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

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:

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.

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.

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.

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