濁水溪畔的綠金傳奇

台灣生菜村
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2013 / 5月

文‧林欣靜 圖‧莊坤儒


提起雲林縣麥寮鄉,多數民眾可能會聯想起台塑六輕石化;但麥寮鄉其實也是我國極為重要的內外銷蔬菜產地,近年來更以「台灣生菜村」的招牌,在國際間享有盛名。

又名「美生菜」的結球萵苣,就是為麥寮鄉帶來鉅額商機的大功臣,年出口產值已逼近新台幣1億5,000萬元,行銷足跡遍及日本、韓國、新加坡、馬來西亞等亞洲多國。

麥寮鄉為何能走出灰濛暗沈的工業重鎮形象,化身為締造台灣萵苣出口傳奇的「綠金」園地?


位於濁水溪南岸、緊鄰台灣海峽的雲林縣麥寮鄉,地處「風頭水尾」,冬天總是吹著冷冽的東北季風,還常無預警地刮起漫天沙塵。

過去每逢9月開始吹起東北風,農民就得操煩二期稻作後的生計──既擔心種下去的蔬果無法承受惡劣的風土環境,也害怕萬一大豐收,菜價如土,連耕作成本都無法回收,最後往往只能選擇耐旱、耐寒卻價廉的蒜頭、蕃薯、花生等根莖類蔬菜,打發漫長的冬天。

年輕女農譜寫萵苣傳奇

然而,風水輪流轉,曾幾何時,冬天已成為麥寮農民最期待的一季。只要在11月至隔年3月來到此地,放眼所見盡是綠油油的萵苣田,舉凡結球、蘿蔓、皺葉等常在生菜沙拉出現的各式萵苣一應俱全。

「『眉仔包』(即結球萵苣)真好顧,只要45~60天就能收成,利潤嘛真穩定;阮只要負責出地、澆水,其他像育苗、施肥、灑藥等瑣碎工作,阿芬攏會派人來幫忙,」72歲的農婦周喜鵲笑說。

周喜鵲口中的「阿芬」,就是今年獲選為雲林縣優秀青年及全國12大模範農民的年輕女農郭淑芬。

今年才30歲的郭淑芬,圓圓的笑臉看起來仍有些稚氣未脫,極難想像眼前這個鄰家女孩,就是管理140個農戶、300甲菜田的「大掌櫃」;也是將每年萵苣的出口貨櫃,由12個倍增至400個的靈魂人物。

「生菜村的好成績,是已過世的父親奠定基礎,加上兩位哥哥聯手協助及農民們的情義相挺,才有今日成果,」她謙虛地說。

為萵苣量身訂做的寶地

郭淑芬的爸爸郭明鑽,是為麥寮引進契作概念的先驅。1996年,他率先聯合鄰近小農成立產銷班,期以計畫性耕作,解決長期來以來農民盲目種植的困境。

剛開始產銷班的農產品以高麗菜和青葱為主,但獲利極為有限。不久後,美國出現生菜欠收的危機,苦等不到貨源的肯德基等西式連鎖速食店,只好轉向採購台灣生菜,郭明鑽看見了商機,開始鼓吹旗下農民轉種。

不過,對於一輩子也不曾吃過生菜沙拉的老農來說,結球萵苣是極為陌生的「舶來品」。他們只能套用過去種植包心葉菜的經驗試種。殊不知結球萵苣不能時常澆水,也不宜像高麗菜種得結結實實才採收,否則口感就會變得又粗又硬。

「爸爸和眾多叔伯付了很多學費,才漸漸找出如何將萵苣種得鮮脆多汁的『眉角』,」郭淑芬說。

不過,撇開技術與經驗不論,冬季的麥寮,其實十分適合種植結球萵苣,因為這種蔬菜對環境變化非常敏感,只能在攝氏15~25度下種植;它又性喜8~10度的日夜溫差,麥寮的氣候條件,恰好符合它的需求。

另一方面,灌溉萵苣的水分,也必須嚴格控制在恰到好處的範圍,不能太溼或太乾。而麥寮土質屬排水極快的沙質壤土,再加上海風強勁,可加速蔬菜行使蒸散作用,菜葉的口感也能變得更為鮮脆。

麥寮種種不利作物成長的風土因素,對萵苣來說反而是不可多得的加分。「很多農業專家來考察後都說,這裡根本是為萵苣量身訂做的寶地!」郭淑芬笑說。

初探日本市場

由於先天環境的優勢,經過幾年摸索,產銷班漸漸在台灣的內銷市場闖出名號,並透過貿易商的轉介,開始銷售少量萵苣至新加坡。

2005年,則是改變產銷班命運的轉捩點。那年日本冬季極為寒冷,遲至3月還被大雪籠罩,無法種植萵苣。非用生菜不可的麥當勞、Subway等西式餐飲業者,只好轉向鄰國求援。

四處蒐集生菜的日本商人,無意間在新加坡吃到台灣產的結球萵苣,發現其口感及鮮度俱佳,有成為日方備用貨源的潛力。於是透過常往返於台日兩地的貿易商陳立洋與郭明鑽接觸,希望能以契作方式,將麥寮生產的結球萵苣出口至日本。

對苦撐多年的郭明鑽來說,這無疑是天上掉下來的好機會,但務農一輩子的他,根本不懂日方要求的公司組織章程、生產履歷等文件規範。這時候陳立洋提醒他:「何不請你女兒回來幫忙?」這句話改變了郭淑芬的人生。

