Empty rice bowls stir some changes down on the farm

In his 30 years of farming, Tsai Hong-chin has faced all kinds of government agricultural programs. Some were a boon, others a bane.

When he began tilling his three-acre plot, Taiwan was not only self-sufficient in food but a net exporter. Today, however, this fertile island doesn't produce enough rice, vegetables, and other goods to feed its people.

A rural reform program is now under way to try to improve conditions down on the farm and boost food output.

The island's land is rich enough to support one of the world's highest rates of multiple cropping -- two rice harvests a year, plus two more vegetable or grain crops.

In the peak years of the 1950s and '60s, 35 percent of the gross domestic product and more than 50 percent of exports were provided by the rural sector. But the government of the day had visions of an industrialized society, taking advantage of abundant cheap labor. To raise the cash, the farming sector had to be sucked dry.

A stable but low purchase price policy was introduced. Tsai Hong-chin's rice was bought by the government at 25 to 30 percent below the market rate. Burdensome land taxes were imposed. Government-controlled fertilizer companies were netting big profits on sales to poor farmers.

But despite every discouragement, annual growth of around 5 percent was maintained in agriculture until 1968, when the screws were finally seen to have been turned just too tight. From 1968 to 1972, production grew less than 3 percent a year, falling behind population growth. Taiwan found itself being forced to import more than 15 percent of the food it needed each year.

''We finally had to start propping up the rural sector,'' recalls Wu Tong-chuang, deputy director of economics and planning for the governmental Council for Agricultural Planning and Development.

''The original labor surplus in the rural sector disappeared. The island is mostly mountains, and cultivable land is limited. There was no way it could be significantly increased, so further productivity gains were only possible through capital investment and new technology.

''In addition, farmers became discouraged by low profits, and found it more attractive to take factory jobs for at least part of the year. Today, two-thirds of a rural family's income is from nonagricultural sources.''

So Mr. Tsai, the farmer, suddenly found himself coddled by the government. In fiscal 1982 the government has committed a total of $210 million to agricultural development, to be virtually matched by provincial and local governments.

There has also been a turnaround in the pricing policy. The official rice price, for example, is now 30 percent over market levels. Sugar cane and tobacco have guaranteed prices, and other crops mainly for export are covered by a ''contract price'' negotiated by farmers' representatives, exporters, manufacturers, and the government.

Government thinking now is strongly in favor of agricultural reform to revitalize the land and the people who till it. Mr. Wu, the agricultural planner , defines the major tasks:

* The current average farm of 2.6 acres is too small to be economical. Thus, farmers are being encouraged to operate together, while holding on to their individual land rights. This also makes mechanization of farming easier, and could free some family members to take jobs in industry, since there are many factories in the rural areas.

* Amalgamation of land holdings into more economic units is being encouraged. Farmers with very small holdings are being encouraged to sell out and move into the cities. Those remaining are being offered long-term, low-interest government loans to buy up the vacated land. But Mr. Wu says results have not been satisfactory. ''Farmers are reluctant to sell. They want to keep the land as an asset even though they move to cities.''

Farmer Tsai agrees that life is getting much better with the official change of heart about agriculture. He can now buy fertilizer at much cheaper prices. A new economic and social welfare program for rural areas has brought drastic improvements in irrigation and drainage, as well as better road access to market. Funds are now available to make it easier to mechanize work in the fields.

And Mr. Tsai can take his pigs to a new livestock market at Fengshan, which is linked to a nationwide computer system offering ''real time'' market information. Meanwhile, scientists in government research institutions are regularly producing improved varieties of grains, fruits, and vegetables that drastically increase crop yields and put more money in farmers' pockets.

''Our aim,'' says Mr. Wu, ''is to maintain a reasonable annual growth rate of about 2.5 percent, just ahead of the population increase.''

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