The hum­ble ate­moya — the cre­ater of 1,000 Tai­wan mil­lion­aires

Tai­wan has emerged as the world’s big­gest ex­porter of the cus­tard ap­ple-like fruit, the ate­moya. But com­pe­ti­tion among Tai­wan trad­ing com­pa­nies and de­pen­dence on China is threat­en­ing the riches de­rived from this heav­enly gift.


The scorch­ing heat of the Taitung sum­mer pounds away, but for those who can with­stand it, a trea­sure awaits. Go­ing south from Luye, through the Wul­ing Green Tun­nel, one ar­rives in Tai­wan’s big­gest ate­moya-grow­ing area — the area of Banchiu in Meinong Vil­lage in Taitung’s Beinan Town­ship. The area’s other spe­cial­ties are its renowned Banchiu ices and mil­lion­aires.

Welcome to the ‘800 Club’

“Ev­ery­body here is a mem­ber of the 800 Club,” says Chuang Cheng-hsi­ung, the head of the Agri­cul­tural Pro­duc­tion and Mar­ket­ing Group for ate­moyas in Taitung Area Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, in a ro­bust voice to the Com­mon­Wealth Mag­a­zine re­porter while point­ing to­ward four farm­ers sit­ting down at home.

So what is the 800 Club? It refers to peo­ple who have in­comes of NT$8 mil­lion a year, a rather sur­pris­ing des­ig­na­tion for farm­ers who grow noth­ing other than ate­moya.

The fruit, known

lit­er­ally as “pineap­ple sugar ap­ple” in Chi­nese, is mem­ber of the “An­nonaceae” fam­ily of fruits that look like the top of a Buddha’s head and in­clude sugar ap­ples (also known as sweet­sops), sour­sops, cus­tard ap­ples and che­r­i­moyas.

The names are of­ten used in­ter­change­ably, but it is the ate­moya — a cross be­tween a sugar ap­ple and a che­r­i­moya — that has emerged as the star of the group for its smooth and juicy white flesh.

Of the 35-per­son pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing team led by Chuang, five be­long to the 800 Club, and the oth­ers make over NT$1 mil­lion a year. The car parked in his garage is not a small de­liv­ery truck as one might ex­pect but a Mercedes- Benz that shares its space with fer­til­iz­ers and farm­ing tools.

In fact, ate­moyas have helped Taitung cre­ate nearly 1,000 mil­lion­aires in New Tai­wan dol­lar terms.

Lu Po-song, the head of the Banchiu branch of the Taitung Agri­cul­tural Re­search and Ex­ten­sion Sta­tion, says ate­moyas can fetch up to NT$70 per 600 grams, or about NT$117 a ki- lo­gram, and a hectare of the crop can gen­er­ate in­come of about NT$600,000. The Chulu Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion in­creases it sav­ings by NT$100 mil­lion to NT$200 mil­lion a year be­cause of the lu­cra­tive fruit.

A look at Tai­wan’s trade sta­tis­tics ex­plains why ate­moyas have cre­ated so much wealth for the sparsely pop­u­lated Taitung County, one of the coun­try’s least de­vel­oped ar­eas.

Be­gin­ning in 2008, ate­moyas first sur­passed pineap­ples and then vaulted past man­goes to be­come Tai­wan’s most im­por­tant fruit ex­port (Ta­ble 1). In 2014, the coun­try ex­ported NT$580 mil­lion ( US$19.07 mil­lion) worth of ate­moyas, more than Aus­tralia, Spain, Thai­land or Hainan Is­land, to re­main the world’s big­gest ship­per of the prod­uct.

So how has Tai­wan emerged as the world’s big­gest ex­porter of the fruit? Much of its suc­cess has been a gift of na­ture.

Rift Val­ley Cli­mate a Per­fect Fit

“You grow things in their most suit­able en­vi­ron­ments. The cli­mate here is most suit­able to ate­moyas,” says Tsai Hui-tun, the for­mer head of the ate­moya mar­ket­ing group, ex­plain­ing Taitung’s chief ad­van­tage in grow­ing the crop.

