CSA in Taiwan and China

Summer 2012
A home garden in Taiwan
A home garden in Taiwan. Elizabeth Henderson photo.

By Elizabeth Henderson


Today’s citizens of China, Korea and Japan, whose agriculture of a century ago F.H. King described so vividly in Farmers of Forty Centuries, have almost forgotten the traditions that inspired so many of us in organic farming in the West. But old timers remember and young people are rediscovering their ancient roots. On two trips to Taiwan and one to mainland China, I glimpsed the exciting ferment underway in the countryside.

As a result of the 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 for a whirlwind week of lectures and farm tours in 2010, and again in 2011 for a more elaborate tour.

I lectured on CSAs, met with farmers, rural organizers, university classes and elementary school programs around the island, and dined with enthusiastic supporters of local organic agriculture who call themselves the Rural Front. Following are some highlights.

Hsinchu CSA and Farm-to-School Project

Chientai Chen, an engineer in the Creativity Laboratory at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) in Hsinchu, Taiwan, 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. He is organizing a CSA farm to provide employment for a community of indigenous people who live in the city. While the local men do construction work, Chientai believes the women could farm the several hectares of fallow agricultural land next to the barracks where these families live. He has a plan for a 60-member CSA – the members, mainly ITRI employees, will help two full-time farmers grow food and provide educational activities for the children.

Hsinchu elementary school garden, Taiwan
Hsinchu elementary school garden in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Elizabeth Henderson photo.

In a related Hsinchu project, Tung-Jye Wu (“TJ”), director of the Green Formosa Front, and Chientai took me to lunch at an elementary school. The organic food for the lunch came from indigenous farmers 100 km away who supply eight schools. With 138 children, 20 to a class, the school is designed around a central garden. Classrooms open onto an outdoor corridor lined with sinks. Buckets catch the water, which the children then use on their garden. I observed a second grade class studying global warming. In answer to the teacher’s question about why CO2 is increasing, the children listed factories, cars and meat production. I worried that the class would give the children nightmares, but it ended with actions they can take and are taking – 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, attractive college building is round – inspired by traditional Hakka architecture – with a central garden space, and is surrounded by preserved ruins of traditional Hakka homes and gardens. The Hakka are Han Chinese. Their ancestors are said to have migrated from what is now central China until they settled in southern China – although some left there, too, and migrated throughout the world.

One presenter, Yi-Li Chen, learned about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) at my seminar the previous year. He had been farming organically for a decade, and CSA has answered his marketing needs. At his Green Farm, he communicates with members – mainly high tech workers – through his website, e-mail 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 researching the farm’s carbon footprint.

Participants in a workshop analyzing CSAs in Taiwan said weaknesses included diminishing farmland, tight budgets, cuts in agriculture, a lack of clean water and the availability of cheap imports. Regarding water, participants noted that in 1906, Japanese brought rice that must be irrigated. Before that, 1,200 dryland varieties were grown. Now only 20 are grown.

Since Taiwan is so small, participants thought all CSA farms might be integrated into one network that provides all products. CSAs can ring cities, so that when people move, they will consider which CSA to join as well as which school their children will attend.

Seven Days Around the Island

Our trip took us 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. The Tsin Chien Cooperative started by growing rice using organic methods and investing in its own mill. In 2010, the first year, 12 farmers grew 11 hectares of rice. In 2011, 15 farmers grew 15 hectares of rice, as well as tea, soybeans, wheat, green onions and other vegetables. Their half-time bookkeeper also farms, and a full-time manager handles sales. A local hotel buys most of the crops, but 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 a small man named Wang Fu-yu, affectionately called Da Wang (Big King), brims with cheer and energy that attracts people who want to learn from him. Da Wang began helping small organic farmers market their produce. Soon he had organized a hub in a shop he rented in the city. Abandoning a graduate program in planning, Da Wang built the hub into a 40-farm cooperative CSA supplying weekly boxes year round to 200 households and irregular orders to another 100 customers in Hualien and shipped to Taipei. He pays farmers monthly, gives cash advances when needed and helps find labor. Volunteers help assemble the boxes, which include bread baked at the shop and locally caught fish.

Da Wang has built investment money into the price of shares, with the acquiescence of subscribers, in order to expand the project. In the nearby village of Ping-He (Peace), inhabited by a mix of indigenous people and retired Chang Kai Shek soldiers, he has rented a house where he is using permaculture design to create a home for his family, a produce center, and rooms for a hostel for backpackers. He hopes to employ 20 villagers in value-added enterprises and in the vegetable box work and to repopulate the village with young people who attend the organic farming training program underway on village land.

