Taiwan transition: From city life to the countryside

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Media captionWatch: Why Taiwan's younger generation is moving out of the city

For decades, Taiwan has focused on developing its high-tech and manufacturing industries, resulting in a population migration from the rural areas to the cities.

But now the island is seeing a reversal. An increasing number of people, including young professionals, have turned to farming for a career change.

They are choosing to do what their grandparents and parents had hoped they wouldn't have to do - toil on the land.

The Taiwanese government is driving this trend, due to worries about the island's ability to grow the food it consumes.

Taiwan's food self-sufficiency ratio - the percentage of food it consumes which it also produces - has dropped from 56% in 1984 to 33% currently.

That is lower than neighbouring countries such as Japan and South Korea, whose ratios are around 40%.

"What we are producing is not enough for us to eat, so the land is wasted," says Chang Chih-Sheng, a director at the farmers' services department for Taiwan's Council of Agriculture.

"That's why we are encouraging people to be farmers."

Training The talent

The government wants to raise its food self-sufficiency to 40% by 2020.

Image caption Wayne Chen, a former microchip engineer, changed to farming in his 30s

But the number of farmers in Taiwan are dwindling and the farming community mainly comprises an ageing group, where the average age is 57 years old.

The government says not enough young people are entering the field.

And unlike neighbours such as Japan, Taiwan does not want to rely on imported farm labour; it wants farming skills to be passed on to the younger generation.

Since 2009, the agriculture council has been offering highly-subsidised courses for beginners.

For about $150 (£96) in tuition fees and another $100 (£64) in room and board, students can live on a government-run training farm for a month and learn about seed germination and planting different kinds of vegetables, as well as irrigation and how to protect the crops from being infested by insects.

Varied backgrounds

Thousands of people have taken the classes. Many of them are college or post-graduate degree holders under the age of 45, with the average age becoming younger.

They come from many fields, including engineering, science, teaching, accounting, and business. A majority of these students go on to start their own farming ventures, or work on their family's farm.

One of them is 38-year-old Wayne Chen, a former microchip engineer.

Despite a lack of experience, he quit his high-paying job as a manager at a high-tech company and invested more than $266,000 (£171,000) to set up an organic fruit and vegetable farm, growing tomatoes and strawberries.

"Some of my colleagues thought I was impulsive, but then they started buying my tomatoes and helping out in my farm. I was fulfilling their dream," says Mr Chen.

So far he is making just enough to cover his costs and repay loans, but he thinks it's worth it.

"The older generation wants us to make lots of money and they think if you make money, you've succeeded. But I thought, is that really success?"

Mr Chen decided he should be doing something he would really enjoy when he turned 30.

"So I chose farming because it allows me to be in nature and makes me happy," he says.

Improved status

Attitudes toward farming are changing in Taiwan. In the past, it was looked down upon as menial labour.

Image caption Sally Chen and her husband invested $100,000 into the family farm

But recent food safety scandals, growing consciousness about health, and increasing wealth - which allows people to pursue their hobbies - have led to many people trying their hand at farming, either as a hobby or profession.

Sally Chen, aged 40, taught pre-school children for more than 10 years before quitting her job as a nursery teacher two years ago to learn to farm.

"My husband and I are farmers' grandchildren, but we didn't farm," says Ms Chen.

"We were encouraged to open a business or work in office jobs, but now we've invested $100,000 (£64,000) in his family's farm and are growing organic vegetables, carrots, radish and tomatoes."

They have yet to turn a profit, but she and the other farming students believe that even if they earn the same salary or less than their previous jobs, they are happier.

"In the beginning, my body was not used to it - my back would hurt, but I really like it," she explains.

"Organic farming gives us a balanced ecology. I'm very happy to see butterflies and frogs; it means our land is healthy because we don't use pesticides or fertilizer.

"And we can let our children eat healthy food and see our nature," she adds.

Helping hand

Not every career change to farming has brought success and there are some people who have failed at the venture.

Some have invested tens of thousands of dollars, but have then quit after a year or two, and returned to their old jobs.

But the government is hopeful more people will try their hand at farming, and it is offering them a lot of help.

In addition to the classes, the agriculture council matches students with seasoned farmers who are offering internships. It helps the students find suitable farming land and advises them on ways to turn farming into a money-making business.

The council also offers the students loans at a low-interest, as well as subsidies for for buying equipment.

"Eventually they can earn money by not focusing on quantity as we did in traditional farming, but on quality, and by marketing and selling their products online," says Liu Kuang-Chuan, a teacher at one of the council's farming classes.

The relatively low education level of Taiwan's current population of farmers has meant an insufficient use of new technology and new attitudes in farming, which has hampered the modernization of the agricultural sector.

If the trend of young people going into farming continues, Taiwan could soon have a new generation of highly educated farmers bringing technology and skills to the land, which will help boost the competitiveness of its agricultural sector.

"New farmers coming in with new techniques can increase production - their ability to learn is very high; they are also more willing to invest, compared to the older generation," says Mr Chang, a director at Taiwan's Council of Agriculture.

"Very soon we'll see a very new agricultural situation - a more lively one."

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