Back to Nature

Back to Nature

Byline:KELLY HER Publication Date:01/01/2013

The return of a younger generation to Changhua is driving development of the county’s farming sector.

Eight years ago, Felix Lai (賴偉志), 43, quit his job at a five-star hotel in Taipei and moved back to his rural hometown of Dacun Township in Changhua County, central Taiwan to take up farming. While it was a major change, he has never once regretted his decision. “There were objections from my family and relatives to my intention to return home to engage in farming. They thought it should be the last job option I considered, even though they were mostly farmers themselves,” Lai says. “But I don’t see agriculture as a sunset industry; it just needs to adapt to changing market needs. Now they recognize the things that I’ve achieved [as a farmer] so far.”

Changhua’s rich soil, warm climate and protection from typhoons have long made it one of Taiwan’s main agricultural areas. The county is Taiwan’s single-largest producer of grapes and flowers, for example, accounting for 45 percent and 37 percent respectively of the nation’s total production. More recent factors behind Changhua’s agricultural success include promotional efforts by the county government and the return of younger people like Lai to take up farming.

Lai and his wife run Iku Vineyards & Gasthof Vitis, a recreational farm that offers accommodations, classes for making wine and fruit picking, as well as guided tours of nearby orchards and cultural and historical sites. Business is booming, as 90 percent of the grapes Lai grows are sold directly to customers through home deliveries, while his guestrooms are often fully booked during holidays.

“After seeing that our business was pretty good, several of my relatives urged me to build more rooms to accommodate guests, but I haven’t acted on their suggestions,” Lai says. “My idea is to focus on agricultural operations and [visitors’] experiences of agricultural activities and rural life, which I believe are fundamental to the development of leisure farming.”

Playing and helping with chores in the vineyards are indelible parts of Lai’s childhood memories, as growing grapes has been a family business since his grandfather started cultivating his first vines in the 1970s. Lai’s father took over the operation in the 1980s.

Renewed Attraction

In 1990, Lai left the lush Changhua countryside to study at Tamkang University in New Taipei City, where he majored in German. He did not really feel any renewed sense of attraction to farming or the rural life until around 1996, when he departed for southwest Germany to study linguistics at Heidelberg University. There he took advantage of the many opportunities to enjoy the area’s beautiful scenery, visit local vineyards and sample their wines. “Those vineyard tours gradually made me feel nostalgic for the orchards of my hometown,” Lai recalls. “So I made a bold move—I switched to another university there and changed my major to winemaking. Discovering Germany’s colorful country life made me realize that Taiwan had nice pastoral settings, too. It’s just that they weren’t planned and utilized well.”

After his return to Taiwan in 1999, Lai landed a job at The Sherwood Taipei, where he was responsible for training the hotel’s employees to introduce and serve wine. His thoughts, however, kept returning to the countryside. “My parents thought that my job in Taipei was good and that I should keep doing it,” he says. “But I missed being in a natural environment and had a desire to capitalize on what I’d seen and learned in Germany. In the end, those things motivated me to make a career change to farming.”

Lai says his wife and he realized that to build a sustainable business, they could not stick to traditional farming practices. Accordingly, they applied for and received government permits to convert the family’s land holdings into a leisure farm and winery. They also began cultivating new marketing channels such as selling and delivering grapes directly to homes, instead of relying on wholesalers like most farmers.

The combination of leisure farming and direct sales, Lai says, has created a stable customer base and ensured good profit margins. “There has been rising consumer demand for more recreation destinations, as well as healthy and safe foods,” he says. “Taiwanese farmers hold an edge by offering convenient spots for vacations and fresh produce. There’s no worry about import competition as long as we keep improving our product quality.”

“I’d like to encourage more local farmers to transform and upgrade their operations. That way we can join forces to raise the value of our farm products and improve our environment, which will help lure even more visitors,” Lai says. “Heading together toward those goals makes me upbeat about the prospects of our county’s development.”

Huang Jun-shi (黃俊仕), who lives in Changhua’s Puxin Township, is the 37-year-old head of another family grape-growing business, Grape Road Vineyard, which was begun by his grandfather in 1979. Like Lai, Huang originally had no desire to become a farmer. After working as an engineer in Changhua for several years, however, he returned home to work on his father’s farm at the age of 28.

Since then, Huang has made a point of diversifying Grape Road’s operations and sales channels. “The older generation of farmers used to concentrate only on cultivation and sell their produce to middlemen, so they didn’t earn much of a profit. But I think marketing is equally important,” he says. “It’s also essential to establish your niche.”

