Zhang Qing-lai has become a household name in Taiwan’s leisure farming industry. He was the founder of the island’s first tourist orchard and leisure farm, and was also the two-term chairman of Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association (TLFDA) which he co-founded in 1998. Despite all this, Zhang still prefers to be known merely as a “Taiwanese farmer”.
To me, he is a man of unparalleled energy, determination and wisdom, and is highly inspirational. I had the rare honor to meet Zhang at his Shangri-La Leisure Farm in Yilan in October 2005. Notably, our meeting had been specially arranged by Shinny Chiu.
My first impression of Zhang was that every gesture he made still exuded an unmistakable air of rural hospitality which portrayed him as a sincere and committed small-town entrepreneur. The most outstanding characteristic in him was that he really enjoyed a life well balanced between the sluggish pace of rural living and a fervor to revitalize the rural farming economy.
Way back in 1991 when I was still studying in Japan, my Japanese guarantor Toyoda-san always took me to his family’s village home in Saitama prefecture for a short stay. The many “果物狩り” signboards along the way attracted my attention, wondering what they were. Well, those were actually tourist fruit orchards!
I later came to know that agriculture was still very much the principal economic activity in Japan’s small towns and villages. Regardless of the volume of their production, prices of agricultural products had been fixed by the government, and as such, the farmers would not see significant rises in their incomes, let alone becoming rich easily. However, if at the same time they were to open up their farms and collect entrance fees from the visitors, allowing the visitors to enjoy the fun of hand-picking fruits and vegetables, the value of their produce would be boosted many times over!
In these “果物狩り”, visitors could harvest the grapes, apples, crystal pears and oranges. The most popular crops were strawberries, cherries and tomatoes, and a visit to those farms would invariably require a prior appointment.
Zhang started growing fruit trees in 1998, and before long, he initiated the Taiwanese style “tourist orchard”, allowing visitors to enjoy the fun of plucking their fruits. The move proved to be vastly popular and became an inspiration for Taiwan’s farmers.
As a matter of fact, Zhang is not just an ambitious man, he is also extremely interesting. When he was younger, he had hoped to become a civil servant one day in order to lead a life better than a farmer’s. After studying hard for eight years, he finally passed the civil service exam. However, after working as a civil servant in Taipei for only ten days, he quit the job and decided to return to his village to be a farmer!
His courage in taking on the challenges and his willingness to share his experience have not only inspired farmers in his home county of Yilan, but also the entire Taiwan. His initiative has even prompted the enforcement authorities to amend the local agricultural land laws!
Today, the association boasts 186 registered members (Taiwan has over 360 leisure farms in total), 105 “Tian-mama” cuisine certified by the agriculture committee, and 234 certified unique agricultural tourist sites. All this has been the outcome of the efforts of Zhang and his team.
December 2005, I was leading a delegation of some 80 Malaysian family-oriented tourists to spend two nights at Shangri-La Leisure Farm. Zhang personally joined the traditional games with the visitors, allowing young Malaysians to experience the fun of a farmstay in Taiwan.
In fact, this kind of experiential itineraries will readily trigger the curiosity and participative-ness of young visitors. Even the adults enjoy the programs prepared by the farm.
Zhang is an enthusiastic and passionate farmer entrepreneur. It didn’t take him too long to realize that Yilan lacked hotels with leisure holiday wedding banquet facilities. As a result, a Greek island style resort hotel was erected in the middle of Dongshan River rice fields, and became an instant hit among visitors.
At my invitation, Zhang and eight other like-minded farmers from Taiwan came to Malaysia in 2010 to share their experiences. Their theme: “Enjoy the dreams of Taiwan’s farmer tycoons”.
I remember back then Zhang told the participants: “Agricultural land is not just about scenery, but also nature and culture. It is a priceless asset to the farm.” The remark has not only inspired Malaysia’s many farm owners, but has also deeply motivated me!
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)