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

(Page 2 of 2)

By the late 1970s, the government began to organize small groups of highly individualistic farmers into ''joint farming,'' to achieve economies of scale and cut production costs.

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In Chen's village, about 20 farming families were asked in 1981 to form such a loose organization, making agreements on sharing equipment and contracting labor for their 40 acres of rice paddy. Chen was given the task of running a seed nursery for other farmers.

This effectively assembled tiny plots into larger farms - with the farmers retaining individual ownership of land - and justified investment in equipment.

Last year Chen took in $10,000 in profit, much to his surprise. his modest, one-story house now sports a Sanyo washer, a Sony color television, and a Honda motorcycle. And he has been able to buy four more acres. He plans to set up a carp-harvesting pond soon.

One-third of the farmers in his village have left for city jobs, and he estimates that the new mechanization would allow another third to leave. This new farming-by-contract, ironically, has been mirrored on the mainland (with 50 times Taiwan's 18 million population). Last year the communist government initiated a ''responsibility'' system in the communes, allowing farmers to grow and sell their own crops once they had met a government production quota.

''Mainland China is a big joint farm - but not on a commercial basis,'' sys Chang Hsien-tsie, chairman of Taiwan's Council for Agricultural Planning and Development. ''It is going back to the incentive system.''

Taiwan also tried to set up full-fledged cooperatives, in which farmers actually turn over their land to an elected farm manager and the entire crop is shared. Though these are more efficient, government agricultural bureaucrats prefer joint farming. Only 41 full co-ops have been set up.

With Taiwan's rapid industrialization, agriculture's share of the economy has dropped to 7.5 percent, with 92 percent of the farmers only farming part time, and a major part of their income coming from nonfarming sources, usually children working in factories.

To keep rural incomes high, the government began subsidizing rice prices in 1974, a practice most Asian nations find difficult to stop once begun. It is hoped that joint farming can help cut production costs enough to reduce the amount of government money going to farmers. Still, only about 10 percent of farms are under joint farming now, with a goal of 20 percent by 1985, according to Chang Hsien-tsie.

To prevent farm plots from getting any smaller, the government has proposed a law that would allow only one son to inherit land, rather than let it be split among many sons.

Slowly easing more farmers off their fields and into industrial and service jobs means Taiwan will become increasingly dependent on food imports. During the 1970s, for instance, feed-grain imports shot up an average 22 percent a year. With increasing diplomatic isolation, says Mr. Chang, ''We are a sitting duck'' for possible food cutoffs. Attempts to diversify agriculture have not succeeded in weaning farmers away from doing what they know best: growing rice.