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 connected the Liao family senior farmers with a local elementary school and with 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 we participated in a ceremony of birthday congratulations to the clan matriarch who is 94. Wherever open space exists in this area, 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 pollute 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.

CSA in the People’s Republic of China

Little Donkey Farm in Ho Sha Tien village, on the sixth outmost ring road of Beijing, was organized by Shi-Yan Sina and Cunwang Cheng. Shi-Yan initiated Little Donkey after a 6-month stay at a CSA farm in Minnesota in 2007. Cheng toured U.S. CSAs the next year and spent a few days at my Peacework Farm in New York.

Their 38-acre, almost perfectly flat farm has 240 10- by 20-foot plots for families, as well as larger growing areas with trenches for water and ridged paths for walking and driving, like a series of rice paddies but devoted to vegetables. On this early November visit, I saw daikon radishes, Chinese cabbage, garlic chives, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, corn, perfectly weeded carrots, trellised beans and cucumbers, a bushy variety of basil and medicinal herbs. A few areas were empty, as transplants from those areas had been distributed to the working shares.

A lone little donkey lives in an open-air pen next to chicken pens, roofed areas enclosed with netting on which squash or gourds had been growing. The nearby pig house is a concrete bunker with good air drainage. The composting area stretched from the pigs to the chickens. A shed held shelves lined with glass jars of liquid concoctions – herbal brews including ginger, garlic and beneficial microorganisms used for fertilizer and pest control in the style of Cho Han Kyu, a South Korean practitioner of “Nature Farming.”

I met 62-year-old Lijiang Cheng, one of the skilled farmers who work on the farm. The farm staff includes five managers who are university graduates, 20 villagers and 10 interns. In its third year of production in 2011, Little Donkey enabled 240 families to have garden plots, and 460 received farm crew-produced shares of vegetables, eggs and pork. The farm is also a training center, a model for cooperative work between village peasants and university educated organizers, the site of a farmers’ market, and hosts thousands of visitors.

In a building where the crew eats lunch and cooks for visitors, a few young people sorted waste from the farmers’ market into compost and recyclables.

“New Farmer, New Countryside”

At the “New Farmer, New Countryside: the Third National Conference of Community Supported Agriculture” at Renmin University in Beijing, I presented my “CSA Around the World” talk and we celebrated Shi-Yan and Cheng’s recent translation of Sharing the Harvest.

Over 400 – many from more than 150 ecological farming projects – attended the conference. Yan told me that organic in China is no longer just a top-down, export-oriented program, but a grassroots movement, as evidenced by the energy at this conference.

Shi-Yan said some middle class people are keeping city jobs but returning to villages to manage organic farms. While CSAs like Little Donkey and Big Buffalo have government and university support, farmers are establishing others on their own by connecting with citizens who care about food quality and sourcing food from people they trust.

A Beijing restaurateur from The Veggie Table listed his catchy six “m’s” – meal, menu, music, manner, mood, meeting – and said he purchases 60 percent of his ingredients from local organic farms.

The final speech was delivered by Tiejun Wen, dean of the School of Agronomics & Rural Development at Renmin University and executive director of the Institute of Advanced Studies for Sustainability at the People’s University of China. Shi-Yan and Cheng’s teacher, Wen is an organizer and leader of the new grassroots organic movement. His teaching centers on the “three Peoples’ Principles: people’s livelihood, people’s solidarity, and people’s cultural diversity.” His co-authored article “Ecological Civilization, Indigenous Culture, and Rural Reconstruction in China” appeared in the Feb. 2012 Monthly Review, while Shi-Yan and Cheng’s article “Safe Food, Green Food, Good Food: Chinese CSA and the Rising Middle Class” is in the Oct. 2011 International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability at https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14735903.2011.619327.

Professor Wen said a policy of cheap food leads to pollution, to cheating and to the crisis of food safety and lack of trust. The solution, he suggested, lies in ordinary people doing ordinary things, and involving and empowering the full diversity of stakeholders. He said, “Controversy is normal… We are leading the trend. Create your own network or union – you will be more powerful – that is the meaning of community… [Authorities] find it difficult to refuse an organized group… Starting a social network – we can have a community. Let’s do some ordinary things.”

In Taiwanese and mainland Chinese history, pressure to develop farmland is intense, but CSA shows a way to preserve existing farms, inspire new ones and give new meaning to the familiar labels “Made in Taiwan” and “Made in China.” The CSA model can build on the rich peasant farming and ancient Chinese food traditions and could sweep these countries as an antidote to the excesses of industrialization and contaminated food.

Elizabeth Henderson is the author of Sharing the Harvest, Revised and Expanded – A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007).

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