The most common grape variety grown in Changhua, or in Taiwan for that matter, is known as Kyoho, a cultivar introduced from Japan in the 1960s. Kyoho grapes are blackish-purple with high sugar content and mild acidity. To differentiate his products, Huang says his father began cooperating with National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, central Taiwan in the early 1980s to experiment with cultivation of a grape variety called Honey Red, which also comes from Japan. Huang’s father later became the first successful commercial grower of the cultivar in Taiwan. Honey Red grapes, Huang explains, are known for their unique honey fragrance, thin skin and juicy flesh, but are difficult to grow and transport. Due to their limited production in Taiwan, Honey Red grapes can be sold at higher prices than more common varieties.

Huang has followed in his father’s footsteps by endeavoring to grow new kinds of grapes. About five years ago, he succeeded in the commercial production of Golden grapes, another Japanese cultivar. Thus far, he is the only farmer in Taiwan to successfully grow such grapes, which are larger than other varieties and have even higher sugar content.

Echoing Lai’s efforts, Huang says the major changes he made after joining the family business were adopting direct marketing techniques and opening his vineyard to the public for grape picking, tours and picnics. Later, Huang ventured into winemaking and his vineyards now produce several types of wine. At present, 95 percent of his products—including fresh grapes and wine—are sold via the home delivery system, with the remaining 5 percent purchased by visitors to the vineyard. In most years, Huang starts receiving customer orders two months before harvest season and demand usually outstrips supply.

“Fresh, high quality fruit—particularly in special varieties—is now quite popular as a gift. That’s the market segment I’ve been exploring,” Huang says. “I see plenty of business opportunities there.”

Meanwhile, Huang praises the county government’s promotional efforts, which include the Princess of Grapes competition, an annual event held since 2009 to choose spokeswomen for the local grape industry, selecting the county’s top 10 gift products and sending trade missions overseas. “Most farmers in the area don’t have the resources for publicity campaigns, so that kind of government assistance is important to us,” he says. “The local government’s initiatives appear to be paying off, as customer recognition of the quality of Changhua’s grapes has made it easier for us to sell our products.”

Active Assistance

Changhua County Magistrate Cho Po-yuan (卓伯源) says his administration actively assists local growers in the production and marketing of high-quality grapes by offering technical instruction; developing online and in-store sales channels in Taiwan and overseas; and holding promotional events during harvest season. Those efforts have contributed to the steady growth of the county’s grape production value, which increased from NT$1.7 billion (US$51.4 million) in 2009 to an estimated NT$2.2 billion (US$73 million) in 2012. Changhua’s grapes are now exported to Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, Cho says.

Flowers are another major focus for Changhua farmers. To promote flower cultivation, Cho says the county government has set up a number of dedicated production zones that lease land to growers at preferential rates and provide subsidies for building production facilities. The result has been a cluster of flower growers that has helped upgrade the quality and quantity of the area’s flowers and lifted domestic and international sales. Cho says trade volume for his county’s cut flowers averages about NT$500 million (US$16.7 million) per year. Changhua’s chrysanthemums, lisianthus and orchids are exported to Japan, Europe and the United States. Lisianthus shipments to Japan, for example, reach approximately 1 million stems each year.

To promote the local cut flower industry, the county government has opened display and sales centers and operates the Changhua Flower Festival during the Lunar New Year holiday. In 2011, the county launched the Flower Generation competition, which selects talented spokeswomen to help with flower promotion and marketing.

Chen Jian-xing (陳建興), a 41-year-old native of Changhua, has been growing flowers since he was 24, when he completed his compulsory military service and returned home to work with his father. Chen says his father formerly cultivated roses and vegetables, but failed to generate much income as markets were flooded with similar products, which kept prices low. In 2004, however, the county government set up a special zone for flower cultivation in Xizhou Township and encouraged local farmers to grow species with export potential such as chrysanthemums and lisianthus. Chen rented a piece of land there and switched to growing those two kinds of flowers.

In recent years, Taiwan’s chrysanthemum exports, which go mainly to Japan, have faced stiff competition from growers in Malaysia, the Netherlands and Vietnam, Chen says. Hence, he and other local farmers have put more emphasis on planting lisianthus, which has made Changhua Taiwan’s top exporter of the funnel-shaped flowers to Japan. The switch has paid off, as Chen has seen his lisianthus exports soar from 90,000 stems in 2008 to an estimated 500,000 stems in 2012.

