Revitalizing a Rural Community

Guilai, Home of Burdock
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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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農村社區復活記

歸來強「蒡」出擊

文‧謝宜婷 圖‧林格立

台灣屏東歸來社區,當地出產的柳川牛蒡,味道濃郁,口感鮮嫩,是許多食材達人的料理口袋名單之一。無論是日式天婦羅、法式龍蝦料理或義式巧克力,歸來牛蒡都能奇妙地融入其中。過去20年來,在返鄉農夫陳建行的努力下,當地牛蒡更逐漸轉往有機耕植,並開發出多樣的加工品,打響了歸來「牛蒡原鄉」的名號。


社區發展協會奠定基礎

早在日治時期,歸來已經被選為種植牛蒡的土地,其地理位置位於中央山脈沖積扇,土壤富含鐵錳等礦物質,是老一輩口中肥沃的「紅砂土」。「很神奇,屏東就只有歸來這一區的土能種牛蒡。」返鄉農夫陳建行表示,歸來牛蒡因為土質環境與歷史因素,屬於日本柳川黑牛蒡,與市面常見的美白牛蒡不同。

不過,歸來牛蒡的種植面積狹小,無法與農機帶動的大農經濟競爭,加上1997年口蹄疫爆發,農產品也無法出口到日本,以外銷為主的歸來牛蒡,因此失去主要通路。

「種牛蒡越種越窮啊!」陳建行家中三代種植牛蒡,因此見證了其興衰史。同樣為此感慨的還有當時的屏東市民代表蔣家煌,他有感於家鄉的沒落,於是,到處拜訪各領域表現優秀的歸來子弟,邀請大家加入歸來社區發展協會,試圖從各方面恢復家鄉的榮耀,而陳建行正是其中被延攬的一位。

歸來社區發展協會於1996年成立,從組織「歸來壘球隊」開始,逐漸打響名號,培養居民對地方的認同感,接著,從人文、教育、環境、社福、產業等面向全方位改造。針對牛蒡產業,協會則於2000年,推出「五年發展計畫」,藉由研發牛蒡料理食譜、產業教學與體驗、舉行推廣活動,提升居民對牛蒡的認識,並對外宣傳歸來牛蒡的品牌形象。

「每次協會辦活動時,社區媽媽就會忙著包牛蒡春捲。」協會創辦人之一,現任屏東縣衛生局局長施丞貴回憶,當初為了推廣牛蒡,全社區動員,不遺餘力。而陳建行接下英雄帖後,並沒有隨即返鄉,他選擇留在台北農林公司工作,學習產業與市場的運作,假日再返鄉務農。

有機種植,二級加工

歸來牛蒡田,除了面積狹小,也因為要輪作,所以無法大量生產。陳建行解釋,若長期耕作牛蒡,土地會產生「連作障礙」(連續耕作),因此當地農民輪流種植青蔥、豆薯、牛蒡,而這三種作物也被稱為「歸來三寶」。

既然無法與中國大量生產的美白牛蒡抗衡,陳建行採取「市場區隔」的策略,以注重品質的消費者為目標客群,推出取得認證標章的牛蒡。他所帶領的產銷班,幾乎所有農民都取得「三章一Q」──「有機農產品標章」、「CAS臺灣優良農產品標章」、「產銷履歷認證標章」及「台灣農產生產溯源QR Code」,更在2011年,榮獲全國十大績優農業產銷班。

這樣的榮耀得來不易,「剛開始做有機,田裡都是蟲,數量多到隔壁的田也遭殃,我還要背著農藥桶去幫人灑藥。」陳建行笑著回憶,當初的辛酸如今成為趣話。過去,為了找出病蟲害的禍源,他多次從台北直奔高雄區農改場,尋求專家的協助。一大早,廠長還未踏入辦公室,他已經坐在裡面等待。

「這個阿憨啊,本來白肉底,在冷氣機下辦公,現在回來做事,曬得跟我一樣黑。」蔣家煌談起擁有流傳病學碩士學歷的陳建行,總是稱讚他不畏困苦的精神。在台北上班時,經常天還未亮,他就動身前往果菜批發市場,觀察農產品拍賣流程,製作數據分析,深入了解牛蒡產業。在屏東鄉下時,他也觀察到老農的牛蒡良率只有七成,其他被蟲咬的、斷裂留在土壤裡的,成本全化為烏有。

