Revitalizing a Rural Community

Guilai, Home of Burdock

2020 / October

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

The Yanagawa burdock root grown in the Guilai Community of Pingtung City has a rich flavor and fresh, tender texture highly favored by epicures. Guilai burdock can be wonderfully incorporated into many dishes, including Japanese-style tempura, French-style lobster, and Italian-style chocolate. Over the past two decades, thanks to the hard work of farmer Carl Chen, local burdock farmers have been gradually switching to organic cultivation, and have also developed a variety of processed products, earning Guilai the moniker “the home of burdock.”


Development association lays the foundations

Guilai was selected for burdock cultivation way back in the Japanese colonial era (1895‡1945). It lies on the alluvial fan of the Central Mountain Range, and its soil is rich in oxides like iron and manganese. People of the older genera­tion call this fertile land “red sand soil”; its scientific name is “arenosol.” “Strange to say, in all of Pingtung, burdock can only be cultivated here in Guilai.” Carl Chen, who returned home 11 years ago to take over the family farm, says that due to the local soil ­properties, as well as ­historical factors, the burdock grown in Guilai is dark Japanese Yanagawa burdock, which is different from the white burdock commonly seen on the market.

However, the area planted with burdock was small, and the community couldn’t compete economically with large-scale mechanized farming. Then, when an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease hit Taiwan in 1997, Guilai burdock, which was mostly exported, lost its main sales channels.

“The longer we grew burdock, the poorer we got!” Carl Chen’s family has been raising burdock for three generations, and bears witness to its rise and fall. Jiang Jiahuang, a Pingtung city councilor at the time, likewise lamented the decline of his hometown, and in 1996 had already begun to seek out young Guilai natives who were accomplished in their respective fields, inviting them to join the newly established Guilai Community Development Association in hopes of restoring Guilai to its former glory. Carl Chen was one of those recruited.

In 2000, the GCDA put forward a five-year plan for development of the burdock industry. Through the creation of recipes for burdock cuisine, training in cultivation and processing, experiential activities, and promotional events, the association educated local residents about burdock and promoted the brand image of Guilai burdock to outsiders.

After Carl Chen was invited to join the GCDA, he did not immediately return to Guilai. Instead he chose to stay in his job at the Taiwan Tea Corporation in Taipei and learn about how the burdock industry and market functioned, only returning home to work on the farm when he had time off.

From cultivation to processing

Given the impossibility of competing with mass imports of white burdock, Chen adopted a strategy of “market segmentation,” targeting quality-conscious consumers by producing burdock under certification schemes. Virtually all of the farmers in the production and marketing group that he leads have been awarded the “three labels and one code,” meaning certification labels for organic production, for the Certified Agricultural Standards scheme (for premium produce), and the Traceable Agricultural Products scheme, as well as the QR code for the Taiwan Agricultural Products Production Traceability System. In 2011, they were named one of Taiwan’s top ten agricultural production and marketing groups.

This status has not come easily. “When I first started to go organic, my fields were full of insects. There were so many that the fields next to mine also suffered badly, and I had to strap on a pesticide tank and go spray my neighbors’ crops.” Chen can now laugh as he recalls the hardships of the early days. Back then, in order to under­stand the sources of plant diseases and insect pests, several times he traveled from Taipei straight to the Kaohsiung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station to ask for help from experts. He would be there waiting first thing in the morning, before the director had even arrived.

When Chen was working in Taipei, he routinely was out the door before dawn, heading off to fruit and vegetable wholesale markets to observe the produce auctions and do statistical analysis to gain an in-depth understanding of the burdock sector. When in the Pingtung countryside, he observed that only 70% of the old farmers’ burdock crop was of saleable quality; the rest was damaged by insects or broke off and was left in the soil, taking a sizeable chunk out of their earnings.

To increase the yield rate, Chen adopted the OEM and ODM approach of the Taiwan Tea Corporation, becoming a processor as well as a primary producer. He bought many items of processing equipment and turned Grade II and Grade III burdock (with defects in appearance) into processed products, while Grade I burdock was sent to supermarkets to be sold fresh. With this transformation strategy in place, farmers could set their own prices for processed burdock, without being affected by the fluctu­ations in supply and demand in the fresh produce market.

