When he returned to Taiwan with an American Ph.D. and began teaching agriculture at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Ray Tung never guessed he would go on to establish Taichung's first organic farmer's market. He taught his students as his professors had him ' that agricultural chemicals in the appropriate amounts do no harm.
A student came up after class one day to ask why he wasn't considering that even if applied in safe doses, those chemicals accumulate in the soil, the riverbeds, and even the human body ' until they reach levels where they do cause harm. A farmer may apply herbicide to his orchard only twice a month. But that's 24 times a year. This student was a farmer and invited Ray to come see his organic farm.
It turned out to be a big surprise. Ray saw that organic farming wasn't just about putting no dangerous chemicals in the soil and the water and no poisons in the food supply and the body. It boiled down to an issue of basic integrity: Do we care more about profit or about the health of the environment and the value of human life?
Thus began Ray's decade-long odyssey to the many small-scale organic farms in the mountains and in the countryside all around the city of Taichung in central Taiwan. He got to know the farmers, learned from them, and began buying and using their products. At that time an organic trend was sweeping the agricultural market in North America, Europe, and even, to a lesser extent, Taiwan. Upscale consumers demanded farm products without poisons and large-scale agri-businesses began supplying them to supermarkets.
In Taiwan small-scale organic farmers didn't really benefit from this. Even though their locally-grown produce was superior in freshness and quality to what the big companies delivered to supermarkets, these farmers didn't have the marketing skills or the distribution networks to compete. Ray got a sense that in this he might step in and make a difference. He suggested setting up an organic farmer's market in Taichung. The farmers said it wouldn't work.
Everything Ray knew about organic food and the value of organic practices for the environment and for human health he learned from the small farmers, not from any teachers, professors, or agricultural experts at any of the universities he'd attended. He saw these farmers as a resource not just to provide chemical-free food products to upscale urban consumers ' but to educate the broader public as they had him about an entire way of life that was wholesome and regenerative to the individual and the rural landscape. The big businesses supplying the supermarkets, in contrast, were just concerned with turning out an agricultural product as cheaply as possible that fit the organic specifications. It was Ray's genius to see that the unique advantage of the small farmer would present itself in the face-to-face setting of a farmer's market; and the farmers, in such a situation, could become an agent for change. He never gave up on his dream of the organic farmer's market. But for ten years it didn't happen.
Then, last Fall while on sabbatical in Tampa, Florida, he went around looking at farmer's markets in Florida. They got him all fired up. When he returned to Taiwan his mind was decided. He begun reaching out to the organic farmers to let them know he was going ahead with that old dream of his. He invited them to a preliminary meeting to work out the specifics.
At one farm, the farmer's wife was furious at him. 'Because of you my husband turned this onto an organic farm,' she lashed out. 'Now look at us. We've become a poor family. The neighbors ridicule us.'
'She's going to divorce me,' the farmer confided sadly to Ray. 'The neighbors have got these ideas into her head. She says I've betrayed the family for some stupid idea of mine that doesn't make any sense.'
Ray invited them both to the meeting. To his surprise the wife came. Almost sixty farmers and their families were in attendance. The mix included vegetable farmers, fruit farmers, tea farmers, and rice farmers. Ray noticed the man's wife listening in surprise as the stories poured out on all sides.
Farmers told how they initially turned organic after seeing their parents poisoned and crippled for life by farm chemicals. Taiwan's small farmers in years past were uneducated people of low socio-economic status. They didn't know better than to trust the fast-talking salesmen who came around promoting agricultural chemicals. Then, even when it became apparent that the chemicals did real harm, farmers kept using them because they knew of no alternative.
Other farmers poured out their stories about how organic farming takes time compared with conventional agriculture because it involves improving the quality of the soil and the environment. It may take a few years just to get started. They told how it's not just about the immediate financial reward, but about leaving the land and surroundings better for the next generation than the last generation left it for us.
There was talk how in rural Taiwan there used to be all kinds of snakes, frogs, fish and birds. At night, a naked light bulb attracted a cloud of moths, beetles and flying insects. No more. So many living things had been poisoned and are not seen anymore. Taiwan has the highest rate of liver cancer in the world. In places the island is turning into a wasteland. It was once named for its beauty.
As the meeting broke up Ray happened to catch sight of the man's wife and could see the change in her and in the way she was with her husband. She laughed and smiled and had made lots of new friends ' individuals that unlike her ignorant neighbors could make her understand what her husband was trying to do and why.
Ray saw that this dream of his wasn't just about marketing these farmers' fresh organic produce in Taichung, and it wasn't just about educating city dwellers to a new and more wholesome lifestyle. It was perhaps most importantly about community building. He scheduled a succession of other planning meetings. Then, in April he sent out the final invitations to join Taichung's first organic farmer's market. Of the initial sixty farmers, only thirty-three attended the opening of the market in September.
A representative from one of Taiwan's big agri-businesses approached Ray with a desire to be part of the market. If that company had a booth at the market they would staff it with salespeople hired just to sell vegetables, individuals who wouldn't themselves have undergone the change in consciousness that occasions a shift to the organic lifestyle the small farmers had undertaken, sometimes at considerable expense to themselves and their families. Ray turned the big company down. It wasn't what he wanted for the market. He wanted the people of Taichung to have the chance for a face-to-face encounter that might possibly let them see ' organic food is not just about fruits and vegetables that are free of poisons. It's not just about a product that meets organic specifications. It's about a change in lifestyle, and a change in consciousness ' a way of living that doesn't damage the environment or other people and is wholesome all around.
These farmers had lived isolated lives on their small farms, tending their land and crops, largely out of contact with each other and any larger community. Now they arrive at the market early every Saturday morning, energetic and excited to see each other and connect with all the different people thronging the stalls, asking questions, and buying things. One really does get the feeling at the market that the farmers have come not just for the money, but to feel part of a larger community that cares about the same things they do.
Many Saturdays in the first early morning rush around 8 a.m., when the market is at its busiest, some farmers sell out. Instead of packing up to leave, they stay the whole rest of the morning, socializing with farmers at other booths, assisting them with the customers, answering questions, and sharing their enthusiasm about the wholesome way of life they've chosen, and its benefits.
The market is held on the campus of Taichung's National Chung Hsing University. It peaks early, between 8 and 9, but goes on until noon. A walk among the stalls and a talk with some of the farmers is enough to give a whiff of hope that environmentally-ravaged Taiwan might yet be turned back into the pristine paradise it once was.
Ray is always there, walking from stall to stall, talking with everyone ' a big smile on his face. It's not many men who can say as he can, that their dream has come true.