Enabler of Happiness: Kaohsiung County's Chiu-hsing Yang
The Flamingo Lily Miracle
Southern Taiwan's Kaohsiung County is harnessing sophisticated farming techniques and tourism marketing to optimize its agricultural and fishing resources.
The Flamingo Lily MiracleBy Scott Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 380 )
This year brought a rich harvest for flamingo lily farmers like Lin Ching-shan in Kaohsiung County’s Neimen Township.
One third of Taiwanese flamingo lily exports are produced by the “Green Flower Transport and Sales Cooperative,” which groups more than 30 local flower farmers. The cooperative not only holds the top spot in terms of flamingo lily imports in Japan, but this year also began to make inroads into the markets of the European Union, Russia and the Middle East. Eight out of ten cut flamingo lilies imported into Japan originate from Taiwan. And three out of these eight Taiwan-grown flowers come from Neimen Township.
Thanks to their cooperation these small flower farmers are able to export 2.5-2.6 million flamingo lilies worth NT$100 million to Japan every year. The average profit margin for a single flamingo lily can reach nearly 50 percent, which shows that the competitiveness of these small flower growers holds its own against the leading high-tech companies.
Flower Miracle Attracts Youth
Long disparaged as an inhospitable backwater, Neimen Township all of a sudden has attracted worldwide attention. Businesspeople and agricultural officials from Japan, Europe and Southeast Asia keep flocking to this remote small town. The economic miracle created by the flamingo lily export zone in Neimen, which was established with the guidance and assistance of Kaohsiung County’s Agriculture Bureau, is drawing back young people who left in search of greener pastures, and also attracting people from other parts of Taiwan to see the new booming industry for themselves.
Fifteen young people have been lured back to Neimen Township thanks to fiscal support from the “Wandervogel Project,” a program by the central government’s Council of Agriculture aimed at teaching the younger generation more about agriculture and motivating them to find careers in farming. These aspiring farmers, some of whom hold college or university degrees, are ready to delve into flamingo lily growing. Meanwhile, the town has become a mandatory stop on the campaign trails of the presidential candidates from both of Taiwan’s main political camps.
Neimen’s new agricultural miracle has taken place because its flower farmers are striving for self-advancement, but also due to Kaohsiung County magistrate Chiu-hsing Yang’s high regard for agriculture.
In early 1997 co-op member Lin Ching-shan, then a pig farmer, was considering switching to another business, because the foot-and-mouth disease had severely hurt the livestock industry and the government had begun to discourage swine farming for environmental reasons. Back then the market for moth orchids was hot in Taiwan, so much so that a single flower pot with a new orchid variety commanded prices of more than NT$1 million. Lin was quite excited by these prospects. But his dream of becoming an orchid farmer was soon dashed, when he witnessed how many large corporations entered the lucrative business, forcing smaller, less competitive flower farmers to give up and shut down.
He searched for a crop that was suitable for small farms, yielded high profits, and could not easily be produced by large industrialized agribusinesses. Eventually he picked the flamingo lily, because it requires meticulous care and cannot be easily mass-produced.
In the very beginning Lin and his three business partners stumbled along, managing a flower farm of less than two hectares. Since they lacked experience, the novice flamingo lily growers harvested the first cut flowers only after two years. Then again, because they did not have cold storage facilities, a high share of the flamingo lilies spoiled on their long trip to packaging and shipping facilities in Tainan or Pingdong cities. As a result, they posted a total turnover of just NT$2 million per year.
When more than six years ago Chiu-hsing Yang, who hails from a farming family, became Kaohsiung County magistrate, his foremost concern was to improve the lives of local farmers. “Farmers really have a hard life. We simply can’t give up on them,” Yang says. Yang has always held particularly strong feelings for the farmers and fishermen who account for one sixth of his county’s 1.2 million residents. Yang recalls how he used to remind his colleagues in the Agriculture Bureau, “Go to the countryside, go there again and again to figure out what the farmers really need.”
In a lucky coincidence Tsai Fu-chin, the director of the county’s Agriculture Bureau, heard about the youngsters from Neimen Township who were doing quite well growing flamingo lilies. So he went there to take a closer look himself. Tsai was moved to see the efforts of Lin and his companions. Yet he found it a great shame that they successfully grew flamingo lilies of superior quality but much of their hard work came to naught because they suffered high damage for lack of a cold storage truck. Therefore, he went back to the county government and asked Yang to greenlight a budget allowance to help Lin buy the cold storage truck he needed.
That move greatly boosted Lin’s morale. He is now able to produce flamingo lilies of reliable quality. The scale of his business has consistently expanded, and he has founded the cooperative, which has grown into a 16-hectare operation.
Assisted by the Agriculture Bureau, Lin and other flamingo lily growers launched the “Neimen Township” brand of flamingo lilies in the Japanese flower market. Moreover, contracts with Japanese flower traders mean stable income and help them to avoid the exploitative business relations that make it impossible for other flower farms to survive.
Desolate Harbor Reborn as Lovers’ Wharf
On top of that, Tsai has made efforts to revive the long deserted Singda Harbor in Kaoshiung County’s Jiading Township by developing the fishing harbor into a sightseeing spot. Since fishermen from China started to fish off the Chinese coast with explosives, overfishing the area, the fishermen of Jiading Township no longer enjoyed the good mullet catches that were the source of their livelihoods, and the harbor fell into disuse. Tsai suggested to Yang that Kaohsiung County follow the example of the Fisherman’s Wharf in Danhsui, north of Taipei, which thanks to a magnificent footbridge and a bustling night market has become a popular leisure destination. Tsai hoped to make the fishing harbor a new landmark in the county by underlining its mullet fishing tradition and building a “Lover’s Wharf.”
After Yang gave his nod of approval, the inventive Tsai managed to find ways to plant trees on Singda Harbor’s originally barren saline beaches. Yang, known for his meticulous attention to aesthetics and quality in public infrastructure development, also often went to the construction site to check on the progress of the Lover’s Wharf project.
Since the wharf’s new theme building was completed and illuminated at night with multicolored lighting, the once deserted harbor has gained a romantic ambiance. Tsai hopes that additional attractions planned for the future, such as a fish and farmer’s market, a water sports area, and field trips to the area’s mangrove swamps will attract tourists in droves, thus creating new sources of income for the local fishermen.
During Yang’s time in office Kaoshiung County’s most famous farm products, such as small-seeded Jade Purse lychees, sugar-sweet Golden Diamond pineapples, papayas, bananas and jujube dates, have found export markets in North America, Japan and other regions, generating an annual turnover in excess of NT$6.7 billion.
But the farmers of Kaohsiung County still face a host of challenges. Taiwan’s agriculture industry is being squeezed on two fronts. One is highly industrialized agriculture like that of the Netherlands, which managed within a short time to shake Taiwan’s hard-earned position as a top orchid producer. The other is low-cost production in China, which threatens to replace farming in Taiwan. This is particularly the case if entrepreneurs transplant superior fruit varieties originally developed in Taiwan to low-cost markets such as China or the Philippines. Since these Taiwanese fruit varieties sell at a low price, they destroy the overseas markets for fruit that was truly cultivated in Taiwan, dealing a further blow to the island’s agriculture.
Yang and the local farmers will have to muster all their wisdom to find ways to pool the resources of specialized small farms into large farms with true export capability. They hope to follow the example of New Zealand’s kiwifruit growers, who successfully banded together to create their own brand and promote their products in the markets of the world.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 漂鳥青年創火鶴奇蹟