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Power to the joint farm: Taiwan's tillers find strength in numbers

By Clayton JonesStaff Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 1983

Jenshan, Taiwan

Even though rice farmer Chen Chin-cheng lives on Taiwan, the slogans on the wall of his farmhouse would be fitting - ironically - for a commune on mainland China:

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It saves labor if you join joint farming.

It saves trouble to join organized farmers.

The slogans are a symbol of the latest ripple across the rice paddies of several Asian nations: organizing farmers into various forms of cooperatives.

Having reached commanding heights of production, the two-decade-old Green Revolution is in a stall. New hybrid rice seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation have created an emerging surplus of rice in Asia, leaving many governments stuck with expensive subsidy programs.

On Taiwan, considered the brightest star in Asia's Green Revolution, these second-generation agricultural problems are watched closely by other largely rural, less advanced Asian nations, such as Malaysia or Indonesia, which may face similar problems in years ahead. Taiwan's attempt to solve the new problems is considered a step ahead of Japan, which still heavily subsidizes its small, inefficient farms.

The story of Chen Chin-cheng illustrates Taiwan's new approach. Born on Taiwan, like his forebears before him, this octogenarian was a poor tenant farmer when the Kuomintang Nationalists took over the island in the late 1940s after leaving the mainland. The Japanese, which had colonized the island for half a century before, set the stage for government control of agriculture on this crowded island state, where only one-fourth of the land is arable. But it was massive land reform under Chiang Kai-shek in the 1950s, virtually eliminating the problem of landless farmers, which launched the island into a new economic orbit.

With few entrenched political ties to the few native Taiwanese landowners, the mainlander rulers easily distributed small plots to tenants such as Chen, who gained two acres of rice paddy of his own. Harvests, naturally, rose. And the government effectively taxed the new wealth with a rice-fertilizer barter plan, using the money to invest in new industries. Farm surplus thus helped finance Taiwan's development into an exporter of manufactured goods.

Three of Chen's four sons left to take jobs in mining, lumber, and photography; the fourth stayed on the farm. When the government tried to entice Chen to increase his yield by buying a power tiller and other machines, it found a new problem: Chen and most other farmers owned only two acres or less, too little to justify the cost of mechanization.

''It was still hand to mouth for me,'' he says.

Land reform had worked too well. Plots were too small. And with several sons inheriting one farm, plots were getting even smaller. Attempts to have farmers buy out land from each other have all but failed: Their Confucian heritage makes the Chinese, expecially older ones, feel shame in selling the land of their ancestors.

Chen, in fact, keeps a small shrine of incense and flowers in memory of his father in the middle of his house (along with a picture of the Chinese goddess of mercy). ''I would never sell my father's farm,'' he says.