Down on a Farm in Yilan


With close to eighty percent of Taiwan’s population living in urban areas, visiting leisure farms has become a popular way to relax. Agritourism enterprises offering all sorts of hands-on experiences have proliferated, and Yilan County, with its verdant fields and dramatic mountainous backdrop, is the ideal place to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.

From the air, Yilan County’s coastal Zhuangwei Township is a latticework of neatly-parceled-up portions of land. Green paddy fields and strips left fallow are interspersed with fish farms – the surface of their waters looking almost black save for white splodges indicating the presence of wheel aerators. Occupying a couple of reclaimed fishponds in the midst of this fragmentary landscape sits Niutousi Farm.

Building of Niutousi Farm with cute cow murals

This small-scale operation was opened six years ago by Shen Guo-yuan and his uncle Huang He-cheng to preserve and share Taiwan’s farming traditions. As a teen, Huang was briefly involved in the cattle-trading industry. “He’d already left it for a long time,” clarifies Shen, “then one year, at the Yilan Green Expo, someone asked him to help lead some cattle.” The experience prompted a cherished flashback. “It reminded him of the work he used to do with my granddad, and that’s when he asked me if I’d like to open the farm with him.”

Farm dog
Feeding one of the cute calves

However, they had a problem. “Of course, I’d grown up seeing cattle, but I knew nothing about them,” Shen admits somewhat sheepishly. Undeterred, he hit the books, and it was during the course of his research that he stumbled upon the name “Niutousi.”

When the Dutch East India Company arrived on Taiwan’s shores in the 1600s, it saw potential in the western plains’ fertile farmland. Earlier settlers from China had brought water buffalo, but their stocky, muscular frames were more suited to turning the soil of waterlogged paddies and the Dutch needed a draft animal that could be used to till dry fields. So hard-working yellow cattle were imported.

Classroom/DIY room with info about cattle

During this period, yellow cattle and their water buffalo brethren were such a valuable resource that a governing body was formed to oversee their management and educate the public on matters related to cattle keeping. The name of that organization in Chinese was Niutousi, literally “cattle head directorate.”
In the centuries following, at the height of Taiwan’s dependence on the creatures it could be said that each rural household had one plot of land along with one head of cattle, and farmers’ livelihoods were inextricably intertwined with the lives of their bovine helpers. A lingering reminder of this tight bond can be seen in the still large (although dwindling) portion of Taiwan’s society which eschews beef.

One of the retired water buffalos on the farm

At Niutousi, the animals are, rightfully, the stars of the show, and Shen could happily tell you the life story and personality of every single one. “Ah, this is Xiao Bai,” he says enthusiastically, pointing at an elegant, cream-hided beast. “She’s a celebrity cow from the oyster farms in Fangyuan Township (on the west coast; cattle are used to pull old-style carts around the tidal-zone farms).” Xiao Bai (“Little White”) arrived at Niutousi after she grew too old to perform her regular duties. Others have arrived via cattle traders, having been purchased from owners who were no longer able to work the land. Traders usually keep such cattle on their books for up to a year, but any that fail to sell will be shipped off to the slaughterhouse. Bong-tshi (a name sounding like a Taiwanese expression for raising an undesired female child), a placid and pretty water buffalo, just narrowly escaped this fate, and the farm’s champion worker, Niu Wang (“Cow King”), also came from a trader. “She broke one of our plows,” Shen says when talking about Niu Wang. “She’s so strong! We tied three tires onto the yoke in an attempt to slow her down, but she could still run, even then!”

Buffalos doing what buffalos do

The pride and affection Shen feels for his charges is evident, and the cattle that arrive at Niutousi have certainly found their place in the sun. The farm will not sell them on, so each can expect to live out the rest of its days enjoying a steady supply of food and adoration.

Farmer Shen with one of his prized cows

In my admittedly not extensive experience with cattle, eating and getting back scratches seem to be two of their favorite pastimes. Luckily for the cows (and one bull) who call Niutousi home, these are two things that are not in short supply. For the price of admission, guests can enjoy giving the animals a good back rub and hand-feeding them fistfuls of grass. With each of the cattle consuming approximately 50kg of grass each day, no matter how many visitors pass through, they are perpetually enthusiastic participants in this activity.

Naturally, what goes in must come out, and those 50kg of grass results in a whole lot of dung. Not wanting to waste this valuable resource, Niutousi Farm sees it as an opportunity to educate visitors about circular models of agriculture. “This is a really beautiful one,” says Shen, grinning and proffering up a perfectly conical heap of dried dung that’s been preserved for demonstration purposes. It may seem like a strange thing to get excited about, but dung has many practical applications. It can be used as a building material, a fertilizer, or a fire source – and farm guests who pay a little extra can get personal experience of the latter two by mixing their own potting compost for a succulent and by cooking popcorn over a fire made with dried dung chips (just remember to wash your hands before you tuck in).

A precious find
Cow dung can be used as building material
It can also be used to make a fire
Making popcorn

But for me, the highlight of the visit was being able to have a go at plowing the old-fashioned way. As I swapped my shoes for a pair provided by the farm, Shen fetched one of the buffaloes from its enclosure. He returned with Niu Wang in tow and, apprehensively, I recalled his earlier description of her seemingly unstoppable pulling power. Shen then walked a couple of rows to show me how it’s done before inviting me to take hold of the plow. Stepping into the furrow, I sank up to my calves in thick, cold mud, and with a light flick of the rope, we were off. The first minute was spent simply focusing on walking and not giving myself an accidental mud facial, then it was time to attempt some actual plowing. Despite Niu Wang’s valiant leadership and plenty of unearned praise from Shen, I did little more than stir up the muddy water. After a couple more back-and-forths, I gave up, mud-spattered and tired, but exhilarated.
The following day I awoke to aching muscles and a few flecks of errant mud – the very best kinds of souvenirs!

Highlight of the farm visit, plowing with a water buffalo
Be prepared to get stuck in the mud