2019 / 10月
—Three Women Make Their Mark in Agriculture
Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
Jennifer Hsiung, Yang Jia-cih and Su Siou-lian are women. They are women farmers. They are women farmers who use smart technology. Jennifer Hsiung uses technology to make innovations in agricultural production and management. Yang Jia-cih is taking on the challenges posed to farming by climate change. Su Siou-lian has broken through the barriers of tradition, a remote location, gender, and ethnicity to found an eco-friendly organic farm that generates inclusivity and sustainable development. These three fit right into the goals that have been promoted for many years by the Asia‡Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), of promoting innovative gendered approaches in smart agriculture, and harnessing opportunities for inclusiveness.
According to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, women account for 49.5% of the agricultural workforce in East and Southeast Asia (excluding Japan). Women farmers can become important engines for economic growth and overcoming poverty. However, in the past women’s contributions to agriculture have often been ignored.
Wu Hsiu-chen, director-general of the Executive Yuan’s Department of Gender Equality, notes that in order to enable women to become an important force for economic development, “the 2016 Declaration of the 24th APEC Economic Leaders Meeting urged members to facilitate women’s and girls’ access to science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM] education. In 2019 APEC went a step further, encouraging women to participate in the use of smart technology in agriculture, which can not only reduce the burden of labor on women farmers but also increase agricultural production, creating inclusive and sustainable growth.”
Jennifer Hsiung, Yang Jia-cih, and Su Siou-lian—these three hi-tech women farmers who are challenging professional gender barriers and are shining in the field of agriculture—fit right in with the model called for by APEC in 2019.
✦The hi-tech cornfields of Xiluo
Amid the heat and intense sunshine of the cornfields of Yunlin County’s Xiluo Township we find Jennifer Hsiung, president of Great Agri Technology Company. Dressed simply and wearing sneakers, she fearlessly braves the sunlight and ultraviolet rays. Sometimes, she is animatedly greeting the field workers who are doing the harvesting, and sometimes she is off to the side of the fields discussing market prices with the farmers who grow corn for her under contract.
Commercializing agricultural produce
It’s hard to imagine that when she founded Great Agri five years ago, Hsiung—who wears suits and high heels and is known as “the fashion lady in the fields”—was cold-shouldered by farmers. Today, Great Agri has more than 100 corn farmers contracted to it, growing more than 800 million ears of corn per year on over 500 hectares of land. It is the largest supplier of corn for human consumption in all of Taiwan.
Formerly a financial manager at JP Morgan and HSBC, in 2013 Hsiung faced a midlife unemployment crisis when HSBC announced it was closing its asset management division in Taiwan. “I told people I was retiring, but in fact I got laid off,” she says.
She tried going to Cambodia to manage a shoe factory, but this job was too far out of her comfort zone. However, later she happened to eat a sweet and juicy ear of sweetcorn, which not only tasted heavenly, but also sparked the idea for a business opportunity for her.
New management model
Although the family of her husband, Kevin Chen, are wholesalers in the Xiluo fruit and vegetable market, Hsiung abandoned the traditional channel of selling produce by auction to wholesalers. She took an innovative approach, creating a production chain that encompassed crop production, processing, and marketing, thus transforming corn, baby corn, and other products into consumer goods.
In order to sell directly into supermarkets and other distribution channels, and to provide a reliable and safe supply of goods, Great Agri applied for certification to use the “Traceable Agricultural Product” label right from the start. At that time there had been a number of food safety scandals, so TAP-certified produce became coveted by sales channels. This enabled Great Agri corn to dominate the shelves of outlets like PX Mart and Costco within just two years.
Treating corn like a financial product
Hsiung gets the farmers who jokingly called her the “fashion lady” to willingly sell their corn to her, and she brings to bear the skills and knowledge she accumulated over 18 years in financial management.
Mobilizing her feminine warmth and kindness, Hsiung treats hardworking farmers like company employees, inviting them to Mid-Autumn Festival barbeques and on company trips to build loyalty. She also gets polo-shirt uniforms made for them, touching their hearts. But what really motivates the farmers is that she guarantees to buy their corn at 10‡20% above the market price, so they are happy to supply corn of dependable quality in reliable quantities.
Great Agri has also worked with the Corporate Synergy Development Center, which guides enterprises through industrial transformation, to create an “agritech cloud.” Through weather stations installed in fields, conditions such as soil quality, water quality, moisture, acidity, pesticide concentration, and sunshine can be monitored. Using big data, the system can calculate the best time for spraying pesticides and the best date for harvesting, and through a management app, it can increase harvest efficiency and ensure the safe use of pesticides.
Having changed careers in middle age, Jennifer Hsiung says: “Being with these down-to-earth farmers every day really makes me happy.”
✦A seed nursery in Zhongpu
Inside a greenhouse at a seed nursery in Chiayi County’s Zhongpu Township, the cool of autumn brings no relief whatsoever. In the hot and stuffy greenhouse, Yang Jia-cih, CEO of Telome Seedlings Company, is entirely wrapped up in clothing, leaving only her eyes visible, as she plucks away old leaves, applies pesticide, and quarantines sick plants. She sticks at her task for eight solid hours.
