2013 / 5月
Lin Hsin-ching /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
At the mention of Yunlin’s Mailiao Township, the Formosa Plastics Group’s No. 6 Naphtha Cracker Plant usually springs to mind first, but Mailiao also produces large amounts of vegetables, both for domestic and foreign consumption. Under the brand name Taiwan Lettuce Village, Mailiao lettuce in particular has been acquiring a good reputation overseas.
Iceberg lettuce, known as “American lettuce” in Taiwan, has brought tremendous business opportunities to Mailiao. Exports of the vegetable, mostly to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and other Asian nations, are nearing NT$150 million per year.
How has Mailiao, once a smoggy industrial center, been able to transform itself into an exporter of “green gold”?
To the south side of the Zhuoshui River, beside the Taiwan Strait, Mailiao is famous for its windy weather and frequent floods. In the winter, when the frigid northeasterly winds descend upon it, sandstorms can occur without warning.
After harvesting the second crop of rice at the start of the northeasterly winds in September, farmers in Mailiao used to worry about what to plant next. They would fret that fruits and vegetables would be unable to withstand the tough conditions in the months that followed, or conversely that harvests would be so bountiful that crop prices would crash, and their revenues wouldn’t meet their expenses. The farmers would usually end up planting root crops, such as garlic, sweet potatoes and peanuts, which withstand the cold well but don’t bring high profits.Lettuce farming legend
Yet times change, and now winter is the season that Mailiao farmers await with the greatest anticipation. In the months from November to March, fields planted with lettuce here stretch as far as the eye can see. The varieties include iceberg, romaine and crispa curly leaf.
“Iceberg lettuce is really easy to grow. It’s ready to harvest in 45–60 days, and profits are extremely stable,” says 72-year-old farmer Zhou Xique. “What’s more, all we’ve got to do is contract out our land and irrigate it. Ah-fen sends out her helpers to do everything else, from planting the seedlings, to providing fertilizer and applying pesticides.”
The “Ah-fen” mentioned by Zhou is Kuo Shu-fen, a young woman who was selected as an “outstanding youth” of Yunlin County and as one of the nation’s “12 model farmers.”
Just 30 this year, Kuo has a round smiling face that still possesses much of the innocence of a child. But her girl-next-door looks belie her power as manager of nearly 290 hectares of fields on 140 family farms. She is the major mover and shaker behind the growth in Mailiao lettuce exports from 12 to 400 container loads a year.Precious foreign orders
Kuo Shu-fen’s father Kuo Ming-tsuan introduced Mailiao to crop contracts. In 1996, he took the lead in organizing nearby local farmers to create an agricultural production co-op, which enabled greater planning so as to overcome the problems faced by small farmers when blindly planting crops unaware of what was most suitable for their land’s natural conditions.
At first the co-op mainly planted cabbages and scallions, but those crops offered limited profits. Soon, however, the United States was facing a serious shortage of lettuce, and Western fast-food chains located in Taiwan, such as KFC, had no choice but to switch from importing their lettuce to buying from local suppliers. Kuo Ming-tsuan saw a business opportunity and began to urge farmers to change their crops.
But for old farmers who had never eaten a salad in their lives, heads of lettuce were exotic things from abroad. These farmers had only their experiences in planting vegetables such as cabbages and mustard greens to draw from. They didn’t realize that lettuce shouldn’t be watered too often and gets tough if allowed to grow to full size.
“My father and the other farmers put in a lot of work and paid their dues before gradually figuring out the trick to growing crisp yet succulent lettuce” says Kuo Shu-fen.
Setting aside the matters of experience and technique, the winter season in Mailiao is in fact well suited for planting iceberg lettuce. Extremely sensitive to the weather, iceberg can only be planted when the temperature range is 15–25°C. Preferring a day-night temperature variation of about 8–10°C, iceberg is a variety perfectly suited to Mailiao winters.
What’s more, the amount of irrigation has to be tightly controlled. The soil can’t be too wet or too dry. The sandy quality of Mailiao’s soil allows for quick drainage, so that it never gets waterlogged, and the ocean breezes promote rapid evaporation of water from the leaves. These local characteristics help to keep the leaves of the lettuce crisp.Japanese market first
With these natural advantages, the co-op, after several years of trial and error, gradually gained a reputation for itself in the domestic market. Via an introduction from a trading company, it then began to export small quantities of lettuce to Singapore.
The year 2005 was a turning point for the co-op. Japan suffered a harsh winter that year, with large March snowfalls that made planting lettuce impossible. It prompted Western fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Subway that had to have vegetables to look to neighboring nations for supplies.
Japanese dealers looked everywhere before stumbling upon iceberg lettuce from Taiwan in Singapore. They were impressed with its flavor and freshness and viewed it as having the potential for being a backup supply for the Japanese market. Chen Le-yang, who frequently travels between Taiwan and Japan for his food trading company, got in contact with Kuo, and they were hopeful that they could sign a contract to export iceberg lettuce grown in Mailiao to Japan.
