A flowering trade: Taiwanese orchids to bloom in desert countries of the Middle East
Last year, Taiwan’s orchid growers exported potted orchids and seedlings worth NT$4.1 billion to 36 countries around the globe. Now they are eyeing the rich markets of the Middle East
Every spring, the Taiwan International Orchid Show attracts tens of thousands of orchid lovers and industry experts from around the globe. Huddled away amid lush green rice paddies, guava plantations and melon fields in the rural town of Houbi in Southern Taiwan, the 3,500 square meter exhibition venue greets a steady stream of visitors.
This year, the orchid industry posted several new records:
First, Taiwan’s “ever blooming” orchid kingdom bolstered its world-leading position by adding Australia and Brazil as export markets. Meanwhile, Taiwanese orchids are being exported to 36 countries in North America, Northern Europe, and South Africa. Next, the island’s orchid growers hope to bring their beautiful creations to India, Iran, Dubai and even as far away as the French Pacific island of Reunion.
Second, in the show’s eleventh year, Taiwanese orchid exports continued to post new record sales. What began with modest exports in the order of US$23 million per year in 2004 has since grown to an annual export value of more than US$130 million (about NT$4.1 billion).
Third, Taiwan recently won its bid to host the 23rd World Orchid Conference in 2020. In the orchid industry, the triennial conference is the equivalent of the Olympic Games. That Taiwan was awarded the right to host this international event underlines the fact that the efforts of Taiwan’s orchid growers have won international recognition.
The success of breeding the indigenous phalaenopsis (moth orchid) species shows that Taiwanese agricultural products are marketable and competitive on a global scale. However, the industry’s rise did not come overnight and not without a few hiccups. Taiwan’s orchid growers had to overcome numerous challenges along the way.
Eight years ago, phalaenopsis orchids from the Netherlands enjoyed a market boom, and many industry insiders feared at the time that a certain Dutch company could defeat Taiwan as the world’s leading orchid exporter. This year brought another challenge when the United States approved imports of phalaenopsis orchids from China under the same conditions as Taiwanese imports (with sphagnum moss as growing medium).
Continued challenges have kept orchid breeders on their toes. Yet Taiwan’s orchid industry remains in good shape, unfazed by growing global competition. What can Taiwan’s agricultural industry learn from the success of the orchid breeders?
In March, CommonWealth Magazine reporters joined buyers and growers from 36 countries on their tour of the Taiwan International Orchid Show. Defying the tropical temperatures and high humidity of the greenhouses, the visitors were eager to see the splendor of the latest orchid novelties with their own eyes. This year, the vast outdoor park area featured orchids in red, blue and gold. Paths lined with vibrant orchid displays led to the theme pavilions.
The show’s main theme this year was the conservation of nature. Indigenous orchid species were presented against the backdrop of different landscapes with water features, mountains and valleys.
In another exhibition hall, artistic orchid sculptures and displays as well as special species vied for the attention of the visitors. “This event is very important because it’s one of the top three orchid expositions. I’ve been here five times, and every time I come back, there’s something new. It’s fascinating to see all the different species. It all starts here,” remarks Johan Hermans, chairman of Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society Orchid Committee, in a display of admiration for the potential and diversity of Taiwanese orchid novelties.
One buyer from Europe searches for the best angle to take pictures of the orchid extravaganza. “I’ve got only three hours, but it’s so beautiful that I want to see all the expositions,” the orchid enthusiast exclaims.
How does Taiwan compare with the Netherlands in the eyes of international buyers and breeders? Andy Doherty, CEO at Pacific Wide (NZ) Ltd., which makes organic growing media under the brand Besgrow, flew in from New Zealand. Doherty believes that Taiwan and the Netherlands are the two key competitors in the European orchid market. He feels that Taiwan’s strengths are breeding, novelty, new orchid varieties and diversity, as even the Netherlands wants to learn from Taiwan in these areas. On the other hand, Taiwan could learn from Dutch production technologies. If the island’s growers combined both, the industry would become even more dynamic.
How can Taiwan’s orchid industry ensure continued innovation?
Sogo Team Co. Ltd., Pingtung
Our first stop in our quest for industry innovators is orchid breeder Sogo Team Co. Ltd. in the town of Linluo in Pingtung County. CEO John Feng notes that overseas buyers generally hail Taiwan’s skills in developing new varieties. However, the orchid growers had to tread a long and arduous road before their business blossomed into the robust and healthy industry it is today.
While electronics makers churn out a new generation of products every year, it takes up to a decade to breed a new orchid variety and bring it to market.
Feng points out that after a new hybrid has been bred from two different orchid varieties, 300 plants are propagated through tissue culture in a nutrient medium in flasks or test tubes under sterile conditions. It will take one year to 18 months before these young orchids produce flowers.
Following a six-month testing period, during which the plants are evaluated for stable growth and flowering, another pilot batch of 3,000 plants is propagated over three or four years. Each customer receives 300 samples to test the market for one to two years. Only if the new orchid variety is received well in the target market and the customer is satisfied with the plant’s properties can production in large quantities begin, which takes another two years. Overall, the entire cycle from breeding to mass production takes nearly a decade.
However, there is no guarantee that the market will accept new orchid varieties. Pointing toward the myriads of phalaenopsis in his greenhouse, Feng notes, “We develop continuously to make international customers notice the diversity and R&D capabilities for new varieties that Taiwan’s orchid breeders offer. But less than five percent of varieties make it from testing to real commercialization; the remaining 95 percent are eliminated. “
The goal of these breeding efforts is to release different products to win new markets. Describing customer preferences in Europe, Feng says, “Taiwan’s got it rough. Even if our and their (Dutch growers) orchids are the same, the European customers will still not pick the Taiwanese orchids. Taiwan has to develop orchids that are clearly better than the Dutch ones just to compete.”
However, Taiwan must vie with the Netherlands not only in the area of orchid varieties but also in terms of service and global reach.
Story continues on page 6
A model displays orchid flowers during a press conference in Taipei on March 3, 2014.