The Rejuvenation of Farmland in Taiwan
According to an investigation announced by the Council of Agriculture of Taiwan, the population of farmers between 15 and 34 years old decreased 30% from 1999 to 2006. However, it grew more than 10% from 2006 to 2013. There are two important observations resulting from this investigation. The first is that there was a rapidly decreasing rate of population of farmers; the second is the significant increase in population of farmers afterward. This increase is counter-intuitive because for a post-developing country like Taiwan, it’s natural that more and more people would leave farmlands in the countryside to find jobs in the cities in industry or in the service sector. The causes behind these phenomena result from the transition of domestic agricultural policies and changes in the socio-economic environment in recent decades.
The policy for agricultural development in Taiwan from the early to mid 20th century was focused on promoting the production yield as much as possible to obtain plentiful profit and feed large amounts of new immigrants from mainland China. Techniques such as modern irrigation, mechanization, crop improvement increased the yield from 382 kg / acre to 1441 kg / acre. Farmland reform such as “Land to the tiller”, “Sale of public farmlands” untied the tenant-farmer (the majority of farmers) from landlords and indirectly spurred more people to farm and work harder. In the 1970s, the export of agricultural products (rice, fruit, and tea) brought up to $200 million USD foreign exchange annually which supported the industrial development and advanced economic growth. However, the fast-growing economy drove the price level up and made the production cost rise in the 1980s. Taiwan’s agricultural production became less competitive compared to that of China, India and southeastern Asia (Thailand, Vietnam). The government had to budget subsidies to protect farmers from being bankrupt. Long-term over-production not only created big deficits in the National Food Stabilization Fund, but required the government as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to gradually decrease the subsidies to agriculture.
On the other hand, the government started to advocate transformation from production-oriented agriculture to recreation-oriented and high-economic-value-oriented agriculture. However these strategies did not help much because the average area of farmland per farmer is too low to build up recreational ranches for most farmers. Also, the transfer to high-economic-value crops such as flowers or herbs needs a lot of supporting measures from specialists and large amount of funds. High thresholds made transformation a poor solution for everyone. The next choice was to let the land lay fallow.
For every acre of fallow farmland, the farmer could receive $1,214 USD per year in reimbursement even if they didn’t plant anything. It was not surprising that the fallow area rose to about four times higher from 1997 to 2004 and the total reimbursement rose around 3.75 times from 1997 to 2004. Moreover, the food self-sufficiency of Taiwan decreased from 85% to 35% from 1984 to 2012. An apparent shortcoming of low food self-sufficiency is that the food price and supply would easily fluctuate with and be controlled by the international food market. The long-term fallow farmland also became a bed for bad insects and cost a lot to recover to cultivable condition. The wide area of fallow farmland also became targets of many construction companies. As a result, more and more dissatisfied people tried to push the government to develop plans to invigorate the agriculture and farmlands.
The transition came in the middle of the 2000s.
According to recent data from the Council of Agriculture, the population of farmers between 15 and 34 years old has grown since 2007 (greater than 10% growth in 2014 compared with 2007). Also, the cultivation area of organic crops has increased in consecutive years since 2007. For example, the cultivation area of organic rice increased from 0.1% to 0.3% of the total cultivation area of rice. The main reasons behind this growth are the new policy of agricultural incentives, food safety, and global financial crisis.
With the old policy of reimbursement, fallow farmland can earn $607 per acre per crop season (in general there are two crop seasons per year in Taiwan), however, the new policy gives $607 per acre for only one crop season and an extra $407 per acre for cultivating farmland in the second crop season. Also, the government provides interest-free loans, farming equipment grants, and disaster-relief assistance for tenant farmers. The new policy plans to gradually activate fallow farmland and recruit more manpower to farming.
The second reason for agricultural rejuvenation involves food safety. Since the early 2000s, unhealthy (and in many cases, fake) food additives and food contamination (pesticides and chemical fertilizers) were frequently reported by public media. People became more wary of big food companies and of the whole food supply chain. Therefore organic farming is more prevalent in the market than at any other prior time. At the same time, a manufacturing recession and the financial crisis created stagflation which drove more people out of manufacturing and the service industry and into agriculture to find their new business. These three different phenomena converged in the middle of the 2000s and the net effect became a powerful pull force for the rejuvenation of agriculture.
Although organic farming has developed and been continuously prosperous, there are still some difficulties on the road ahead. For example, there are 11 accredited certifying agents in Taiwan so far. However, not all of them are financially sustainable and not all of them are qualified to be a certifying agent every year. If the population of organic farmers reaches a certain scale, then these certifying agents can live off their business. In addition, for a new farmer looking for a certification of organic farming, the first few transitional years (from non-organic farming to organic farming) will be hard to survive.