMall, he invested about NT$500,000 to rent a 180-square-meter shop there (with monthly rent of NT$30,000) to create a blue-and-white Mediterranean-style garden he christened "talk2herb." There he began selling processed farm goods like herbs, herbal teas, drinks and snacks. His revenues are NT$150,000 per month, not to mention that he has been able to unite his life, his work, and his interests.

People often ask Wu, a man with a ready smile and sunny disposition, why he decided to invest in agriculture and go through all the hassles of starting his own business rather than earning big bucks as an accountant. Wu, who has enjoyed raising plants and flowers ever since he was a small child, responds: "When you see green life growing day by day, it makes you happy. As for the hassles, that's my biggest concern-there haven't been any yet! Maybe it's because I don't hold grudges or worry, so even though there are some minor problems, they aren't worth getting upset over."

Survival scale

There are hundreds of types of agriculture, from flowers, seedlings, and improved rice, to fruit groves, animal husbandry, and recreational farms. Which should young farmers choose to support themselves and their families? It's the million-dollar question.

At the Zhu Cao camp which started classes in June at the Taoyuan ARES, there were 13 students. The five-day curriculum included facility-cultivation production analysis, plug-tray seedling techniques, prevention of insect infestation, and construction of enclosures. After that the students were taken on a tour of the established farms near Taoyuan so they could get a first hand look at the day-to-day practice of agricultural production and marketing.

One of the farms to be visited was the Zicheng Farm in Yangmei Township in Taoyuan County. Each year it supplies 1.5 million vegetable-plant seedlings to vegetable farms, making it one of the five biggest seedling producers in northern Taiwan.

Farm director Lin Yingshu, 53, was formerly the manager of a textile plant, but at age 30, when his father was injured in a traffic accident, he resigned and returned to take over the 1.5-hectare family farm. He also went to the Taoyuan ARES for training.

Fourteen years ago, he spent an enormous sum of money (over NT$10 million) to build seedling greenhouses and install complete automation for everything from cleaning the trays to adding and turning the soil to spreading the seeds. Lin relates that a worker can only spread 100 plates of seed in an eight-hour working day, but that number increases to 1000 with automation. In the past watering by hand took three hours, now he only has to press a button!

Besides investing in facilities and equipment, Lin knew that in order to get a high success rate of germination and produce healthy 3-4 centimeter high seedlings after 20 days (which is what is required for them to be saleable), the key was still in the soil used as the growth medium. Lin spent three years to improve the quality of the soil he uses, continually experimenting, until he finally discovered that cow dung mixed with rice husks and coconut husks, after half a year of composting, gave him the most balanced nutrient composition, and his germination rate rose from 50% to 90%.

At a sales price of NT$1 per seedling, the profit margin for a seedling farm would be about 10-20%. That seems like a lot, but this is the result of Lin bringing his two daughters and two sons into the business. A lot of students who visit here leave shaking their heads and sighing in dismay at the extent to which agriculture is a high-investment, low-return industry.

Modern settlers

To attract young people back to the farm is a major policy of agricultural agencies in the government. From activities like the three-to-five-day Piao Niao and Zhu Cao camps, farm internships, and rural village summer camps targeted at college and university students, the COA hopes to move on to sponsoring a variety of "farm experience" camps with the goal of training 30,000 rural "reinforcements" over the next 10 years.

Let's look at the Piao Niao and Zhu Cao camps. These trained a total of 4313 persons in the first three sessions, but only about a tenth of these (448) decided to go into some line of work related to agriculture. And most of those one-tenth were already "quasi farm-kids" like Ma Wenquan whose families had land. The main obstacles causing this low success rate are access to land, capital, and markets.

Liang Shuming, who used to work in an accounting firm, look a long vacation in 2006 and brought his wife and son to the countryside in France and Holland for a month each. He really enjoyed the low-stress country life, and decided to get out of the urban jungle so that his children could grow up in a natural environment.

After returning to Taiwan, his wife Li Chenjun signed up for the Piao Niao Camp at the Taoyuan ARES. She even did a half-year internship in vegetable marketing at the Bade Vegetable Production and Marketing Group while pregnant with her second child.

In January of 2007, Liang and Li decided to go into protected cultivation of vegetables, and they began to look for land. But the two of them were not very familiar with anyone in Bade, and they couldn't tell good land from bad. After half a year, via an introduction from Production and Marketing Group director Li Chuantian, they rented 1.2 hectares of farmland in the Bade area (at NT$120,000 per year). They then invested NT$8 million (of which NT$5 million was borrowed) into building 40 protective structures.

Liang, who looks like the scholarly type, says that he first considered going into the tourism and recreation industry, and even went to Taimali in Taitung to check out the market there. But he found that the recreation industry requires even more capital, with more delayed investment payback, and he did not have the resources to stay deeply in debt for very long. "Vegetables grow fast, and operations are easy to learn. For my family's sake, I had to invest in something that would provide an immediate cash flow."

The land bank

So that those who want to go into farming no longer have to rely on luck to find land, in August of 2007 the COA established a "Land Bank" database in hopes of providing a transparent intermediary platform. This allows farm households who have no interest in farming to make their land available to others, in order to inject some vitality and flexibility into the use of farmland.

In the first phase, because a lot of old farmers feared that if they rented or sold their farmland they could lose their farmer's health insurance or farmer's pensions, there was little willingness to participate. Therefore in November of 2008 the COA persuaded the Ministry of the Interior to amend the regulations governing farmers' insurance so that anyone over 65 with 15 years or more of contributions under the farmers insurance system would have their insurance unaffected even if they rented out or sold their land, and could continue to draw their farmer's pensions.

