On Oct. 10 Taiwan’s national day in 2005, I was invited to a study tour on the leisurization and early development of the island’s leisure farming industry.
Back then there were no foreign tour groups visiting Taiwan’s leisure farms, and even the local inbound operators did not dare to arrange day tours for tourists to experience the local farming practices and culture.
That said, such an emerging experiential farming model had indeed drawn the attention of many Taiwanese families, students, teachers and factory or corporate workers, who not only got to enjoy the fresh farm produce and local farm delicacies but were also immersed in the ambience of travelling back in time to granny’s houses in their native villages.
To be honest, it was like love at first sight for me during that very first encounter with a Taiwanese leisure farm some 18 years ago.
I once told Shinny Chiu of Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association: I bet Malaysians will love the traditional flavors here. However, some of the infrastructure such as the room style, bedding, toilet and shower facilities, dining table setting, food preparation, cleanliness, comfort, security etc. would need to be elevated to international standards.
Nevertheless, to improve and upgrade these amenities would necessitate massive financial input and manpower!
The thing is, leisurization of Taiwan’s farming industry was a move in the right direction, and from that moment on, the island’s farming industry has been pegged to the tourist industry.
But to go further from there, it was absolutely essential for these local farms to embrace “systematic and professional” reinvention and upgrading in order to achieve optimal results.
While I was studying in Japan in the 1990s, I had the experience of rural farm stays in the country. Back then my Japanese guardian Toyoda-san would take me and his two very young daughters to some farmhouses in Saitama prefecture outside Tokyo during the summer vacation.
We had a really great time enjoying ourselves in the expansive orchards and farmlands, handpicking organic vegetables, fruits and even eggs, and savoring the delicious food prepared with our own harvests.
Indeed, Japanese farm stays offered rich eco lifestyle experiences, but there wasn’t much participation from the farm owners, unfortunately.
Years later, I somehow managed to find that rare warm hospitality in Taiwan’s leisure farms!
Looking back at my early encounters with Taiwan’s leisure farms, my first destination was the Flying Cow Ranch where I met the farm’s first-generation owner Wu Dun-yao. I really admired how he and his fellow co-founder had painstakingly created such a Hokkaido-like fairy-tale setting all by themselves from scratch.
Meanwhile, Chang Chin-lai of Shangri-la Leisure Farm ingeniously boosted the orchard farm’s value many times over. Their farm stay and restaurant have become vastly popular today.
During my subsequent study tours, I discovered that almost all the leisure farms in Taiwan were run by two or even three generations of family members, and from here I could feel the superb hospitality of the farm owners.
Perhaps this is an advantage that is apparently absent in the recreational farms of Japan or Europe, and because of that this unique characteristic of Taiwanese leisure farms has evolved into such a noteworthy industrial phenomenon!
Taiwan’s agricultural sector is lucky enough to have this bunch of willing pioneers to innovate the island’s leisure farming industry.
Many of the old farmers even came together to set up an NGO known as Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association with the objective of drawing up plans to re-energize the local farms with novel ideas in hope of encouraging all the farms in Taiwan to continue to devote themselves to this industry.
What these old farmers would never have imagined is that after more than 20 years, the value of Taiwan’s leisure farming industry has multiplied many times today, and out of their expectation their children and grandchildren have been willing to come back to their rural farms to take over the operation of the farms with refreshing new concepts and missions.
It appears that the objectives and meanings of Taiwan’s leisure farming industry have gained widespread recognition in the market. Even far-sighted officials from the Taiwanese government’s agricultural committee have joined in to promote the further reformation of leisure farms, especially in the areas of land conversion laws, accommodation construction and preservation of the local ecosystem.
The government agricultural committee has been making generous allocations while the Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association took the initiative to bring in experts and scholars in various fields to conduct site inspections in order to author the most pertinent guidelines for the development of the island’s leisure farming industry.
This means that a comprehensive set of regulations and SOPs governing the leisurization and systematic management of Taiwan’s farms was officially born!
It is now the turn for farming associations from the rest of the world to come to Taiwan to learn about its successful model of farm leisurization. And the Association is more than willing to share its previous experiences with the world while stepping up international cooperation to ensure that leisure farms across the world continue to devote themselves to the noble spirit of sustainable development.
With that, the ISO international certification that was established in Geneva in 1947 should be the next goal for the Association.
ISO, a non-governmental organization, now boasts a membership of 167 countries and territories.
Although the ISO certification is mainly for the manufacturing sector, agricultural and business management is just as crucial for ISO. Apple Vacations once received the ISO-9001 certification and this has benefited us tremendously.
It is by no means easy for a business to attain ISO certification because once a company, industrial production or agricultural operation has decided to apply for ISO certification, it will have to accept the guidance from accredited mentors and incorporate the recommended international modus operandi for a considerable period of time in order to meet the global standards and requirements. Moreover, re-evaluation is to be done every few years to ensure ISO compliance.
As a matter of fact, ISO has put in tremendous effort in various areas of agriculture with the purpose of ensuring that agricultural land will not be overdeveloped at the expense of our delicate ecosystem.
This ISO-14001 certification has drawn up strategies to effectively preserve the environment and basic principles on farming.
That said, there still isn’t a set of SOPs from ISO that defines the modification of existing farming industry into an experiential tourism service sector.
And this is where Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association can play an effective and proactive role because the island’s leisure farming industry already boats a comprehensive, well developed and systematic set of management SOPs which has been successfully implemented in over 400 member farms, attesting to the fact that it can veritably serve as a role model for leisure farms elsewhere in this world!
Indeed, under the guidance of the Association, the achievement of Taiwan’s leisure farming industry has been exemplary.
It’s now time for Taiwan’s leisure farming industry to showcase to the world its very own Special Agro-tourism Spot (SAS) Certification.
All this has been a consequence of the hard work of the old-generation farmers as well as the unwavering determination of their next-generation successors.
Notably, through years of observation and research, Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association has decided to make Malaysia’s farming industry its first overseas partner for technology transfer.
According to the Association’s secretary-general Dr. Yu Wen-horng who is in charge of certification, the Association will send experts and scholars in areas related to leisure farming industry to Malaysia to provide technological guidance and training to ensure that Malaysia’s farm operation meets the international standards.
Malaysian leisure farm operators keen to perfect their operations are welcome to have a chat with Apple 101.
Once your farm has attained the prestigious SAS certification from Taiwan, I assure you that I will bring foreign tourists in Malaysia to visit your farms!
(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.)