當時郭淑芬剛從靜宜大學財務金融系畢業,沒有任何工作經驗。不過頭腦靈活,又曾受過財經專業訓練的她,很快就抓到日本客戶的需求。她把家裡客廳當作臨時辦公室,鉅細靡遺地製作完整的耕種紀錄和生產風險評估簡報,終於順利為產銷班爭取到第一筆的日本訂單。

投筆從農三兄妹

事實上,飲食相當西化的日本,對結球萵苣的需求極高,就連吃個牛丼,都得配份生菜沙拉。但每年11月至隔年3月,日本國內都會出現因溫度過低、難以種植萵苣的「生產空窗期」,只得大量向美國進口。

不過,航行大半個地球才到日本的美國萵苣,不但已耗費鉅額運輸成本,鮮度也大幅降低;若是能改由鄰國台灣供貨,將可為日方節省大幅支出。

此時郭明鑽也意識到,日本將成為麥寮萵苣開拓商機的重要市場,但光靠自己及一群只懂得埋頭苦幹的老農,絕對無法擴大現有的營運規模。他誠懇地要求三個學財經的子女返鄉協助,郭淑芬及兩位哥哥也從此展開「投筆從農」的生涯。

在父親的安排下,外文能力最好的大哥郭江龍,負責維修進口設備及中盤商的批發業務;對農事最有興趣的二哥郭進展,則主導田間作業及農民管理;年紀最輕、反應卻最機敏的郭淑芬,當然就是掌管產銷班整體營運的CEO。

由於當時麥寮萵苣的品質並不穩定,製成率(每顆萵苣實際可食用的比例)僅約40%,尚未達到日方的55%以上要求。為此三兄妹不但大手筆地邀請日本的萵苣專家來台指導,更親赴日本長野縣的萵苣產區取經,從頭苦學日本農夫一板一眼的育苗、施肥、除蟲、灑藥等種植技術。經過幾年努力,終於將麥寮萵苣的製成率,節節提升至70%以上。

為了提升產品的辨識度,他們也在2007年成立「台灣生菜村」的自有品牌;更花心思讓產品通過「吉園圃安全蔬果」、「結球萵苣TGAP產銷履歷」、「GlobalGap全球優良農畜產品」等多項國內外的檢驗認證,務求提高國際市場對台灣生菜的採購信心。

一條鞭法的系統式管理

在管理營運方面,主導者郭淑芬則力求擺脫傳統「先種再賣」的農作模式,改以「訂單式生產」的企業邏輯運作。每年8月,管理中心會開始接受國內外訂單,9月起開放產銷班農民排隊登記栽種面積,並依出貨時間表建立生產排序。

值得一提的是,參與萵苣契作的農民極為「省工」,只要負責最簡單的澆水照顧即可,其他像是育苗、施肥、灑藥、防蟲、巡田及採收等工作,皆由管理中心培訓的團隊統一協助。

郭淑芬解釋,前幾年曾有一回,即將出口至日本的萵苣,因農藥殘留檢驗未過而慘遭退櫃,也讓一整個冬季的辛苦全都付諸流水。事後追溯才發現,部分契作農民並未按照標準程序栽種,才會鑄下大錯。

為了解決這個問題,他們乾脆訓練噴藥班及採收班,自行掌控最關鍵的田間作業,同時也可幫助老農解決人工不足的困擾。

「用這種系統化的管理方式,我們就不需擔心農藥殘留的問題;也可大幅提高收成效率,最多一天甚至可收成5甲菜田,農民也更有意願與我們合作,」郭淑芬說。

MIT生菜站上世界舞台

至於收購價格方面,目前參與契作的農民,每分地約可領回一萬四千多元;土地較多的農民,一個冬季約可賺得數十萬至上百萬元的「年終獎金」。

「我們的收購價,或許不是最高,卻一定合理又穩定,」郭淑芬強調。

由於省工又能保障收入,有意願合作的農民越來越多,契作農田也從10年前的20~30甲,大幅擴增至300甲;每年的萵苣出口量,更巨幅爬升至逼近4,800噸,約占全國總出口量的6成。

除了既有的日本市場,現在連韓國、新加坡、香港、馬來西亞及中國上海,都有機會吃到來自「台灣生菜村」的優質萵苣。內銷方面則主攻摩斯漢堡、全家便利商店等嚴選食材的客戶。

如今已嫁至彰化的郭淑芬,仍心懸著她與父兄一手開創的萵苣事業。在取得婆家諒解後,每天都耗費來回兩小時的車程趕回娘家工作,即使是懷孕臨盆前都不例外。

每逢5~8月的農閒期,則是她與兩個哥哥最珍惜的「充電假」。他們不但會分批前往國外農場觀摩,也積極參與農政單位及各大學開設的農事訓練課,務求提升自己的專業能力。至今三兄妹已考取了數十張農技專業證照,洋洋灑灑地掛滿管理中心。

「我們比這群參與契作的叔伯年輕數十歲,唯有端出『聽我的不會錯』的鐵證,才能讓他們信任指揮,所以更需要闖出實績,隨時強化自己的專業能力才能服眾,」郭淑芬說。

濁水溪畔的廣闊田野、務農長大的背景,養成了郭淑芬明快爽朗又勤奮的性格,也讓她能一步到位地抓緊市場及農民需求,成功開創出亮眼的綠色經濟奇蹟,並將台灣生菜推向世界舞台。

年輕的郭淑芬已用實力證明:農業絕非夕陽產業!

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EN

Taiwan Lettuce Village Turns Green into Gold

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!

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