“You need to collect information to find out about market demand, your competitive edge and where your target market is,” Chen says. “At the same time, you can’t stop upgrading your production techniques and facilities if you want to improve crop quality and quantity and expand to overseas markets.” Such improvements can boost production efficiency while reducing costs, he says, adding that they are crucial when cultivating greenhouse species like lisianthus. By expanding the use of computer-controlled systems that regulate temperature, humidity, watering and fertilizing in his greenhouses, Chen says he has managed to ensure consistent quality of his flowers and hence gain a higher price for them, as well as increase his yield.

Although the biggest predicament facing rural villages is their shortage of labor, Chen finds it encouraging to see more young people returning to pursue careers in agribusiness. “Compared with the older generation, younger farmers seem more open-minded about adopting new methods, trying out new varieties and seeking innovation,” he says. “With a growing workforce of young farmers, I’m confident that our county can play a starring role in Taiwan’s agricultural development for a long time.”

Google Joins Changhua’s Green Growth

Changhua’s economy has continued to grow not only because of its dynamic agricultural sector, but also because of its ability to attract industry. Magistrate Cho Po-yuan says that to continue boosting growth and creating more job opportunities, his administration has actively promoted the development of four industrial parks and solicited new businesses to take up residence in them.

The county government’s lobbying efforts yielded a big return in September 2011 when Internet search giant Google Inc. announced it would establish a data center on a 15-hectare site at Changhua Coastal Industrial Park (CCIP), Cho says. (In the same announcement, the US-based company said that it would also begin building facilities in Hong Kong and Singapore.)

Google began scouting multiple data center locations in the Asia-Pacific region in 2007 in light of the growing number of Internet users in the area and the business opportunities they represent. The company weighed thousands of criteria in screening potential sites, Cho says. In response, county government officials worked hard to provide Google with detailed information on Changhua’s infrastructure, operating costs, labor force and water and power supplies, among other factors.

“Google’s selection of Changhua is a major recognition of our investment environment,” Cho says. “Its data center will enable our county to take the lead in Taiwan’s development of the cloud computing industry.”

Google held a groundbreaking ceremony at CCIP on April 3, 2012 to mark the start of construction of its center. With a total investment of US$300 million, the planned facility will be equipped with state-of-the-art energy-saving systems that will make it one of the greenest, most efficient data centers in Asia. The complex is expected to begin operating in the second half of this year.

While landing Google was a milestone for Changhua, other developments underscore the county’s industrial growth. Chiu Ching-chih (丘慶智) is director of the CCIP Service Center, which operates under the Industrial Development Bureau of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Chiu says the development plan for the park covers three townships—Lugang, Xianxi and Shengang—with a total area of 3,643 hectares. When the remainder of CCIP is completed, it will constitute one of Taiwan’s largest industrial zones.

The some 500 Taiwanese and foreign companies already operating at CCIP include makers of chemicals, high technology products, machinery and power generation equipment. Combined annual production value posted by the park’s companies in 2011 reached NT$346.8 billion (US$11.56 billion).

Chiu says CCIP’s affordable land, quality infrastructure and strategic location helped the number of tenants grow from 107 in 2002 to 506 by October 2012. He expects Google’s presence at CCIP to attract more technology companies and speed the park’s transformation into a low-pollution, high-value-added industrial hub.

—Kelly Her

Write to Kelly Her at

Picture 1: Tourists ride through fields of flowers in Changhua County, central Taiwan. More flowers are grown commercially in Changhua than in any other county in Taiwan. (Photo Courtesy of Changhua County Government)

Picture 2: A Changhua chrysanthemum grower in his fields. The county exports chrysanthemums to Japan, Europe and the United States. (Photo Courtesy of Changhua County Government)

Picture 3: Felix Lai’s guesthouse in Dacun Township, Changhua County provides a natural setting to give visitors a taste of rural life. (Courtesy of Felix Lai)

Picture 4: Entrepreneur Felix Lai sells 90 percent of the grapes he grows by delivering directly to customers’ homes. (Courtesy of Felix Lai)

Picture 5: Changhua County Magistrate Cho Po-yuan, center, promotes his county’s fruit at a chain store in Shanghai in 2011. (Photo Courtesy of Changhua County Government)

Picture 6: Changhua exports about 1 million lisianthus stems to Japan each year. (Courtesy of Chen Jian-xing)

Picture 7: Internet search giant Google Inc. holds a groundbreaking ceremony on April 3, 2012 to mark the beginning of construction of a data center at Changhua Coastal Industrial Park. (Courtesy of Changhua Coastal Industrial Park)

Picture 8: Lisianthus grower Chen Jian-xing constantly strives to upgrade production facilities at his greenhouses. (Courtesy of Chen Jian-xing)