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More people going into farming as economic recession bites

(Photos available) By Y.L. Kao CNA staff writer While many people will put off buying consumer goods in a bad economy, they still need food, and with this in mind, more and more Taiwanese people are gravitating toward farming as Taiwan's economy continues to slide and unemployment rises.
An increasing number of Taiwanese have shown interest in recent months in the Council of Agriculture's (COA) program Wandervogel, which is aimed at injecting new life into the aging agricultural work force and encouraging young people to go into farming, according to the COA.
Although registration for this year's Wandervogel classes has yet to begin, the COA has received nearly twice as many telephone inquiries about the program in recent months compared to the same period last year, said Ni Pao-jen, an official in charge of the program.
"You don't make as much as many others do, but working on the farm offers a stable income against such a bleak economic environment , " said Ni. "That is definitely a contributing factor to the program's popularity." Many of the people interested in signing up for the program are also lured by the attraction of living a simple, idyllic life on the farm, officials said.
As an example, Ni cited a message posted on a COA website by a self-claimed "poor engineer" who wanted to sign up for the program.
In the message, the engineer said: "I have been asked to take unpaid leave recently, making me worry about what my future holds. I would rather be back in nature." Since the program was launched three years ago to provide hands-on farming experience for people 18 to 35 years of age, 3,856 people have attended the camps, 1,136 of whom have advanced to the training phase, and 448 have gone on to work in the field, according to a recently released COA report.
While there are no statistics on how many of the program's participants are unemployed, experts said that agriculture can act as a safety net and a stabilizer when the economy is in dire straits.
"Everybody has to eat, the agricultural sector has historically been largely recession-proof and it can provide good returns if you are earnest in your undertaking, " Lee Su-jen, an associate professor at Taipei Municipal University of Education, told the Central News Agency in a recent interview.
Due to the growing interest, the COA plans to hold more than 50 camps this year to help another 1,000 people get a taste of making a living from farming.
Trainees usually first attend a three-day camp to experience life on a farm, then they are trained in practical farming techniques before deciding whether they want to go into the field.
Those who opt to make the transition are provided with guidance and other support services by the COA.
As much as agriculture may serve as a buffer for the unemployed, the program has also been a haven for the highly educated. Around 80 percent of the 448 people who have gone into agriculture after graduating from the COA's program, such as 27-year-old Hsieh Hau-cheng, hold a university or college degree.
A year ago, Hsieh was working as a highly paid information technology engineer, earning an annual salary of NT$1 million, but he quit his job because of work overload.
After Hsieh joined the program, he spent one year in preparation and then invested NT$4 million in a strawberry farm in Taoyuan County.
By late last year, Hsieh's strawberry farm was generating an average NT$100,000 per month, to the envy of his former colleagues in the IT sector, most of whom have been forced to take unpaid leave by their companies in the rough economic climate.
Hsieh's success was not entirely a surprise, as young people who specialize in information technology seem to have a better chance of success in the agricultural sector, according to Chiu Chun-lien, head of a promotion department in the Hualien City Farmers' Association.
"This is because they are keen on experimenting, and are therefore interested in developing new methods to reduce the use of insecticides and fertilizers without compromising crop quality, finding more innovative approaches to sales and marketing, and applying the creative use of computer technology to farming, " Chiu said.
Others are entering farming without going through the COA's program.
Lee Tien-cheng, 55, who worked as a tour guide for more than 20 years and has traveled to more than 80 countries, gave up his job three years ago and turned his attention to farming in the 1,952-meter high mountain area of northern Taiwan's Jianshih township, Hsinchu County.
"Previously, my monthly salary was about NT$100,000; now I need only about NT$5,000 a month to meet my needs, " said Lee, who grows rapeseed sprouts.
"I am not at all attached to the urban life, " he said in a telephone interview with the CNA.
To help the many novices succeed, however, training and government guidance are required, experts said.
The government should target jobless people and provide funds to help them get into agriculture, as well as allocate subsidies to schools and military units to purchase agricultural produce, said Lee Su-jen, the associate professor.
She also stressed the importance of promoting organic farming, not only as a way to create jobs, but as a means of preventing water pollution and conserving water and soil on farms.
Lee's proposal, which was publicized in the China Times recently, triggered wide debate on how the government should implement and manage such a program, with some people opposing the idea entirely.
Lin Yi-jung, a former high-tech sector professional who moved into farming two years ago, told the CNA that given the current oversupply of almost all locally-grown fruits and vegetables, he would not encourage unemployed people to go into farming, unless the government cuts back on agricultural imports.
Before recruiting people into the agricultural realm, the government also should first determine what they should grow and how, said Wu Tung-jye, chairman of the Green Formosa Front, a grassroots civic group dedicated to environmental protection.
The government should also encourage people to find a niche market and help them address matters such as marketing, packaging, transportation and distribution. It should also approach the program from the wider perspective of overall agricultural reform, Wu and others said.
Regardless of the challenges, the trend toward more people venturing into farming appears to be strong, scholars and other experts said.
Shaw Jei-fu, president of National Chung Hsing University, which began as an agricultural college 90 years ago, expressed optimism at a campus job fair this month that graduates from its College of Agriculture this June would not have problems landing jobs, while heads of many other universities voiced concerns that their graduates will be affected in some way by the worst economic slump in decades.
"Once-sliding agriculture could be mounting a comeback, " Shaw predicted.

Updated : 2021-04-20 05:36 GMT+08:00