by Brian Awehali

Daikon drying in the sun

A while back, I had a great time traveling through all but the southern portion of Taiwan. I’d gone for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), and to do a bit of work trade with a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming)-affiliated farm on the outskirts of Chunan (or Zhunan, depending on your preferred system of romanization).

The farm itself was mostly a disappointment to me. There is no internationally consistent standard for measuring what is and is not organic. Even in the U.S. (granted, no paragon of truth in labeling) the labeling of organics is tricky, often misleading and inconsistent [see an in-depth article from my former magazine, “Organics: Meaningful or Market Niche?“).

Sweltering farmland in Chunan

Seed trays soaked in water and sun

This farm, in Zhunan, in the province of Miaoli, was nestled right up against a major highway flyover, and perhaps one hundred yards from two tall, constantly belching industrial smokestacks. The smokestack exhaust might well have been filtered or non-toxic, but anyone with common sense who’s ever actually lived next to, or looked at land immediately adjacent to large highways, can tell by the sooty residue of automobile exhaust and dust that there’s nothing organic about the ground in these areas.

My host was really more interested in the local promotional opportunities of having travelers all the way from America coming to work on, and promote, his farm. After picking us up in his van and driving like a maniac back to his place (with his un-seatbelted young son in the front, many sharp-pointed tools laying unsecured on the floor), my host spent a good deal of the next ten days pressuring us in various forceful ways to appear on a television interview with him for a local news station where his wife worked, and to be a very public face for a farmer’s market he was trying to launch, on the grounds of a swank mountain restaurant.

I declined, repeatedly, and with less and less patience, explaining that I hadn’t come to WWOOF so I could be paraded around town to impress friends or appear on local television news programs I wouldn’t even understand. After several rounds of requests, I further explained that, by my standards, his farm actually wasn’t organic, and I didn’t want to publicly support it. I’d come, I said again and again, to learn more about farming.

I really didn’t learn all that much about farming from this experience. I got some practical experience in crop rotation and seeding practices, along with some cursory overview of Bokashi composting, all of which I could have actually learned in one afternoon with any number of books.

Our host’s kids, slobbering musically into my harmonica

My host grew less and less pleased with me during my stay. Towards the end I was looking very much forward to, he showed me a crystal-on-a-string “dowsing” technique that he claimed he used to test organic and “healthy” produce — and people. It rotated clockwise (healthy) over his son’s hand, and clockwise over his hand, and even clockwise over my much-more-pliable partner’s hand, but when he suspended it over my hand, with a grave solemnity I actually had a hard time not laughing outright at, the crystal rotated counterclockwise.

When I attempted to engage him about organic farming practices at a level other than divination, and what they meant to him, he was largely inarticulate. He was, I should say, speaking to me in English, not his native Taiwanese or Mandarin, but he was far more articulate when talking about the business upside of organic farming — how much higher the mark-up was on strawberries he shipped to a Taipei jam-maker, for example.

Me, preparing a peanut field

Say what you will about the underlying values and sound health arguments for organics, but for a fair number of farmers and produce distributors and marketers, it also means: “ka-ching!” This is one of the biggest reasons to grow your own food if possible, so that you actually know what soil it grew in, what practices were used, and so you are best able to stay in touch with the undeniable health benefits of eating what’s in season. If you can’t grow your own, then CSA’s and farmer’s markets with vendors who offer farm tours and foster community involvement are also still better than buying your food at any supermarket.

Cows grazed in this softly disintegrating Chunan graveyard

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