Yilan’s Kumquats

Visiting an Organic Orchard in Taiwan’s Northeast

Text: Joe Henley
Photos: Duncan Longden

Kumquats are like miniature oranges, but are sourer, and you can eat the peel. Rich in vitamin C and organically grown, the fruit produced in Yilan is beloved by health-conscious consumers.

If you're looking for beautiful scenery and quiet relaxation, but don't want to stray too far from the big city (Taipei), Yilan County in Taiwan’s northeast is a great choice as a getaway destination. Less than an hour away from downtown Taipei via Freeway No. 5, Yilan has a wall of mountains as backdrop, coastal cliffs and beaches where it faces the Pacific Ocean, and in the town of Jiaoxi enough hot-spring hotels to take the tension out of even the most stressed traveler. But Yilan is also the source of a quiet revolution taking place in the local food industry, with one farm in particular leading the way. The Lanyang Kumquat Production Cooperative operates orchards not far from Jiaoxi, in the hills overlooking the Yilan Plain, produces organic fruit for the growing number of health-conscious consumers in Taiwan, and is steadily paving the way for the wider adoption of sustainable growing techniques.

The orchard is run by Lin Ting-cai. Like many who work the land for a living, he is quiet but thoughtful. Now in his early sixties, he has the appearance of a much younger man, which he attributes to a lifetime spent working outdoors in the comparatively clean air of Taiwan's less populated eastern half. Yilan is kumquat central in this country, with over 90 percent of the approximately 300 hectares of kumquat orchards in Taiwan found within its borders. Mr. Lin works 26 of those hectares in Yilan, and has been since the age of 18, equipped with the deep knowledge passed down to him by his father. Unsurprisingly, the man is a fountain of information on all things related to that which he nourishes from seeding to harvest, and he is only too happy to share what he has learned over the years.

Let's start off with a little kumquat history. The people of Taiwan were introduced to the flavorful fruit, which has a tangy combination of sour and sweet, in the 19th century when it was imported from mainland China. A Chinese government official had the idea of canning and preserving the fruit to prevent spoilage. Later, during the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945), a Chinese-medicine doctor came up with a better method of preservation, and started a company in Yilan, Lao Zeng Shou, which still exists today. However, the industry didn't really take off until the 1980s when the coastal highway was widened and large numbers of tourists started coming in from Taipei. These visitors started snapping up cans of kumquats to bring back to their relatives and friends, distributing the product nationwide. As of the mid-1980s most farmers in the region were growing oranges; but with the new kumquat craze, and the fact that this fruit was easier to cultivate, they began to switch. The focus was on production for the processed-food market, the emphasis on high yields regardless of how they were achieved. Priorities changed around 2007, however, and local producers began to promote kumquats as a fresh, healthy snack. The farming methods of old had to be done away with, and a new organic approach had to become the industry norm.

That's where Mr. Lin came in. He has spearheaded the organic movement in his home county. It's better for consumers, better for the land, and better for farmers as well, he says. Whereas one kilogram of conventionally cultivated kumquats sold to a processing plant can fetch a price of just NT$12 in the current market, the same amount of organically cultivated fruit can be sold for over NT$100 to an organic-food store. With the farming population of Yilan aging, Li Nian-yi, an advisor to other farmers in the area, hopes to see the day when every farmer can average a monthly income of around NT$30,000, which will attract younger people to the business. If this can be achieved, Mr. Lin says he may one day ask his own children to enter the family business.

Until that day arrives, he will continue to busy himself with every aspect of the day-to-day operations of his farm. He rises early each morning, around 6 a.m., and during the long November~March harvest season you may find him out picking fruit with the workers he employs. With the shift to selling to organic food stores, appearance and presentation have become important, and special care must be taken to avoid damaging the kumquats as they are plucked from their trees. Before, when the fruit could simply be yanked off, a single worker could harvest about 400 kilograms in a day. Now the process is done more carefully, with each individual fruit cut off the branch with a pair of scissors, and the yield per worker is down to about a quarter of the amount that was brought in when the fruit was used in processed foods.

But it's all about the big picture. Today, there are no pesticides used that harm the landscape, no chemicals that can seep into the groundwater and damage the surrounding area, and no heavy, gas-guzzling machinery. What's good for the land is good for the farmer and the consumer, and as the only organic grower in the region that has thus far been government-certified, Mr. Lin is working every day to prove that his way is the right way.

In the later hours each day, you might find Mr. Lin packing kumquats into boxes in the storage facility behind his family home. There are many varieties, and the Lanyang Kumquat Production Cooperative specializes in two named after their shapes, round and oval. In addition to being sold as food, they are also used in cosmetics, a relatively new development made possible only by the shift to organic growing techniques. They are also used in Chinese medicine, lauded for their ability to improve circulation and clear up respiratory ailments. This may have something to do with their high vitamin C content – more than any other citrus fruit. Maybe the old saying should be revised to, “A kumquat a day keeps the doctor away.” The small oval variety is also the only citrus fruit that can be enjoyed whole, peel and all, with the peel providing a sweet contrast to the sourness of the innards.

Being a farmer is no means an easy occupation, requiring much hard work. But there are ways to bring the industry forward, and people like Mr. Lin are at the forefront of that movement. Ways must be found to make agricultural sustainable, both from an economic and from an environmental standpoint. Farmers are the people who feed the world, and are deserving of the utmost respect. So if you find yourself in Yilan during your travels through Taiwan, pick up a box of fresh, organic kumquats, and support the fine people working in the orchards day after day, rain or shine. If you head up into the hills, you may even see Mr. Lin out in one of his orchards, bringing in the harvest. This is his favorite part of the job, when he can see the results of his months of labor, and even at his advancing age his passion for the work hasn't dwindled one bit. He intends to keep at it as long as he possibly can.


English and Chinese

Lanyang Kumquat Production Cooperative蘭陽金柑生產合作社
Lao Zeng Shou老增壽
Li Nian-yi李念宜
Lin Ting-cai林庭財
Yilan Plain宜蘭平原


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