As climate change accelerates, plants are increasingly seriously affected by pests and diseases. Yang and her team inoculate banana and strawberry seedlings so that the resulting plants will be more resistant to climate change, pests and pathogens.
Disease-resistant seedlings supplied by Telome have been purchased by specialist banana farmers who supply Costco and 7-Eleven. Currently sales volume is about 120,000 plants per year, and they are used on more than 100 hectares of banana plantations. To meet the increasing number of orders Telome is getting, “PhD farmer” Yang Jia-cih has decided to make an additional investment of some NT$10 million to expand her company’s operations in Zhongpu.
Starting from scratch
Yang, who gained her doctorate at the Graduate Institute of Biotechnology at National Chung Hsing University in 2013, was just in time for the “From IP to IPO” program launched by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The program aims to encourage the commercial application of scientific research. Yang, together with her schoolmate Chang Kung-hao and another partner, amassed NT$3 million in capital to found Telome Seedlings Company and breed disease-resistant seedlings.
Thanks to technology transfer based on many years of field research into the prevention of Panama disease (Fusarium wilt) in bananas by professors at Chung Hsing such as Huang Chieh-chen, Telome turns beneficial bacterial strains into plant vaccines, which they inject into seedlings produced by asexual propagation. Just as a human baby benefits from inoculations against illnesses, the vaccines increase the resistance of plants to pests and diseases in the environment.
Because word of mouth between farmers is the best form of marketing, Yang, who has a keen eye for plants’ condition and for damage cause by pests and diseases, personally visits banana plantations large and small to diagnose problems and give advice. She gives consultations on the most effective use of chemicals for disease control, and answers farmers’ questions via messaging app, on everything from damage caused by excess fertilizer use to how to cope with flooding in the fields. Through this attentive and diligent service Telome has built up a sterling reputation, and has even received orders from offshore islands including Kinmen and the Penghu Islands.
✦An organic farm in Guangfu
Su Siou-lian, who stands less than 150 centimeters tall, started out with no farming experience at all. But in 2002 she began learning farming from scratch in the Fata’an indigenous community (Chinese name Matai’an) in Hualien County’s Guangfu Township.
From the beginning, she started with organic vegetable farming, which has high costs and low production volumes. She raised her own seedlings, refused to use chemical fertilizers or herbicides, and cultivated rich and fertile soil. Nature has repaid her care, and her farm has expanded from 0.3 hectares to 14.9 hectares today. It can produce at least 5000 kilograms of vegetables and 7000 kilos of rice and other grains annually, and has become a supplier of vegetables to supermarkets like PX Mart.
Being herself despite discrimination
After Typhoon Toraji ravaged mountain indigenous communities in 2001, in 2002 Su Siou-lian, who had always worked odd jobs, joined the “Ma-Tang Collective Organic Farm,” organized by the local church, in order to restore the land damaged by the typhoon and to learn how to farm. (In the Amis language, ma-tang means “to begin cultivating anew.”)
In 2004 she joined a program offered by World Vision Taiwan to teach indigenous women job skills. Many of the trainees only attended because there were subsidies, and when the subsidies ended they just idly stayed at home. Only Su stuck with the program from start to finish.
In 2009 she returned to Guangfu Township, where she leased 0.3 hectares of land, launching the Pangcah Organic Farm by growing sweet potato leaves, pumpkins, and green beans.
Returning to her community as a divorced woman, local people scorned Su to her face: “You’re an indigenous person and a woman—you won’t make it on your own! Women should be subordinate to their husbands and families. You plant vegetables but don’t spray pesticides—you’ll never succeed!” At the time Su thought to herself: “It’s not up to you all to decide what I want to do.” Unafraid of what people were saying, she resolutely continued to pursue organic cultivation.
Setting cultivation plans
Unlike most farmers, Su does not focus on growing those vegetables that command the best market price. No matter how high the price of cabbage gets at any given time, she continues to set her own cultivation plans based on the growing seasons of different vegetables.
However, seedling firms were unable or unwilling to supply the seedlings she needed. After finding no sellers a few times, she finally decided to grow her own seedlings. It took her three years to be able to do this successfully.
Today, Su has systematized standard operating procedures for growing seedlings, and she makes her knowhow freely available on request. “Because I experienced so many failures, having been there myself I hope that this free information can help people who, like me, don’t have much money,” says Su.
Because she grows her seedlings and cultivates her crops according to a plan, she can provide a dependable supply to buyers. When you also consider that her farm has organic certification, it is no surprise that when she joined a program for small farmers to deliver directly to PX Mart supermarkets, Pangcah Organic Farm was able to expand from selling to three stores to taking orders from 20.
“Where there is land there is work.” The dedicated efforts of Su Siou-lian are a real-life version of the saying “the spring wind can call the earth back to life, hard work can produce abundant harvests.”