Citizen Economy on the Rise
Flowers in the Badlands
In rural Neimen Township, one cooperative is soaring on exports of flaming red flamingo lilies, and offering alternative employment to an erstwhile hog heaven
Flowers in the BadlandsBy Scott Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 393 )
A widening wealth gap, climbing commodity prices, sluggish wage growth, offshore industrial migration... Taiwan's economic woes have resulted in rising unemployment, a rash of "credit slaves" and a host of disillusioned families. Yet despite the causes for cynicism, a form of citizen economy based on cooperation is taking shape throughout Taiwan.
Through cooperation, group purchasing and democratic participation, people are not only providing job opportunities for the unemployed, but also helping many disheartened individuals restore their self-confidence. These micro-forces are reaffirming the value and dignity of work, cultivating deep social capital and restoring the long lost Taiwanese virtues of sincerity and trust.
In the past six months, things have gotten quite lively indeed in Kaohsiung County's Neimen Township, situated on the upper reaches of the Gaoping River. People from all walks of life are coming to meet 45 year-old Lin Ching-shan, who last year won the Council of Agriculture's Shen Nong Award as one of the island's top ten agriculturalists. They are coming to find out how he organized town residents into a collective that now accounts for nearly 30 percent of Japan's flamingo lily market, allowing a NT$100 million-plus flower business to blossom in the badlands.
The most arresting feature of mostly mountainous Neimen is the green limestone cliffs comprising the forbidding landscape. In this harsh environment only bamboo and white popinac are able to survive the dry conditions.
More than a decade ago, when Taiwanese pork could still be exported to Japan, nearly one-third of Neimen residents were employed in the hog-raising industry. Walking through Neimen at that time, one's nostrils were assaulted by the pungent aroma of pig excrement. Although the wastewater produced by the hog farms fouled the Gaoping River, residents seemed convinced there was no other choice of livelihood amid these inhospitable surroundings.
Returning Home to Make a New Start
In his youth, Lin became involved in landscape architecture, eventually scoring the contract for landscaping at Taipei 101. Ten years ago, fed up with the duplicitous, untrusting nature of urbanites, he decided to return to his native Neimen to start a new career.
But Lin found himself at a loss. He had returned and had been raising hogs for only a brief period when Taiwan's hoof and mouth disease outbreak struck. Seizing upon Taiwan's orchid craze of the time, Lin looked into the feasibility of orchid cultivation. But he found that the automated equipment needed for butterfly orchid cultivation required an investment upwards of NT$1 million. Small farmers would be unable to bear the cost of competing with corporate farmers. After further research, Lin found that flamingo lilies were not only highly variegated, but their cultivation was also relatively labor-intensive and, thus, unlikely to become a major focus of corporate farms emphasizing automation. So in 1997 Lin and three other Neimen residents began raising funds to invest in flamingo lily cultivation.
"It was tough going early on. We didn't know anything," Lin recalls. Initially, the four rented a plot of land a little less than two hectares in size. After two years of trial and error in cultivation and marketing methods, they were in business. But revenues that first year were just NT$2 million, not nearly enough return on their investment more than two years prior.
With no refrigeration equipment, the four were forced to load the lilies onto a truck and rush them to a refrigerated warehousing facility in Pingdong County's Gaoshu Township each time they harvested, from where they would be trucked to auction markets to be sold alongside the produce of other farmers. A fair number of the lilies would succumb to the bone-jarring ride over the area's mountain roads, but the four could only grin and bear it.
By 2000, Lin and company had improved the quality of their marketing and distribution. After their initial exports to Japan were well received among Japanese businesses, their focus gradually shifted from the domestic toward the export market.
Pooling Small Farmers into a Massive Plantation
With prices at Taiwan's auction markets subject to wild fluctuations, in 2004 Lin and company decided to form the Green Flower Transport and Sales Cooperative, pooling the resources of local flamingo lily growers to focus on export markets as a means of insulating themselves from the vagaries of the domestic market.
"Farmers are great at production but don't know much about marketing," Lin says. "So we thought we'd pool the small farmers and adopt a large-farm strategy, promoting cooperative members' produce internationally."
When Tsai Fu-chin, director of the Kaohsiung County Agriculture Bureau, got wind that a group of young locals were growing well-regarded flamingo lilies, he made time for a visit. Heartily approving of Lin's strategy, Tsai returned to the county government to file a funding request with county magistrate Chiu-hsing Yang for the purchase of additional refrigeration equipment for the cooperative, so that members would not be constantly faced with the hardships of immediate transport of their produce to distant city markets.
With the tireless efforts of Lin and his fellow flower farmers and the assistance of the Kaohsiung County Agriculture Bureau, the Green Flower Transport and Sales Cooperative's flamingo lily cultivation has grown from its original plot of less than two hectares to the present 16 hectares. Cooperative membership has also grown from the four founding members to its current roster of 50 formal members and 50 associate members.
Among the membership, many were unemployed locals or young people looking for new jobs. Some used to be bricklayers. Others were insurance agents or construction workers. With the economic downturn and loss of income, they learned the craft of flamingo lily cultivation under Lin's guidance.
With the combined power of many, the cooperative inks its own contractual agreements with Japanese companies, thereby maintaining a level of price stability for their lilies. Consequently, when the balance of supply and demand falls out of whack in domestic flower markets and trading companies are bargaining ruthlessly with other farmers, the cooperative is able to maintain a strong negotiating position, with its "Product of Neimen" branding logo stamped on packing crates proudly announcing to Japanese consumers that the gorgeous lilies contained therein are from Neimen, Taiwan.
During the past 10 years, of every 10 flamingo lilies sold in the Japanese market, eight were grown in Taiwan, with nearly three of those produced in Neimen.
Each year, the Green Flower Transport and Sales Cooperative exports between 2.5 and 2.6 million flamingo lilies worth NT$100 million to Japan, for an average 50 percent profit return on each lily. Clearly, the competitiveness of small flower farmers takes no backseat to that of the new electronic aristocrats and their high-tech automation.
Knocking on Doors of EU, Russia, Middle East
Lin often leads delegations of coop members to floriculture exhibitions in the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia and North America, in an effort to avoid over-reliance on the Japanese market.
Despite a lack of English skills, the group of small farmers has not only been able to pick up on the latest trends in floriculture through a combination of sign language and pantomime, they've also gotten a foot in the door of the EU, Russian and Middle Eastern markets. Frequently foreign customers take the 10-plus hour trip to visit Neimen just to see how the astonishingly beautiful flamingo lilies are produced.
"Supporting small farmers isn't easy, but we can't give up," says Tsai Fu-chin of the Kaohsiung County Agricultural Bureau. "The return on agricultural investment won't necessarily measure up to commercial investment. In the case of Lin Ching-shan, he's seen ten-fold growth. The key is whether or not farmers have the confidence in themselves," he continues, expounding on the cooperative's success.
Despite the success of having created Neimen's "flamingo lily miracle," Lin and the other cooperative members this year have yet another dream. The cooperative hopes to fund the establishment of a free evening learning center in cooperation with students from Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages or Shih Chien University, to tutor local kids and help them with their schoolwork and establish a computer network, thus helping narrow the educational and digital gap between urban and rural areas.
"Who says farming communities have no future? So long as farmers have confidence in themselves and are willing to cooperate, we can create employment for our kids and keep the agricultural sector growing in perpetuity," Lin says, as he leads a group of coop members – average age just 35 – and paints a picture of a beautiful future for his hometown.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy
Chinese Version: 種火鶴 讓山不再窮、水不惡