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