The Best-Laid Plans of Rice and Men (And Ducks): Organic Farming in Yuanli Township

Written by Li-Ching Chen, Translated by Sam Robbins

Image credit: photo provided by author.

When I was writing my master’s thesis, I often took trips to Yuanli Township, Miaoli County, a small town near Taiwan Expressway 61. Towards Huoyan Mountain in the east, there is a wide-open farmland plot wherein Taiwan’s largest organic paddy lies. Most farmers have dogs, and I once saw a mid-size yellow dog sleeping under the sun in the field when I was passing by on a motorbike. I hoped that my driving sound would not awake the dog, but as soon as this thought crossed my mind, the dog suddenly ran over. I pressed down on the accelerator and suddenly sped ahead with my body leaning back. Luckily, the dog was not trying to chase me but was instead staying put and barking. After the initial shock passed over me, I thought back to what Hae had told me. 

Hae works on a rice-duck farming cooperative in Yuanli. He wanted to take advantage of the fact that ducks eat rice pests and raise the ducks in the rice paddies. Although the idea was good in theory, there were many difficulties in practice. For example, he told me many of the dogs from the township started hunting the ducks. As ducks slowly waddled through the rice paddies, the dogs would start salivating. The first time Hae placed a duck in the field, he assumed that the wet seedling fields surrounding the duck would hamper the dog’s advance. However, after finding duck carcasses littered across the field, he realised that the dog had cut through a narrow field corner. To defend against the dogs, he installed a metal fence around the field and watched the land day and night.

Besides hearing about the dogs, Yeon also told me how this type of duck and rice farming, a method imported from Japan, hadn’t been successful. Only gradually,  for Yuanli, did a local functional method begin to develop. Yeon entered the organic farming industry in 2000. Initially, what was most difficult for him was notoriety, as Chishang rice from Eastern Taiwan had already become well known. How could Yuanli, on the West Coast, make a name for itself and finally put itself on the map? Luckily, at that time, the famous Japanese duck and rice cultivation expert Takao Furuno (古野隆雄) was visiting Taiwan. The farmers from Yuanli thought that his cultivation style could become what Yuanli became famous for.

Rice-duck cofarming uses the theory that “everything has a weakness” (一物剋一物), in this case meaning that the snails, a pest, inside rice fields can be eaten by ducks to protect the rice. In recent years, Taiwan has seen a wave of agricultural products that include animals in their cultivation, for example hawk red beans from Pintung or pheasant water chestnuts from Guantian county, Tainan. Both are examples where animals co-exist with, and even participate in the process of growing crops. This said, when the Japanese Rice-duck cofarming method was first introduced to Yuanli, the results were a series of unfortunate events.

After Yeon joined Furono’s training period, he was eager to try the method and did not expect any problems because he did things exactly as Furono had instructed. In the first year, after the ducks had arrived in Yuanli, many farmers were not aware that they first had to be trained to swim. When these ducks entered the water, they had soft feet, which caused issues. Furthermore, when they initially went into the paddy, the ducks still did not have the instinct that they were meant to bite on their uropygial gland to waterproof themselves. One cold spring day in March, the ducks swam into the cold water, and it seeped deep into their non-waterproofed feathers. The ducks were soaking when they came ashore, and all fell sick shortly after. When the ducks had grown bigger and stronger, the farmers tried again. Unexpectedly, the ducks went into the water and started pecking at all the rice until the whole plot was bare. Yeon described the problem as when “the seedlings couldn’t grow, but the ducks kept getting bigger and bigger.” After careful observation, the farmers realised that ducks would naturally eat anything in sight. If the ducks are used incorrectly, they do not protect the rice; instead, they harm it. 

Apart from the ducks, the Channelled apple snail that lived in the soil was an even bigger threat. Furuno’s methods were suitable for the Japanese climate when early spring is still cold, and there are thus not many such snails in the field causing trouble. In warm Taiwan, the situation is quite different. When spring begins, there are lots of small snails in the soil. Moreover, if the snails are not absent when they are planted, they will eat all the seedlings within a week. Therefore, most farmers use pesticides to remove snails. However, Yeon used ducklings to remove the snails, but the ducks were too small and could not crack open the big shells. 

The first attempt at duck and rice farming failed, but after three years and six cultivation reasons, Yeon had produced a system that worked for Yuanli. In Japan, one set of ducks were used for each growing season. In Taiwan, more ducks were needed, so Yeon used two groups of ducks per season. Before planting the seeds – but after cultivating the land – the first set of ducks are placed in the field to eat snails. Then, after the large white ducks had patrolled the field and found traces of the snails, they would crack open the snails with their thin beaks, eating all the snail’s meat at once.

Furthermore, when consuming these snails, the ducks look up to the sky, and their necks twist and turn to swallow them. Eating snails for several days results in the ducks finishing their work. Consequently, the farmers then start to plant seedlings. These seedlings then begin to take root, upon which small yellow ducklings are brought into the field to work.

After three years of learning and experience, Yeon has learnt that as long as the ducklings are shorter than the rice crops when they enter the area, they will eat pests inside the water instead of eating the rice. When they cannot see the whole crop, they do not try to bite it. Since ducks love to splash water, they also help keep the water in the field cloudy and less susceptible to sunlight. As a result, the weeds beneath the surface cannot grow, and the crops above the water’s surface can remain strong and healthy. 

My next visit in the springtime was different from my previous experience of being scared by a dog. As Yuanli entered the spring harvest, there was rice, wheat, and ducks. Under the warm spring sun, a soft breeze blew across the yellow wheat field. Separated by a gushing ditch was a field of soft rice crops. There were still white ducks in the field alongside the rice, engaging in heroic snail-eating! They were inevitably followed by their duckling comrades, who took over when the rice crops had grown stronger and taller.

For organic farmers like Yeon and Hae, this type of farming in Yuanli has slowly come about after a lengthy process of gaining experience and trying out various farming techniques. However, there is no universal solution when it comes to organic farming. The people of Yuanli township have worked hard and helped make organic practices more diverse than before. A new type of organic farming has thus emerged in Yuanli through years of trial and error, and it is this method that has finally put Yuanli on the map.

Li Ching Chen is a middle school geography teacher in Taiwan.

This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here, and read the introduction to the special series by the book’s editor here.

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