2019 / September
Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Some 20 years ago, fishponds in one area of Taiwan and an elementary school in another were abandoned. But what do those places look like now?
Whether in fishing villages on the coast or farming villages deep in the mountains, some farmers and fishermen have recently found success by turning to direct sales as so-called sixth-sector* producers. When that sixth-sector approach is matched with increasingly popular “food education” (including environmental and societal issues related to food) or small-scale tours of the locales of food production, it is a strategy that not only generates commercial value in itself but can also reenergize local economies. Yilan Ban in Yilan County’s Zhuangwei, and Big Hill North Moon in Hsinchu County’s Hengshan alike tell stories of revival through local revitalization.
* The term “sixth sector” comes from Japanese and refers to businesses that combine production with processing and distribution, thus integrating activities from the “primary,” “secondary” and “tertiary” sectors of the economy. These are termed Sectors 1, 2 and 3 in Japanese, and when the numbers are multiplied together, implying synergy between the different activities, they give the number six, hence the name “sixth sector.”
On a stiflingly hot day in early August in Yilan’s Zhuangwei Township, occasional cars and noisy gravel trucks pass along Zhuangbin Road in Dafu Village. It would be easy to miss the Dafu Fishermen’s Story Museum amid the rowhouses that line the road.
Before taking us to visit the fishponds, Dino C.T. Hsieh, the head of the museum, teaches us how to distinguish the small abalone farmed in Taiwan from those cultivated in mainland China.
“Taiwanese small abalone are mostly fed on Gracilaria, a kind of red algae, so their shells end up reddish brown.” Holding up shells of different colors, Hsieh reminds us: “The green-shelled small abalone that you might find at restaurants or catered events probably come from the mainland, because there they are fed on green seaweed, which turns their shells green.”
The Fishermen’s Story Museum occupies a former warehouse that stood empty for 15 years. But before that it was a seafood processing plant, producing both for export and for the domestic market. In 2002 a disease outbreak led to a dramatic drop in abalone yields and the near collapse of the industry. Abalone farmers faced high rents as well as breaks in the feed supply chain, causing massive price hikes. Many quit the industry. Where there had been more than 20 operators, now only four remain.
Hsieh previously took part in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs development project promoting the farming of grouper and rabbitfish in Palau. In May of 2018 he decided to return home, giving up a high salary to confront the issue of the many abandoned fishponds in his family’s aquaculture operation. “I decided to cultivate South American white shrimp because they reach maturity quickly and offer high profit margins. On the other hand, the risks are high as well.” Despite his outstanding professional skills in aquaculture, he knew he would face the issue of getting lowballed by middlemen.
“From being simply a producer, I wanted to build a ‘sixth sector’ business that would handle processing and sales as well,” Hsieh explains. In truth, most producers would like to do all three. The problem is that they lack the marketing skills and personnel. Consequently, to develop direct sales avenues, he joined the ranks of “Yilan Ban,” a processing, marketing and branding cooperative for independent producers that is supported by Yilan County and the National Development Council. “The iTurn consultancy guided Yilan fishermen and fish farmers on how to set up a direct-sales operation as part of Yilan Ban.”
Selected as a Taiwan Young Agricultural Ambassador for 2019, Hsieh produced about 1800 kilos of white shrimp last year. Some two-thirds of that he sold to a wholesale distributor, but the rest he sold directly to consumers, and he achieved a 95% repurchasing rate with those customers. Thanks to his access to consumers through the story museum, this year he has repurposed more of his family’s disused abalone ponds for shrimp farming. Despite doubling production, he still hasn’t been able to keep up with demand, and he plans further expansion.
Net to table at an experiential kitchen
Lin Shuzhen, who runs a kitchen in Gengfang Fishing Harbor in Yilan’s Toucheng Township, has taken to heart the goal of “net to table” by using the catch from her husband’s own fishing boats. “The captain’s wife,” as she is known, is hoping to gradually evade the grip of middlemen.
Five years ago, Lin enrolled in a master’s program in marketing, and now she runs an “experiential kitchen and cooking classroom,” providing an alternative kind of company retreat. When guests come to Gengfang Fishing Harbor, she introduces them to the local ecology, then has them cook seafood that varies with the season. She may teach her guests to make dolphinfish meatballs, or to fry cutlassfish and horse mackerel. She shows them how to blanch freshly caught squid, eschewing sauces so her guests can directly taste the pure sweet meat of the squid.
“Why doesn’t it have a fishy smell?” many ask. “It has a completely different flavor from the squid that you get in restaurants!” Regardless of their cooking skills, the guests, after tasting fresh local seafood, are able to directly buy local catch and make group and gift purchases, thus achieving Lin’s ultimate aim in operating a locally oriented “net to table” kitchen.