Having struggled for many years, Kuo regarded the chance of exporting to Japan as an opportunity that had fallen from heaven. Yet as someone who had been a farmer all his life, he was baffled when potential Japanese customers wanted to see the co-op’s corporate charter and production résumé. It was at this point that Chen asked, “Why don’t you ask your daughter to help?” The suggestion would change Kuo Shu-fen’s life.
Back then Kuo had just graduated from Providence University with a degree in finance, and had no work experience. Yet she was a quick study, and was soon able to grasp the needs of Japanese customers thanks to her educational training. Using her living room as a temporary office, she created detailed and professional planting records and production risk assessments. With these, the co-op was able to garner its first set of orders from Japan.Turning it over to the next generation
The reality is that Japan’s diet has become quite Westernized, and the country has a huge demand for iceberg lettuce. But every year from November to March, there is a gap in domestic supplies of iceberg, so that large amounts have to be imported, almost all of which formerly came from the United States.
Nevertheless, shipping in lettuce all the way from the US is not only costly; it also greatly reduces freshness. By switching to lettuce grown in nearby Taiwan, Japanese purchasers have been able both to save a lot of money and to acquire fresher supplies.
Kuo Ming-tsuan understood that Japan represented an important potential new market for Mailiao. But he also realized that the co-op couldn’t expand the scale of their operations by relying exclusively on him and the other old timers, so he invited his three children, all of whom had studied business, to come back home and help out. It was then that Kuo Shu-fen and her two older brothers threw themselves into new careers in agriculture.
At first the quality of Mailiao lettuce was uneven, with only about 40% judged as being up to snuff. That was below the Japanese side’s requirement of 55% or more. Consequently, the three of them not only paid a Japanese lettuce expert to come to Mailiao to give pointers, they also journeyed to Nagano Prefecture themselves to study planting, fertilizing, and pest control techniques first hand from Japanese farmers. After several years of hard work, they were able to gradually raise the rate of acceptable lettuce produced in Mailiao to 70% and higher.
In order to raise recognition of Mai-liao lettuce, in 2007 they established their own brand of “Taiwan Lettuce Village,” and to gain global purchasers’ trust in Taiwan produce, they worked hard to attain various domestic and foreign food safety certifications, including GAP and TAP.Linear production system
In terms of operations, Kuo Shu-fen decided not to wait until after growing the crop to try to sell it. Instead, she looks for advance buyers. Every August the management center takes orders from home and abroad, and in September it asks member farmers to register their acreage, arranging for production to meet a predetermined schedule of shipments.
It’s worth noting that the farmers who sign lettuce contracts are able to save on labor. All the farmers have to handle is the basic work of irrigation. Everything else, from raising and planting out seedlings, to applying fertilizers and pesticides, to checking on the fields and harvesting, is handled by teams from the management center.
Kuo explains that a few years ago lettuce shipped to Japan was sent back because it failed an inspection test for pesticide residue. As a result, all of the co-op’s work that winter was for naught. It was discovered that some of the co-op’s farmers were ignoring proper procedures.
To resolve the problem, the central office trained harvesting and pesticide spraying squads, thereby both gaining direct control of these key field operations and also helping farmers overcome the agricultural labor shortage.Produce made in Taiwan
In terms of revenue, contracted farmers now obtain NT$14,000 for every tenth of a hectare under winter cultivation, so that those with large farms can make a “year-end bonus” of hundreds of thousands of NT dollars.
Because they can receive a steady income without providing any labor, more and more farmers want to participate. The area that the co-op has under cultivation has risen from 20–30 hectares to nearly 290 hectares. The amount of Mailiao iceberg lettuce being exported has risen to nearly 4800 tons, accounting for about 60% of all exports of the crop.
High-quality Taiwan Lettuce Village lettuce is now being exported to Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Malaysia, in addition to Japan. In the domestic market, the MOS Burger chain, FamilyMart convenience stores, and other purchasers that insist upon food of the highest quality are among those placing orders.
For Kuo and her two brothers, the idle farming period from May to August is a cherished time to recharge their batteries. To raise their professional understanding, they take turns going abroad to learn about best agricultural practices and in Taiwan they actively participate in agricultural training sponsored by government agricultural agencies and various universities. The dozens of certificates they’ve gained at these programs now adorn the management center walls.
“We’re many decades younger than the co-op’s contract farmers, so we’ve got to provide ironclad evidence that we know what we’re talking about to get them to trust us,” says Kuo.
Kuo grew up in an agricultural family amid the expansive Mailiao farmlands that extend to the banks of the Zhuoshui River. It is a background that has given her a sunny disposition and an ability to work hard, and it has enabled her to quickly grasp the needs of both the market and farmers. With these skills, she has helped to deliver a bright green economic miracle and to bring international acclaim to Taiwanese lettuce.
Young Kuo is proof that farming in Taiwan is no sunset industry!