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

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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.


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