Taichung’s tourist farms give urbanites a taste of rural life by offering special activities, lodging and local food.
Annie Lee (李安妮) and her clan live off an unforgiving tract of land near the harbor of Taichung City, central Taiwan. If not for the hedges planted around rows of cabbages, the coastal gusts would have long ago put an untimely end to her crops. But mingled in the acoustic backdrop of Lee’s farm are some surprisingly non-agricultural sounds. The hisses and puffs of an espresso machine come from within the old pigpen, and there also are bursts of laughter from a group of a dozen youngsters. Having traveled here from far-away Malaysia, the trendily clad university students are doing something they have obviously never tried before—weeding.
Ever since Taiwan’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2002, Taiwanese farmers have increasingly been turning away from agricultural production and toward the leisure industry. For some crops, it is not as if growers have had much of a choice, because WTO membership meant farms here suddenly had to compete head-on with counterparts in Australia and the United States that can be 100 times larger. Statistics show that the average local farm measures just 1.1 hectares, while less than 10 percent of all farms in the country are bigger than 10 hectares. The frequent typhoons and market gluts Taiwan experiences can also reduce the rewards of agricultural production.
Notwithstanding such obvious disadvantages, for reasons that range from food security to cultural preservation, Taiwan retains the ability to meet much of domestic demand in key agricultural sectors such as rice, fruit and vegetables. In some other sectors, however, local farmers find it difficult to compete with cheaper post-WTO imports. As a result, about 60,000 hectares of Taiwan’s farmland lay completely idle in 2009, while another 220,000 hectares were underused, statistics from the Council of Agriculture show.
One part of the country where officials have been going to great lengths to put underutilized farmland back into production is the municipality of Taichung. There, the local government, academics and the rural population have been rolling up their sleeves in order to implement a somewhat unspectacular, yet strikingly effective leisure farm program. Such farms are designed to give urbanites a taste of rural life by offering special activities, lodging and local food.
“After the government initiated the Dajia Artisan Leisure Farming Area, we shifted from traditional farming to a leisure-oriented approach,” says Lee, a farmer’s daughter in her mid-30s who runs Sunflower Farm. “Our pigpen has since become a coffee shop, and in the vegetable fields, city dwellers and school classes can experience first-hand how farming is done.”
Lee says that the Dajia Artisan Leisure Farming Area presently comprises four farms in the neighborhood. Apart from learning about the vocation of farming, visitors can also participate in rural activities such as sweet potato roasting and braiding reeds to make items ranging from business card holders to 1920s-style hats. Meanwhile, at the beach only a few meters away, they can fish with nets or collect oysters and clams on a good day.
While leisure farms may not be a panacea for all of Taiwan’s agricultural ills, environmentalists cautiously support their development. Bruno Walther, an environmental scientist and visiting assistant professor at Taipei Medical University, says that the overwhelming overseas competition Taiwan’s farmers face in many agricultural sectors basically leaves them with only two choices. The first choice, ramping up local production to reach economies of scale, would be ecologically devastating, while the other—leisure farming—is potentially promising. “Generally speaking, agricultural leisure tourism could be part of the solution—either Taiwanese farmers offer unique services, or they sell very special and organic products that can be sold for higher prices,” Walther says.
To explain the worst-case alternative, Walther points to the mistakes made by the European Union (EU) in its agriculture policies during the last few decades. “First, the EU supported very large farms,” he says. “Farmers were only rewarded for quantity, causing them to breed cows that could give up to 30 liters of milk per day. But this approach led to the production of too much liquid manure, which poisoned lakes, rivers and groundwater with nitrate, as well as the use of way too much pesticide.”
As for Taiwan, Walther says that although farmers could import feedstuff from countries such as Brazil, enabling them to raise a maximum quantity of livestock on a minimum amount of land, the liquid manure would stay in Taiwan. As a result, the country’s rivers would become over-fertilized, leading to fish dying of lack of oxygen and the poisoning of groundwater, among other negative outcomes.
The promotion of leisure farming is therefore an approach that makes sense, Walther says. “It’s generally good to bring city dwellers to the countryside where they can learn about protection of species and where they get a clue where their own food comes from,” he says. “Also, leisure farms will less likely be based on monoculture, which in environmental terms is the most catastrophic way of producing food.”
