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Farmer undeterred by degenerative disease

TAIPEI--Most farmers in Taiwan now rely on some form of machinery to cultivate their crops, and Yang Wen-gang, who suffers from a crippling degenerative disease, could probably benefit from some automated help more than most.

Yang has lived with spinalcerebellar ataxia, which has no known cure and results in severe stiffness in his joints that restricts his movement, for the more than four decades that he has lived off his eastern Taiwan farm.

But Yang, who will turn 61 in late February, continues to work his organic farm in Jian Township in Hualien County entirely with his own hands and feet, sometimes on all fours.

He joked in an interview in mid-January that he is probably one of the world's “longest-living” spinalcerebellar ataxia patients, having been diagnosed with the disease in the second grade.

His coordination deteriorated gradually after that, and he recalls going home to avoid physical education class and hide from his teachers and classmates.

Yet Yang, who now is wobbly on his feet and cannot stop his hands from shaking, did not give in to his condition. After graduating from elementary school, he began farming.

At first he was able to pick ripe fruit and vegetables simply by bending his waist, just like any ordinary farmer. Now, with the disease having taken a harsher toll, Yang must work his fields kneeling down.

“It's OK when it's not raining. On rainy days, I have no choice but to kneel down in water to work,” Yang says, simply describing a reality he has gotten used to rather than appealing for sympathy.

On the 2,905 square-meter plot of land that he works using organic farming techniques, Yang grows a variety of crops and flowers, from carrots, green onions, corn, garlic, and tomatoes to tulips and lilies, all by himself.

Yang also began running a guesthouse next to his farm several years ago. Visitors who stay there can pick anything they want and cook what they've picked for themselves. The organic fruit and vegetables are all grown to be eaten, he said.

Due to his lack of mobility, getting his crops to market is even a more forbidding chore than cultivating and harvesting what he grows. Most of his business involves consumers who visit his farm and directly pick and buy produce for their own use.

More recently, however, Yang has faced a challenge that may be tougher for him to overcome than his degenerative disease: the weather.

Heavy rains in late 2012 caused the collapse of the Suhua Highway — the main transportation artery between Hualien and northeastern Taiwan and Taipei — cutting off many of his regular visitors' access to his farm.

Frequent rain has also led to a roughly 50 percent decline in sales from last year, according to Yang.

“The farm was all full of mud after the rain. No one wanted to come,” he said.

Standing beside his field, a worried-looking Yang hopes that his organic farm will survive the difficult conditions and appealed to people to visit it if they have the chance.

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