為了提升良率,陳建行運用台灣農林OEM、 ODM的思維,購入多台加工機器,將外表有瑕疵的二、三級牛蒡做成產品,第一級的則送往生鮮超市。在這樣的產業轉型策略下,農夫可以對加工產品自主訂價,不受市場供需變動的影響。

許多知名食品大廠也指名使用歸來牛蒡當原料,「當廠商要客製化時我能馬上做樣品給他。」陳建行自信地說,靠著過去豐富的代工經驗,現在他接到各種客製化要求時,總是駕輕就熟。

堅持在地化

為了向國際宣傳歸來牛蒡,陳建行曾到日本參加食品展。沒想到,當日本人一看到牛蒡茶,在紙上畫了三個大問號,直說「Impossible!」原來有生物科技背景的陳建行,透過監測牛蒡的醣化效應,研發出用冷水就能泡開的牛蒡茶,相較於當時日本的製茶技術,簡直是魔術般的神奇技法。

過了一星期,日本人飛來台灣,詢問陳建行的合作意願,但因為歸來牛蒡產量不多,加上台灣的品質認證標章在當地無效,因此洽談沒有結果。除了日本,其他外資也表達合作的興趣,不過,最後都被婉拒了。「外資都是以生意人的角度,想要引進美白牛蒡讓我們加工,但這樣就不是我回來的目的了。」陳建行寧願少賺一點,也要堅持使用歸來牛蒡,讓當地產業持續下去。

為了將歸來牛蒡交給下一代,陳建行透過產學合作,教導大學生種植的技術。他指著一層樓高的曳引機說:「每年都會有學生不小心弄壞,維修費用就要40幾萬。」大學農業相關科系裡,學生沒有真正的機具可以操作,他為了傳承,不惜成本讓年輕人學習。

而這台要價500萬的機具,不只是學子的教材,也是農民的福音,往後大家在翻土時,不僅變得更有效率,也因為機器能觸及地下一公尺的深度,牛蒡能長得更深。為了幫助返鄉青農,陳建行也提供設備給他們,為他們加工牛蒡,行銷則由年輕人負責。農委會主委得知這個作法後,也給予肯定,主動詢問他是否需要協助。

牛蒡對於陳建行,不只是事業,也是一生的志業。即使賠本,他也希望歸來人了解牛蒡是歸來的根。有一年,他舉辦採收嘉年華,提供兩分地,免費讓鄉民挖牛蒡。「你挖到的牛蒡,都算你的!那年我被老婆念了很久。」活動結束後,田裡頭留著許多被挖斷的牛蒡,難以拔出。長期下來,牛蒡產生的化學物質,會導致土壤被破壞。於是,陳建行決定改以教學的方式,帶大家認識家鄉特產。

共識、共事、一家人

2008年,陳建行創辦「大力蔘」品牌,販售通過三章一Q認證的牛蒡與相關產品,拓展在有機商店的通路。隔年,他帶著充足的準備返鄉。也在這一年,他的牛蒡事業終於轉虧為盈。他笑著說:「我在台灣農林賺的,都拿來補牛蒡六年的虧損了。」

迄今返鄉11年,大力蔘品牌已經是許多有機商店最大的供應商,近年更進軍全聯超市的南部門市,市場普及率越來越高。當年社區發展協會的任務,如今看來相當成功。

為了保障農民,陳建行與他們簽約時,都是以面積計價,每一分地的收穫量都是固定價格收購,避免受市場波動影響。

回想20年來的努力,陳建行不居功,而將功勞歸給社區發展協會的每個人。「當時大家都在外地,所以我們固定星期六晚上聚在一起討論。」施丞貴當時從挖掘歸來牛蒡的歷史開始,從文獻中找出歸來土壤的特質,現在,社區的青年工作隊正學習著種牛蒡。

「在農忙時,社區裡沒有閒人,大家都會去幫忙採收牛蒡。」陳建行打趣說,歸來牛蒡像是社會公益事業,即使沒有酬勞,大家也樂於貢獻心力。這樣的團結精神,讓歸來社區屢次獲得地方總體營造典範。

一顆願意奉獻的心會吸引更多善的力量,歸來牛蒡的銷售佳績,是當地人團結最好的象徵。正如同當初的推手蔣家煌所言:「共識、共事、一家人。」有了情感的連結,大家才能朝同一個方向努力。

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