Walther explains that it is small landscape elements like hedges, ponds and trees that make farms environmentally friendly, as those features house small ecosystems that allow birds, mammals and reptiles to flourish. “As birds eat insects, the need to use pesticides is reduced; hedges stop soil erosion and also protect against the wind, improving the microclimate,” he says. “And when ecotourists visit, they can enjoy the songs of birds and enjoy the butterflies.”
Farms like Annie Lee’s are convincing examples of how well-designed government plans and promotional campaigns can change the fate of entire agricultural communities for the better. Her family business employs seven full-time workers, and sometimes up to another 30 are temporarily hired when bigger groups of guests are expected. Although the cost can change depending on the activities offered, visitors are typically charged a daily fee of about NT$300 (US$10), which includes lunch but not accommodation. Providing another indication as to how much agricultural tourism boosts the local economy, Lee says her farm attracts as many as 1,000 visitors per month.
Although there is little doubt that Lee, who studied at a business college, could earn money just as well in some comfortably air-conditioned office building in the city, she obviously likes her work at Sunflower Farm. “Thinking up constant adjustments to our activity programs after receiving feedback from the guests is very rewarding,” she says.
While Lee’s farm is thriving on Taichung’s coast, communities that benefit from government agricultural tourism initiatives are particularly plentiful in the municipality’s mountainous areas. In Xinshe District in the hills east of Taichung, for example, an annual flower festival is held to promote the local floral industry, which employs as many as 20,000 locals, according to the Tourism and Travel Bureau under the Taichung City Government.
Of the 60-something farms clustered in the vicinity of the flower festival’s location, approximately 30 have taken to the leisure farming business in recent years. Most of them offer homestay-style accommodation for guests who come from farther away. “We subsidize the flower festival, which draws 1 million visitors per year,” says Chang Ta-chun (張大春), director of the municipality’s tourism office. “This in turn promotes the area as a whole, leading to tourism easily keeping 30 nearby leisure farms and about as many homestays busy.”
According to Chang’s bureau, Xinshe has become Taiwan’s “Holland.” When flowers are bought in a Taipei flower shop, for example, there is a very high chance that they come from this Taichung district, and Xinshe growers also export flowers to Hong Kong and Japan. “Taipei is too cold, Kaohsiung [in southern Taiwan] is too hot, but Taichung’s climate is just right for flowers,” Chang says.
Xinshe’s orchid production also contributed to helping Taiwan overtake Thailand to become the world’s No. 1 exporter of the immensely popular plant in 2005. In 2011, orchids accounted for US$87 million of Taiwan’s flower exports, taking up 80 percent of the floral sector’s overall export value, according to the Taiwan Orchid Growers Association.
If Xinshe has become synonymous with flowers, it is Dongshi District just to the east that, as about every Taiwanese person knows, is one of Taiwan’s major fruit producing areas. Like Xinshe, Dongshi enthusiastically caters to agricultural tourists.
On a flank of a hill overlooking a riverbed at Dongshi’s Ruanbikeng Leisure Agricultural Area lies the Xin He Yuan Farm. Persimmons and loquats are grown here by farmer Zhan De-chang (詹德昌) and his family. Zhan says the main reason that he can make ends meet more easily now than before is because through leisure farming, he finally discovered a way to cut out the middlemen and distributors who in Taiwan are widely, and indeed often vociferously, blamed for pocketing most of the profits at the expense of the producers.
“We began catering to tourists after the government started promoting and subsidizing leisure farms in this area,” Zhan says. “From the subsidy we received, we invested in a walk-in freezer and rock-climbing equipment. The middlemen won’t get anything from us anymore, because one-third of the produce is picked by the visitors themselves and much of the rest is distributed through our website.”
Apart from letting his guests pick fruit, Zhan employs a professional instructor who conducts rock-climbing courses near a local waterfall.
Asked about his future prospects, Zhan expresses cautious optimism. “There are 20 leisure farms in this area already; hopefully, the number will grow to 100,” he says. “If the Ministry of Education would eventually sponsor school field trips to the area, we’d receive quite a boost.”
Zhan believes that unlike many other Taiwanese farmers, he might be able to one day pass on his farm to his son. “After graduation, he merely worked three days elsewhere. Then, he couldn’t stand it any longer and was back at the farm,” Zhan recalls with an approving smile.
