Aging Farmers: High-Tech Island

An 87 year-old farmer operates a drone as a bird-scare
An 87 year-old farmer in Changhua County operates a drone to scare birds out of a millet field. Photo: 二林舊社「田龜計畫 Facebook Group.

While Taiwan, like many other developed nations, is facing the problem of an aging population, the crisis in the agricultural sector is particularly acute. The average age of farmers in Taiwan is 62, and 31% are over 65.

Four years ago, Zhongshan University Department of Information Management Professor Huang Qingxiang retired to his hometown, Erlin, in Changhua County, where he has been promoting organic agricultural production, and helping local farmers to utilize new technology.

At this time of year, when the rice and millet is almost ready to harvest, the “Great War” between farmers and birds ensues. This year, farmers in Erlin are employing a new high-tech weapon to chase sparrows out of rice and millet fields – the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

The aging of the agricultural workforce in Taiwan is considered to be an impediment to innovation and modernization of agricultural production on an island that is only around 32% self-sufficient on a calorie basis. The average farm is only 1 hectare in size and doesn’t produce enough income to sustain a family. Young people have chosen to reject the life of a farmer to pursue more lucrative jobs in the city.

Before 1953, big landowners leased small plots of land to tenant farmers who struggled to make a living. It was the era of big landowner, small tenants. In 1953, the government instituted land reform that allowed tenant farmers to buy their own plots, leading to an era of small landowner farmers. In 2009, the government began a new reform movement – small landowners, big tenants. Under this system, modern agricultural enterprises are encouraged to lease small plots of land owned by older farmers, and to combine them into larger farms that can mechanize and achieve economies of scale. It is hoped this system can provide an income for the elderly farmers and a profitable model for agricultural development.

Enterprises leasing the land are also encouraged to employ the landowner-farmers on a full, or part-time basis. Ideally, this would lead to three income streams for the farmer – rent for the land, paid employment, and the welfare benefits the government has established for older farmers.

There’s a particular beauty in Taiwan’s small farm agriculture, that includes the sight of independent farmers, wearing their traditional hats woven from straw and bamboo leaves, working in muddy fields, while scarecrows made of rice-stalks from the previous harvest, clothed in garments worn threadbare by the labor of their masters stand guard, and political banners from the last election find a new purpose as flappers-in-the-wind to scare the birds.

It’s a sight to be treasured evermore, if the policy of small-landowner, big tenant, has its way.

A drone employed as a bird-scare hovers over a millet field in Changua County
A drone operated by an 87 year-old farmer hovers over a millet field in Changhua County, resembling a bird of prey. Photo: 二林舊社「田龜計畫 Facebook Group.

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