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Good Luck Is Coming! – Pineapple Cultivation in Tainan

June 28, 2013 DESTINATION No Comments Email Email

The pineapple, so named because of its likeness to a pine cone, originated in tropical America.  It is technically not a single fruit, but a sorosis – the combination of up to two hundred fleshy flowers. 

Many different kinds of pineapple are grown in Taiwan, but only 15 or so are common.  Farmer Lin Qiu-mao currently grows about ten different varieties but, reflecting Taiwan’s pineapple consumption preferences, 80% of his current crop is pineapple type #17.

The first pineapples in Taiwan were a variety called kai ying, and in the 1960s and 1970s many varieties were bred on the island.  Conveniently numbered, starting with 1, 2, and 3 (kai ying denominations), the most popular pineapples are tainong 4, 6, 11, 13, 16, 17, and 18.  The peak pineapple season is March to July, but different varieties have different seasons.  EGT_Artical Banner A 250x250Pineapples thrive in Guanmiao because of the tropical monsoon climate and sulfur-rich water and soil, and are famous island-wide.

Guanmiao, a district in the rural south of Tainan City characterized by bamboo-forested foothills, was once inhabited by the indigenous Siraya tribe.  The town was named after the 300-year-old Shanxi Temple’s principal deity, Guangong, reflecting the temple’s importance.  The name translates literally as “Guangong temple.”  In the 1960s, 80% of Taiwan’s rattan furniture was manufactured here, but as the rattan industry declined, so did Guanmiao’s economy.  Agriculture soon overtook manufacturing in economic importance.  Nowadays, the area is known for its handmade, sun-dried Guanmiao noodles, bamboo shoots and, the focus of our journey, pineapples.

At Farmer Lin’s wholesale warehouse, a truckload of perfectly stacked #17 pineapples is being unloaded and separated into several categories.  Ripe pineapples go straight to the market, while the rest are sorted according to size, weight, and quality, a process that, after a lifetime of experience, seems effortless for the 47-year-old farmer.

An astute businessman, Mr. Lin has expanded and refined his father’s company, even through poor economic years.  The pineapple market is one of the more stable for agricultural crops in Taiwan, and pineapple #17 is a particularly good investment, with 60-70% maturing successfully.  Managing his crops, with pineapple plots all over the Guanmiao area, is not an easy task, and managing his time is paramount.  Ten years ago he harvested too late in the season and lost fruit valued at over NT$800,000 to flooding, an avoidable mistake – and one Mr. Lin is not likely to make again.  To hedge his bets and keep on top of the market, he plants new varieties every year, and currently grows about ten different types.

For lunch, we visit Longquan Yan Restaurant, where Chef Zhong Yu-yi has prepared a veritable pineapple feast for us.  He presents five delectable pineapple dishes: pineapple shrimp balls; a pineapple wood-ear (edible fungus) dish with traditionally prepared cabbage (once a countryside staple because it would keep for long periods without refrigeration); pineapple fried rice; bitter gourd free-range chicken and pineapple soup; and a freshly sliced pineapple.  When he opened his restaurant in Guanmiao after apprenticing in Yunlin County and Taipei, he says it was natural that he decided to use local pineapples in his dishes.  All dishes are prepared with pineapple #17, because of its natural sweetness, except for the chicken soup, for which pineapple #3’s tanginess is preferred.

For dessert we decide to try some pineapple pastry.  Mr. Dai Chuan-yuan, proprietor of Doling Fonso, has agreed to show us his award-winning pineapple-cake operation.  Of Taiwan’s many pineapple products, the pineapple cake, a delicious pastry with a pineapple-paste filling, is the most popular.  For a business that conducts the majority of its sales online, it is not surprising that the design of the company’s retail facility is sleek and modern.  Taiwanese deity-themed packages line the shop walls.

Mr. Dai attributes his success to a life-long love for pineapple cakes, and his use of only the finest ingredients.  Describing the time-consuming, labor-intensive process of making the filling, he says he uses pineapple #3 for the pleasingly complex sweet and sour taste that is appreciated by his customers.  The fruit is simmered over low heat with malt syrup for 4~5 hours, with constant stirring, leaving the golden essence of the pineapple.

The cakes’ distinctive rich texture is created by using high-quality New Zealand and Japanese ingredients, and Mr. Dai stresses they don’t add any water to the mixture.  Organic roses, sunflower seeds, and walnuts give his cakes a unique and nutritious taste.

Energized by our delicious lunch, we head to another pineapple farm.  Following a working holiday in Australia, 27-year-old organic farmer Yang Yu-fan decided to work his grandfather’s farm in Guanmiao, combining his love of nature and freedom.  Certainly not a typical farmer (he sleeps late and doesn’t work every day), he is stirring things up in this traditional farming community with his Internet-savvy marketing campaign.  Not content to complacently accept advice from established organic farmers, Yang is experimenting with enzymes for organic liquid fertilizers, and emphasizes the sourcing of local products in his production process to decrease his farm’s carbon footprint.

For the final portion of our day, farmer Lin takes us into the pineapple fields and gives us a synopsis of pineapple cultivation in Taiwan.  He’s the perfect guide, smart and generous with his knowledge.  His great-great grandfather was a farmer, and after a lifetime of pineapples he still finds it interesting.  A consummate man of the land, he can smell a ripe pineapple growing in his field and can determine a soil’s iron content from the roadside.  He glances at a pineapple field from the truck window, notes the reddish leaves, and judges the pH value to be about 6.  “Not so good for pineapples,” he explains.  Of his pineapples, he speaks like a doting father speaking of his children: “I don’t have a favorite; each type of pineapple has its own unique qualities and challenges.”

Pineapples can be grown by planting a crown cut off the top of a pineapple or a side shoot (sucker) pulled from the stem of an ole plant.  Fields are planted after autumn, when there is less rain; depending on the type of pineapple, the fruit will be ready to harvest in about one-and-a-half years.  Pineapples need to be covered with special paper bags or plate-shaped pieces of plastic that fit over the crown, appropriately called “pineapple hats,” 50 days prior to harvesting.

Farmer Lin prefers a clay soil, in which pineapples grow slower but sweeter.  He knows what each type of pineapple needs in every climate, and has learned to control soil quality through judicious use of fertilizer and field management.  He also relies heavily on the lunar calendar, citing it as more precise and useful for farmers.

After the initial harvest, pineapple plants continue producing fruit, which will be ripe 5-7 months later.  However, they are rarely harvested commercially beyond the second batch.  Farmer Lin doesn’t harvest the second batch, because the fruit grows higher up on the old stalk, the stalk will fall over if supports are not constructed, less fruit is produced and, most importantly, the fruit produced is of inferior quality.

In many cultures, the pineapple symbolized hospitality and abundance.  This is also clearly so in Guanmiao.  At 7pm, after a 4pm wake-up and a full day of farming and showing us around his fields, the boundlessly energetic farmer Lin is simmering a pot of pineapple tea over a coal fire.  It will prove to be a delicious quintessentially Taiwanese concoction.

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