Only a few kilometers from Zhan’s farm stands a facility that makes good use of much of the fruit that is neither picked by tourists nor sold on the Internet. There, in a rustic red brick building on the side of a serpentine mountain road, farmer Wu Jian-wang (巫建旺) and a group of partners operate the Sweet Charm Farm Winery. Inside the winery, in barrels and boilers standing as high as a person, pears, mandarins, persimmons, star fruit, plums and rice are made into liquor and fruit wine. On the second floor, the cuisine of the Hakka, a prevalent ethnic minority group in the area, is served to a stream of constantly arriving tour groups, while in a little boutique next to the building, Sweet Charm’s wines and liquors can be tasted and bought.
In an unusual twist, it was the very development that disrupted operations for many of Taiwan’s farmers that helped Wu and his friends a good deal. “Until Taiwan became a WTO member, the state held a monopoly on alcohol production; but under the terms of the new WTO regulations, the government had to liberalize the market,” he says. “That’s why we could begin making liquors in the first place.” Wu, who says his winery is still learning to produce wine and liquor by trial and error, produces 10,000 to 20,000 liters annually. All of Sweet Charm’s products are sold on-site, as distribution of alcohol through the Internet remains prohibited.
The shift toward leisure farming in Taiwan’s rural communities reflects the challenges faced by the country’s agriculture sector, whether traditional or leisure-oriented. Although the sector still employs as much as 9 percent of Taiwan’s population, it produces merely1.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to Tsai Lung-ming (蔡龍銘), a professor in the Department of Tourism Management at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. This disproportionate relationship between labor and production almost inevitably means that farmers’ incomes remain relatively low, and that many must rely on odd jobs and annuities to make ends meet. That the average age of farmers in Taiwan is about twice as high as that of people working in other professions shows the young have been turning their backs on farming communities, leaving older farmers behind to tend the fields.
Some observers also remain skeptical about the benefits of agricultural tourism. Tsai, for example, believes that although the development of leisure farming might improve the situation in rural communities somewhat, it can hardly be seen as a silver bullet. “As there already are 145 officially recognized agricultural leisure areas in Taiwan’s 21 counties and municipalities, the market is saturated unless we manage to attract tourists from overseas,” he says. “Statistics show that there annually are 9 million individual trips to those villages, but the money spent there accounts for only 1.7 percent of the total revenue of Taiwan’s farm sector. This means leisure farming alone obviously cannot generate enough income for those areas.”
Tsai goes on to point out that farmers need more than just government financial assistance to successfully tap the tourism market. “Taiwanese leisure farms still lack uniqueness,” he says. “This is because the villagers invest blindly and often simply copy one another.”
While such doubts persist, Taichung has remained focused on improving its rural areas since the redrawing of some of Taiwan’s local government boundaries in late 2010, when the new Taichung City became one of Taiwan’s five special municipalities following the merger of the old Taichung City and Taichung County. The resulting administrative region features the Taiwan Strait in the west, mountains that reach 3,000 meters high in the east and a sparkling metropolis in between.
A Share of the Cake
Taichung City Deputy Mayor Eric Shyu (徐中雄) is particularly bullish about the new special municipality’s efforts to improve facilities in rural areas. “The central government provides a NT$150 billion (US$5 billion) budget for a five-year revival program for the Taiwanese countryside. Before the administrative merger, the old Taichung County failed to apply for a share of the cake,” he says, adding that since he became involved in the local program, six proposals have been approved by the central government.
Under the rural revival program, Shyu says that villagers can submit basic proposals for the improvement of public facilities in their communities. The municipality will then help by commissioning scholars to review the proposals, frame them and pass them on to the central government for final approval. Budgets for individual projects can reach roughly NT$5 million (US$167,000) each. Area leisure farms benefit from the projects because in addition to improving living conditions for locals, the improvements make communities more attractive to tourists.
Back at her farm at Taichung Harbor, Annie Lee picks a leaf from the sturdy hedge that protects not only her cabbages, but also an ecosystem, as environmentalist Bruno Walther points out. She is showing the day’s second group of visitors—this time, mainly comprising reporters—around the farm. In the blink of an eye, she folds the leaf into a little but elaborate cap and places it on the tip of a somewhat dumbfounded journalist’s pen.
“These leaves also make wraps for our rice cakes,” Lee says. “On the farm, there’s just always something for you city people to learn.”