Ader Ho, the CEO of iTurn, explains that the fishing communities along Yilan’s coast are much like those elsewhere in Taiwan: lacking in employment opportunities and full of abandoned fish farms. Consequently, they are experiencing outflows of people in their prime working years. In Yilan’s Zhuangwei, for instance, about 70% of the fishponds lie idle.
“At first I was just responsible for making an inventory of local resources. Later, I got deeper and deeper into it,” he recalls. In order to bring the fishponds back to life he brought together the Zhuangwei 18 Islands design and culture team with the homestay industry and aquaculturists to create the Yilan Ban brand. By offering services and experiences, Yilan Ban has helped to bring producers direct sales opportunities and has spurred the revival of fishing villages.
Over on the other side of Taiwan, from the bustle and heat of Hsinchu City less than an hour’s drive takes us to the cool, verdant tranquility of Dashanbei, located in the village of Fengxiang in Hsinchu County’s Hengshan Township. Here at the entrance to the Qilong Historic Trail, there is another place that is an excellent example of rural revival: Big Hill North Moon, a culturally oriented tourism space that is working to revitalize local farming.
This is the site of the former Fengxiang Elementary School, which closed in 1983. In 2006 the government funded a NT$10 million renovation, turning it into the Dashanbei Museum, a Hakka culture and ecology center. They outsourced management of the operation, hoping that it would enliven the space, but with the operators changing year after year, it became just another community-operated space that practically no one visited.
In 2012 Peter Chuang was in graduate school at the Institute of Service Science at National Tsing Hua University, and his studies included field research in the Dashanbei area. Because he was studying enterprise transformation and entrepreneurial innovation, in 2014 he decided to “put his learning to use,” renting the abandoned school and turning it into Big Hill North Moon.
Innovation and altruism drive revival
Peter Chuang believes the business model for Big Hill is effective because it takes the approach of looking for success through altruism rather than through profit. But where do these ideas about altruism come from? He reveals that they were inspired by the cartoon character the Water Buffalo Principal, a creation of none other than renowned cartoonist Liu Hsin-ching, who is in fact an alumnus of Fengxiang Elementary.
In 2014, Liu came to Big Hill North Moon to attend a class reunion, where he recalled some anecdotes about the school’s principal: “The characters ‘Water Buffalo Principal’ and his wife were based on real people. To enable students to come to school, they’d mind their students’ water buffaloes or younger brothers and sisters. The principal would even help local people sell things, and write letters for them. He was a real spiritual beacon for locals.”
Chuang recalls his own experiences growing up: “For physical reasons, I’ve always received a lot of help from other people. If anyone made fun of me, classmates would always come out bravely in my defense. When I needed funding to start a business, my teacher lent me NT$300,000 without thinking twice.” Consequently, rather than merely focusing on self-gain, he also considers how Big Hill can solve local problems and help local people.
Chuang’s strategy is based on a consumer-focused model of communication known as AIETA (awareness—interest—evaluation—trial—adoption). Reviving previously abandoned spaces, Big Hill uses a bulletin board to post notices that build awareness among consumers about what is new there. They print menus that look like test papers, and have areas full of colorful classroom desks and chairs, and blackboards with fun chalk drawings. Designed for checking in on social media, these features capture consumers’ interest. First-time visitors will make their own evaluation and perhaps order a cup of coffee or buy some vegetables grown by small local farmers. After gaining experience through such a trial, they will adopt Big Hill and become fans, later revisiting with groups that they organize themselves or making group purchases of gift packs and thus supporting local farmers.
Happy days are here again
Just how arduous a process this was is hard for outsiders to understand. Formerly a graduate student with his nose in books, he now finds himself living a life of physical exertion as he weeds and works the land. But for Chuang, the greatest difficulty of his job is solving the problem of imbalances in agricultural production.
He saw farmers who planted organic bitter melons and then struggled to sell their crop because the melons looked ugly, and he made a deal with them to buy the whole lot to make bitter-melon candy.
After gradually gaining farmers’ trust, Big Hill North Moon has been holding 30 to 40 farming experience activities per year, with every season covered. In winter, they pick oranges and make kumquat sauce. In spring, they dig for bamboo shoots, make bamboo rice and watch fireflies. In summer they hold afternoon tea parties that feature fruits in season. In the fall, they offer “farmer for a day” experience events. From 2017, every weekend they have been hosting a farmers’ market on a formerly idle plot of land, thus opening up another direct sales avenue.
Chuang isn’t only bringing life to idle spaces. He’s also creating new economic value for the whole community.