Many well-known food manufacturers have chosen to use Guilai burdock as a raw material. “When com­panies ask for customized products, I can provide samples immediately.” Chen says with confidence that thanks to his abundant past experience with contract manufacturing, he can now easily handle requests for customized ­products.

Staying local

In order to promote Guilai burdock internationally, Chen once went to Japan to take part in a food expo. To his surprise, when a group of Japanese visitors saw his burdock tea, they wrote three large question marks on a piece of paper and said, “Impossible!” Chen, who has a background in biotechnology, had tested the gly­cation reaction in burdock and developed a burdock tea powder that can be steeped in cold water. Compared to the proces­sing techniques that existed in Japan back then, his new approach seemed like magic.

A week later, these Japanese businesspeople flew to Taiwan to ask Chen whether he would be willing to work with them. However, because the quantities of burdock grown in Guilai are small, along with the fact that Taiwan­ese quality certifications were not recognized in Japan at the time, the negotiations came to nothing. Other foreign investors besides the Japanese also expressed an interest in collaboration, but in the end all were turned down. “The foreign investors all looked at things purely from a business perspective. They wanted to bring in white burdock for us to process, but this was not my goal in coming back to my hometown.” Chen would rather earn a little less money and stick to using only Guilai burdock, so that this local industry can survive and thrive.

To pass Guilai burdock along to the next generation, Chen works with academia, teaching cultivation methods to university students. Pointing to a large tractor, he says, “Every year students make mistakes while operating this tractor and damage it, and it costs over NT$400,000 to repair.” Students on agriculture-­related courses have no real farm machinery on which to practice, so Chen is willing to absorb the cost to enable the next generation to carry his expertise forward.

This NT$5 million tractor is not only an apparatus for teaching students, it is also a boon for farmers. Since its purchase, the machine has made the plowing of fields more efficient, and because it can penetrate the soil to a depth of one meter, it allows the burdock to grow even deeper. In order to help out young people who have come back to farm in Guilai, Chen provides them with equipment and also processes their burdock for them, while the young people take care of their own marketing. When the minister of the Council of Agriculture heard about Chen’s efforts, he praised Chen and asked him whether there was anything the COA could do to help.

Consensus and shared responsibilities

In 2008 Chen founded the “Delisen” brand to sell burdock and related products with the “three labels and one code,” and he developed sales channels through organic food shops. The following year, with preparations all in place, he returned to his hometown. During that year, his burdock business at last turned from loss to profit. He says with a laugh: “The money I earned at Taiwan Tea Corporation all went on making up the losses in the first six years of burdock farming.”

Eleven years after Chen’s return home, his Delisen brand is now the largest supplier to many organic food shops, and in recent years it has begun selling to southern Taiwan branches of the PX Mart supermarket chain, so that its market penetration has been steadily increasing. It seems the goals that the GCDA set back in the day have attained quite a degree of success.

In order to protect farmers, when Chen contracts them to grow burdock for him, the price is calculated at a fixed amount per unit of land area, thereby avoiding the impact of market fluctuations.

Looking back at all the hard work put in over the last 20 years, Chen does not take credit for himself. Instead he gives kudos to everyone at the GCDA.

“At harvest time, no one in the community is idle. Everyone goes to help harvest burdock.” Chen quips that Guilai burdock is like a social welfare enterprise, to which people happily contribute whatever effort they can, even without remuneration. This spirit of unity has made it possible for Guilai to be named a model for local community regeneration on several occasions.

One dedicated person can inspire many others to work toward a common goal, and the excellent sales figures for Guilai burdock best symbolize the unity of local residents. Jiang Jiahuang, who has also been a moving force in the community from early on, expresses this with a motto: “Consensus, shared respons­ibil­ities, one family.” It is only through interpersonal attachments that everyone can work together in the same direction.

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