When the fruit was first in­tro­duced to Tai­wan, it was mostly grown in Yi­lan and Taichung. But Yi­lan’s rel­a­tively cool weather was less than ideal for grow­ing the fruit, and the tex­ture and qual­ity of the ate­moyas grown in Taichung could not match that of the Taitung prod­uct once the south­east­ern county got into the act, which is why ate­moyas even­tu­ally took root there.

As was ev­i­dent even in Tai­wan, find­ing the ideal grow­ing en­vi­ron­ment for ate­moyas is not easy.

Lu ex­plains that Thai­land’s cli­mate is too hot, and China’s cli­mate is too cold, with frost ab­so­lutely un­ac­cept­able. The cli­mate of the Rift Val­ley, which runs north-south down the cen­ter of Taitung County be­tween moun­tains that hug the coast­line and Tai­wan’s cen­tral moun­tain range, is very di­verse and al­lows the fruit to thrive. The closer farms are to moun­tain­sides and the big­ger the vari­a­tion in tem­per­a­ture from day to night, the bet­ter the qual­ity of the fruit.

Though mem­bers of the 800 Club are highly opin­ion­ated, the one thing they all agree on is that “the ate­moya is a gift from heaven.”

Be­yond di­vine in­ter­ven­tion, how­ever, agri­cul­tural science has also con­trib­uted promi­nently to

the change in the fruit’s fate.

Lies That Trans­lated to Qual­ity

When Tai­wan first in­tro­duced ate­moyas from abroad in 1965, the va­ri­ety cho­sen was a sum­mer fruit. The Taitung re­search sta­tion dis­cov­ered, how­ever, that the sum­mer va­ri­ety was dif­fi­cult to com­mer­cial­ize be­cause it went bad or rot­ted easily, sug­gest­ing a short shelf life.

The sta­tion later ad­justed the fruit’s main grow­ing sea­son to the win­ter, and it has been regularly har­vested from Novem­ber to April since then.

To change the ate­moya’s nat­u­ral grow­ing sea­son, farm­ers had to tell the fruit’s trees two lies.

The first was to cre­ate the il­lu­sion that the grow­ing sea­son be­gan in the mid­dle of the sum­mer rather than dur­ing the win­ter, Chuang ex­plains. To be able to be­gin har­vest­ing the fruit in De­cem­ber, farm­ers took to prun­ing their trees in July to fool them into think­ing that life was at an end. The trees re­sponded by grad­u­ally blos­som­ing and bear­ing fruit over the next few months.

The sec­ond lie was to ex­tend the trees’ ex­po­sure to day­light. “Stay awake. Don’t go to sleep. You have to keep blos­som­ing,” is what farmer Wu Tung-lung told his trees. Some farm­ers have il­lu­mi­nated the trees with lights to ex­tend the harvest sea­son to May and in­crease pro­duc­tion.

Aside from cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques that rely on ly­ing to the trees, ar­ti­fi­cial pol­li­na­tion has also been crit­i­cal to grow­ing the fruit suc­cess­fully.

Lu says ate­moyas can be dif­fi­cult to pol­li­nate be­cause the flower demon­strates its male parts two to three days later than its fe­male parts. Things were made worse when en­vi­ron­men­tal changes more than two decades ago re­sulted in a de­cline in num­bers of the flow­ers’ nat­u­ral pol­li­na­tors — bee­tles. This com­bi­na­tion posed a chal­lenge to main­tain­ing crop yields.

But in 1995, the re­search sta­tion guided farm­ers in de­vel­op­ing ar­ti­fi­cial pol­li­na­tion tech­nol­ogy, lead­ing to soar­ing har­vests and a more con­sis­tently round fruit.

With higher yields, how­ever, came plum­met­ing prices be­cause of an ex­cess in sup­ply.

Lu re­calls that only in 2003, the year when the price farm­ers got for their ate­moyas fell to a pal­try NT$20 to NT$30 per 600 grams, did the gov­ern­ment be­gin con­sid­er­ing ex­port op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Cap­tured from the In­ter­net

In this photo taken from the Taitung County Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion ( ate­moya fruits are seen.

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