Rural Taipei City
A Day at Qingxiang Leisure Farm in Taipei’s Neihu District
Text: Nick Kembel
Photos: Betty Fan
Taipei is a modern metropolis with shiny skyscrapers, traffic-heavy thoroughfares, and busy shopping districts. Surprisingly, however, good old nature is never far away, and even if you want to visit a farm you can be there in less than an hour by public transport from the city center.
In February of this year, the Republic of China’s Council of Agriculture announced a project to promote Taiwan’s leisure farms as tourist attractions. With a goal of generating NT$11 billion in annual profits, the plan is to integrate the island’s best leisure farms, enhance their services, improve workers in the sector, boost product diversification, and expand the market overall. The Taiwan leisure-farm industry is already booming, with the number of visitors increasing from 9.59 million in 2008 to 20 million in 2013 (and foreign tourists from 63,700 to 260,060), and over 300 farms designated as official tourism facilities. But what exactly is a leisure farm? Recently, Travel in Taiwan visited one in Taipei City to find out.
In the verdant hills of Neihu District lies a three-hectare plot of land, site of the Qingxiang Leisure Farm. The sandy soil in this area is ideal for the growing of an array of hearty fruits and vegetables. After a short ride from MRT Dahu Park Station, we step out of a taxi to be greeted by a commanding view of lush, rolling hills. From the vantage point of the tiny parking area, we can see the districts of eastern Taipei, with the city’s ever-visible landmark, towering Taipei 101, in the center.
We are given a warm hello by Hsu San-chi, the 8th-generation inheritor of the farm, whose ancestors have reaped the bounty of this land since they migrated from mainland China in the 17th century. Hsu studied vehicle maintenance in vocational school. Like other rural youths the world over, Hsu initially was not interested in farming himself, but since he was the eldest son, his father forced him to quit his job. In 1982, Hsu officially took over the farm.
As we round a turn from the parking lot, much of the farm comes into view, with a field of sweet potatoes at the top, followed by rows of strawberry greenhouses and pomelo trees demarcating the farm’s bottom border. The gently trickling Neigou Stream cuts through the middle, its serene pools containing an unusually high concentration of fish. A path lined with rosemary, mint, and other fresh herbs parallels the stream, leading to a humble building that serves as the farm’s kitchen and office. On a ridge above sits an open barbecuing area, overlooking a tangerine orchard.
I feel like a real city slicker as I dig a sweet potato out of the ground to take home, with Hsu urging me to go deeper and not be afraid to get my hands dirty. Therein lies the primary appeal of leisure farms: giving city folk like me the chance to get a taste of the farming life, learn something about the island’s crops, and enjoy a tranquil getaway from busy city life. For many people living in Taiwan, which has a largely urbanized population, leisure farms satisfy a nostalgic urge to get back to nature and the island’s agricultural past.
Beginning in the 1970s, Taiwan’s long-prosperous agricultural industry went into decline as the island became increasingly industrialized. Along with industrialization came improved transportation networks, increasing labor costs, and growth in per capita income. These changes persisted into the ’80s and ’90s; and in 2002, when Taiwan joined the WTO, many of the island’s crops lost their competitive advantage. There was also marked growth in the import of cheaper manufactured goods. One side effect of the country’s increasing wealth and urbanization was that demand rose for recreational activities, especially in a countryside now being considered “exotic” by more and more people.
When Hsu first took over his parents’ farm, he had a dislike for traditional farming techniques and didn’t want to grow rice like his ancestors had. He came up with the idea of inviting visitors to come pick their own mushrooms. Pick-your-own fruit orchards were already catching on all over Taiwan, though Hsu claims his was the first tourist-oriented farm in Taipei, and definitely the first to focus on mushrooms. What’s more, Hsu grows mushrooms in the traditional manner. As opposed to cultivating them in plastic bags, Hsu inserts the fungi into little holes in propped-up logs of wood. The mushrooms soak up water and nutrients from the wood, giving them a more aromatic, earthy flavor.
