A New Crop, A New Future

Under the sun, 6,000 red quinoa plants swayed in a light wind on the farm of the Tzu Chi University of Science and Technology (TCUST) in Hualien, eastern Taiwan. After more than four months of hard work, three young farmers were ready to harvest.

They had learned how to cultivate this pseudocereal and process it for sale at TCUST. They had also taken online marketing courses. Once they had acquired the expertise needed, they started red quinoa farming in their hometown of Taimali, Taitung, eastern Taiwan.

Jiang Zhi-peng works on the red quinoa farm on the campus of TCUST in Hualien where he learned about the cultivation of this economic crop. Yan Lin-zhao


The tenders

Jiang Zhi-peng (江志鵬) and his younger sister Jiang Yu-qian (江雨倩) hail from Taimali, where their parents had once farmed rice and orchids before switching to sugar apples for their higher profits. Their parents did well in the local farming circles and made a comfortable living for the family.

As the kids grew up, they came to realize that aside from farming, their hometown did not provide many job opportunities. They could not find meaningful work outside of agriculture, and farming was not their cup of tea. Therefore, the two siblings left their hometown. Zhi-peng ended up selling clothes out of a van, peddling them from town to town, but he would go home to help his parents when they harvested sugar apples. Yu-qian married a man in Kaohsiung, southwestern Taiwan, and started a family there.

In 2009, Typhoon Morakot devastated their parents’ farm. They replanted the sugar apples and waited four years for them to produce the first batch of fruit. Things were going okay until they were hit hard by Typhoon Nepartak in 2016. The second destruction occurred only a few short years after their first recovery. Their parents once more faced the task of building up their farm and crops from scratch.

But this time something else happened.

In the aftermath of Nepartak, Master Cheng Yen suggested to farmer victims during a visit that they consider growing red quinoa instead of crops such as sugar apples. She pointed out that TCUST was offering a teaching program for this crop.

Quinoa is a pseudocereal, a non-grassy plant used in much the same way as grains and cereals. Gluten-free, it contains calcium, iron, potassium, B-vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin E, and fiber. It is one of only a few plant foods considered a complete protein source, containing all nine essential amino acids. Its low availability in Taiwan has enabled it to command prices several times higher than those of the highest-grade rice.

It is a fast-growing crop, usually ready to harvest just four months after planting. Farmers in Taiwan can expect to have two harvests a year if they avoid the typhoon and monsoon season. After the harvest, the land can be used to grow other crops. Red quinoa is an economically viable crop for farmers.

Zhang Feng-lan (張鳳蘭), a typhoon victim and a Tzu Chi volunteer, heard the red quinoa suggestion from Master Cheng Yen. Zhang is the Jiang siblings’ mother. She was the one who urged her children to learn how to cultivate red quinoa at TCUST.

Jiang Zhi-peng was then mulling over whether to return home to farm, so he took his mother’s advice and went to Hualien to attend the Tzu Chi training. His sister and Liu Qing-hong (劉清鴻), from the same village, went with him.


Zhang Feng-lan, influenced by her two children, has started growing organic red quinoa, without relying on chemicals like pesticides.  Jiang Zhi-peng





Organic cultivation

The three young people from Taimali joined students at the Research Center for Agricultural Biomedicine and the Marketing and Distribu­tion Management Department at TCUST. There they learned to cultivate, process, and sell red quinoa under the tutelage of teachers Liu Wei-Chung (劉威忠), Keng Nien-Tzu (耿念慈), Kuo Yu-Ming (郭又銘), and Chen Hwang-Yeh

The trio, who had almost no farming experience, were assigned to tend a  1.6-acre tract. They learned from scratch how to cultivate seedlings, water the plants, and weed.

Red quinoa is quite hardy and drought-resistant. The plants are not hard to care for. But in due course they attracted insects. Such pests would have been easy to kill or expel with chemical insecticides, but the school had abandoned the use of chemicals. As a result, the three young people had to rid their crops of insects another way—by hand. They often spent a whole day—rain or shine—squatting or kneeling to remove pests from their crops. Jiang would be quick to tell you that it was far and away harder work than selling clothes.

“Aphids can infest red quinoa, causing the leaves to curl, which interferes with photosynthesis,” Jiang Yu-qian said. “We counter this pest with their natural nemeses, ladybugs. We attract ladybugs to the red quinoa tract by planting lavender, mint, and similar strongly-scented plants nearby.”

Their teachers taught them the law of the natural food chain and how that law could be applied to naturally solve the aphid problem at hand. Yu-qian, with a small son at home, likes this way of farming that uses no chemicals in food production and enriches the biodiversity of the farm.

In the last three years, teams at the Research Center for Agricultural Biomedicine at TCUST have used red quinoa to make facial masks, enzymes, energy soups, energy bars, and quinoa tea bags. Even after the needed stuff has been extracted, the spent red quinoa plants are not discarded. The teams have given new life to what’s left over, using it as filler for mushroom grow bags for the cultivation of fungi, or as fuel for specialized stoves.

“The Master asked us to do ‘charitable agriculture,’” Lo Wen-jui (羅文瑞), the president of TCUST, said of the agricultural endeavors that his school is undertaking. “So we’ve tried to impart our knowledge and expertise to help farmers establish themselves and add to the agricultural capabilities of our nation.” The expertise that Lo’s school has attempted to share with farmers in eastern Taiwan has additionally included brand marketing, promotion, on-line marketing, and customer relations management.

“I hope that the three of them [Jiang Zhi-peng, Jiang Yu-qian, and Liu Qing-hong] can become our seed teachers,” Lo continued, “to teach other farmers in their area to boost their income from farming.” 



Jiang Zhi-peng, right, and a TCUST student work with red quinoa in a lab.

Inset: Their products: red quinoa powder and red quinoa tea bags.  Wang Shang-qin




 The harvest

In late January 2017, Jiang Zhi-peng and Jiang Yu-qian turned their red quinoa harvest at the university into products for sale. They made red quinoa powder and red quinoa tea. They tested the market with these two products. “Though we didn’t harvest much, we made nice products and packaged them nicely to add value,” Jiang Yu-qian said.

The Jiang siblings have since returned home to Taimali, where they raise red quinoa on a half-acre tract.

Liu Qing-hong majored in biotechnology in college. Now he is a red quinoa farmer, and in his spare time he experiments with the interactions between his crops and sugar apples. He is trying to isolate a microbial strain from sugar apples and ferment it with a liquid extracted from red quinoa. He hopes that the mixture will yield some surprise nutrients. He knows that though he may try to his heart’s content, there is no guarantee that his attempts will lead to anything worthwhile. But whether or not he will be successful, he, like the Jiang siblings, has taken a very big first step toward establishing a livelihood for himself. The three of them have stepped out of their comfort zones and bravely taken on new challenges in life.

Their zest has spilled over to their families. Liu Yao-tai (劉燿台), Liu Qing-hong’s father, and Zhang Feng-lan, the Jiang siblings’ mother, have both planted red quinoa for the first time, and, like their children, they do so without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Together they hope to do the Earth a good turn and help their livelihoods to be less dependent on a single crop.


Fall 2017