At the same time, the COA has called on all 302 farmer's associations (FAs) in Taiwan to join the ranks of those providing land rental or sales services. Because in the past many farmers who borrowed money from FA credit departments used their land as collateral, over time FAs have ended up with a lot of farm plots on their hands, which is exactly what the "land bank" needs. The bank can provide transparent, complete information about such things as soil salinity and acidity, access to water, what crops are most suited to the soil in question, and what government low-interest loans or other helpful policies are available. FAs can also earn a commission of up to 5% (though some are doing the service for free), which can help put their operations on a more diverse and sounder footing.

However, so far success has been limited. Although 273 FAs have joined the land bank database, which has a total of 13,195 parcels of land on file, only 1,926 deals have been completed, totaling 607 hectares. Of these, 53% have been foreclosure sales, not the voluntary generational turnover the COA hopes for.

One reason is that many older rural people still cling to the idea that "if you have land, then you have wealth." Perhaps more important is that the COA provides payments of up to NT$90,000 per year for each hectare of land left fallow. After deducting the costs of planting green fertilizers on the fallow land, farmers come away with NT$60-70,000 per hectare. Naturally they will weigh the financial pluses and minuses of keeping land fallow versus renting it out.

In order to expand the land area under cultivation, last year the COA launched its "small landlord, big tenant" program, to which they added new incentives this year: So long as a small landlord is willing to rent out fallow land for a minimum of three years, the COA will provide a subsidy of NT$100,000 per year, 80% of which goes to the landlord and the other 20% toward the tenant's rent. It is hoped that this will lead to more economies of scale.

Romanticizing

It is human nature to want to get close to the land. However, the COA camps last only three to five days and it quite often happens that in a sudden burst of enthusiasm people get a romanticized notion of rural life, and sometimes even make large investments they later come to rue. Thus the COA, beginning this year, plans to offer 30-day internships (with priority given to unemployed persons below the age of 45) so that rookies can work side by side with veteran farmers to see whether they can tolerate a life of exposure to the elements. They will also get a chance to consider what direction they will go in if they decide to stay in agriculture-crop cultivation, recreational farming, or processed agricultural goods-and to take their first steps toward renting land.

Would-be farmers must also become familiar with the realities of the agricultural economy. "Until you have a handle on markets and transport, you shouldn't quit your day job or risk too much money investing, especially in vegetables, which are subject to large fluctuations in prices," warns Cheng Shui-ho, director of the Taoyuan ARES. "Newcomers who want to plant vegetables should start with small and simple facilities." When the market conditions are right, you will make money, and even bundles of money during sudden boom periods, but you will also have to endure unpredictable crashes in market prices.

For example, if you are managing some of the 300 hectares in Taoyuan County devoted to protected cultivation, in typhoon season (late summer and early fall), if southern veggies get drowned, causing a severe shortage in northern markets, your facility-raised vegetables will become highly competitive in northern Taiwan. But when winter comes and southern vegetables come north, prices in the north will fall, sometimes even below the local costs of production. The only solution to this problem is to have regular sales channels and steady clients.

Cheng suggests that newcomers give up any ideas they might have of "going it alone," and join a local Production and Marketing Group (PMG). These have collective power to make purchases and negotiate prices, allowing farmers to acquire seedlings, fertilizer, and equipment more cheaply. However, since newcomers have few personal connections, it is not easy for them to gain admittance to a local PMG.

In 1995, when the Bade traditional market was torn down, Li Chuantian, a farmer for over two decades, rounded up a bunch of people who were complete strangers to farming-street vendors, electricians, whoever-and created the Bade Vegetable PMG #3. Starting with everyone learning together how to cultivate vegetables, they progressed step by step until 10 years later they had become an "extended family" selling their veggies collectively to the Taoyuan area. Currently there are 11 members, managing 31 hectares of land with over 2000 enclosures, and employing more than 200 people in grading, washing, and packaging vegetables. Every summer they produce about 20,000 kilos of vegetables monthly, worth more than NT$80 million.

Stray birds to nest-building

Thanks to the high degree of loyalty of the 11 "family members," the PMG has even been able to create a fund into which members contribute 4-7% of operating revenues, to help individuals buy equipment, rent land, or build facilities. The collective, which markets its goods under a single brand name, is able to sell predictable, stable volumes to traditional markets, the auction market, and even hypermarts.

Li Chuantian, winner of the Shennong Prize, whose organization was twice named by the COA (in 2005 and 2006) as one of the 10 most outstanding PMGs in the country, says that each time a new member wants to join, the proposal has to be approved, after discussion, by all the current members, and then approved by the county bureau of agriculture. New farmers, whose skills are not yet up to speed, have to demonstrate very strong practical capabilities to be considered eligible.

"You have to have a never-say-die attitude," explains Liang Shuming, who got into the Bade PMG a year and a half ago despite being a novice farmer, "and the ability to solve problems in a practical manner." He adds that there are countless details to attend to, from production techniques to management to pricing. For example, his first year in the PMG he assumed that he could sell all of his vegetables through the collective, and it was only last April, after harvesting his small crop of tomatoes, that he found out that that the collective only deals in green vegetables. Liang, lacking any marketing experience, ended up just giving the tomatoes away to friends and family. Luckily, thanks to word of mouth, the second year there were paid orders for more.

The "new agriculture movement" is bringing a breath of fresh, youthful air to the countryside. Some "stray birds" are still circling in air, looking for a place to settle, while other have overcome obstacles to start "nest-building" and have started raising their chicks. They are now rediscovering and reassessing the ties between life and land, and coming up with new ideas that will revitalize Taiwanese agriculture for a long time to come.

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