Hsu’s idea worked, and domestic tourists came in droves. But there was one problem. Like most crops, mushrooms grow seasonally, and some tourists were disappointed when they arrived to find no mushrooms available for picking. Hsu realized he had to diversify. He experimented with passion fruit, but soon found that tourists wanted to pick the fruits from the vines, when in fact they ought to be collected from the ground after falling – not to mention that many tourists stepped on the ripe fruits. Another lesson learned. Hsu went on to add more and more crops, contrary to the foreign model of monocropping.
Still, Hsu wanted to go further than just letting tourists pick fruits. After a failed attempt at urban farming, wherein city dwellers could rent plots of his land to cultivate crops, Hsu transformed his farm into a full-on recreational facility. As farms like his became increasingly common in the late ’80s, local associations developed to promote them and represent their needs. In 1992, the Council of Agriculture created the Leisure Farm Management Act. The Taiwan Leisure Farms Association was formed in 1998, with the goal of preserving farming culture, integrating agricultural resources, and promoting ecological education. The first official registration of a leisure farm was in 2002, and within a decade over 2,000 hectares of farmland in Taiwan had been converted for leisure-farm use.
January to April are the best months to come, when the most crops are in season, including wood mushrooms, strawberries, pomelos, sweet potatoes, tangerines, and radishes
Activities at leisure farms in Taiwan may include camping, hiking, fishing, fruit harvesting, paintballing, and making wine, ice cream, and other food products. At various larger leisure farms, tourists can stay in upscale facilities costing up to NT$10,000 per night. At one of the most famous and oldest, Qingjing Farm (www.cingjing.gov.tw) in Rural_Taipei_City_ County, guests can learn how to shear sheep, watch mock livestock auctions, and enjoy a mountain setting and rural architecture that is reminiscent of Switzerland.
Agriculture in Taiwan was once focused on how many crops could be harvested in a year. Hsu says that now, besides the transformation to recreation and tourism, the newer generation of farmers is more focused on diversification and eco-friendly techniques. A portion of his tangerines and strawberries are certified as organic, and whenever possible he relies on natural techniques for pest elimination. For instance, his farm is interspersed with ponds that contain insect-eating frogs.
Qingxiang Leisure Farm is best visited in groups of 20 or more. The NT$500 per person full-day tour includes options such as making strawberry mochi (a sticky-rice sweet treat), sweet-potato tangyuan (dessert balls), or bamboo water guns, or taking your own strawberry plant home. Cheaper half-day tours with similar options are also available. Parents may opt to send their kids on a tour while they enjoy the barbecue facilities. You can bring your own foods to barbecue and pay a site-rental fee of NT$230 per person, or the farm can provide everything (with packages designed for 10 people starting at NT$1,300, plus the per-person rental fee). The farm is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm; reservations are required for larger groups and weekday visitors.
Individual travelers are also welcome, but encouraged to visit on weekends when there are more staff members on hand and food is for sale, such as roasted sweet potatoes. The farm charges a nominal fee of NT$100 per visitor. January to April are the best months to come, when the most crops are in season, including wood mushrooms, strawberries, pomelos, sweet potatoes, tangerines, and radishes. During this peak season, the kitchen also sells free-range chicken soup, fruit smoothies, crushed-ice desserts, and more. In the summer months you may see sweet corn, tomatoes, and various melons (bitter melon, pumpkin, and luffa). Fruits can be picked for a minimum of NT$50 per person, with strawberries being a favorite for children and adults alike.
Another activity that can be tried by individual visitors year-round, and which I got to try my hand at, is jam making. I can now attest that nothing smells better than the steam coming off giant red strawberries as you fry them into mush.
To get to Qingxiang Leisure Farm, catch the small no. 3 bus from the stop across the street from Exit 4 at MRT Kunyang Station on the Bannan Line (Blue Line). Notify the driver that you want to get off at the Qingxiang Leisure Farm stop. After you disembark, follow the signage to the right just after the small Tudi Gong (Earth God) temple, and walk five minutes (GPS E121 36.25). Alternatively, a taxi from MRT Dahu Station will cost just over NT$100.
English and Chinese
|Tudi Gong Temple||土地公廟|
Qingxiang Leisure Farm (清香休閒農場)
Add:206, Dahu St., Neihu District, Taipei City (臺北市內湖區大湖街206號)
Tel: (02) 2990-3466 / 0928-539-948