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Family organic food business struggles to make comeback

Family organic food business struggles to make comeback

(CNA photos 39-41) By Y.L. Kao CNA staff writer When Lin Chung-chih and his wife decided 14 years ago to go into organic farming, neither of them had any experience in the field. He was a new Industrial Design graduate and she was an art and design worker.
They started by leasing 0.6 hectares of land in Chiali, Tainan County and borrowing NT$500,000. Then Lin and Shih Na-li, better known as Tomo and Nono, set about learning the business of organic farming from the ground up.
"Because we had never worked on a farm before, we had to start from scratch to learn about agriculture, and had to do so in very short time," Lin said.
They spent the first year on the farm experimenting with various exotic crops in an effort to find those that were best suited to local conditions. They did all the manual work themselves and sought the advice of experts from several agricultural research institutes and improvement stations.
According to Chen Chun-shi of the Council of Agriculture, one of the main concerns for organic farmers is that the work is more time consuming and the yield is less than if conventional farming practices are used.
Another major challenge is pest control, as pests thrive in Taiwan' s hot humid summers and its winters are not cold enough to stop the proliferation of insects.
"Under normal conditions, only one third of the organic vegetables planted are harvested. The rest of the crop is more often than not destroyed by insects, and if the weather is unfavorable, there is usually nothing left to harvest," Tomo confirmed.
Nonetheless, Tomo and Nono gradually acquired expertise in growing organic crops. But they soon faced another challenge, as they had to apply their minds to the business of selling their produce in an uncertain market.
In 1996, there were 160 hectares of land organically farmed in Taiwan. By 2008, nearly 1,000 households in the country had become involved in organic farming, and 2,386 hectares, or less than 1 percent of the nation's farmlands, were dedicated to organic crops, according to Chen.
Tomo and Nono, who were trying to break into the business in the late 1990s, had to first assess the market.
"I conducted a market survey and we forged partnerships with department stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets that agreed to distribute our produce," Lin said.
Within a few years, the couple had gained a reputation as expert growers of organic vegetables, and the business, which they called Genki Home, had earned profits of NT$10 million.
Having gained momentum, Tomo and Nono decided to expand the business by buying the land they were farming and leasing other plots close by.
They also contracted some of the cultivation to other farmers in an effort to meet the growing demand for their organic vegetables, and that's when the trouble started for Genki Home.
A batch of vegetables grown by the contract farmers was found to contain pesticide residues and this led to a series of returns and cancellation of orders.
According to Chen, when farmers decide to shift to organic farming, they have to let their fields lie fallow for three years in order to get rid of the chemicals in the soil.
The crops are then planted and fertilized with natural organic fertilizers such as soybean residue, grain powder, and rice bran, he said. There is no use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms, he added.
In the case of Genki Home, pesticides had probably leeched from nearby plots into the soil on the land that the contract farmers in northern Taiwan used to plant the vegetables, Tomo said.
However, he added, he also questioned the methods used by the relevant agencies and consumers' groups to detect the pesticide levels in the products.
Because of the blow to its reputation, Genki Home suffered losses amounting to NT$20 million. Tomo and Nono were forced to sell their farm machinery and food production equipment to offset their deficits.
"We had worked so hard in the business for nine years, and suddenly everything was gone," Tomo said.
However, with the encouragement of their friends and reaffirming their dedication to eco-friendly agriculture, Tomo and Nono soon decided to try to revive the business.
"Food grown without intensive use of synthetic chemicals is better for people's health and the environment, " Tomo said."We decided to stay in the business, despite the huge amount of money we had lost." Amid growing competition from other organic food companies owned by big businesses, Genki Home has adopted a strategy of diversifying into products such as colorful vegetables rarely seen in Taiwan, and it now contracts cultivation only to reputable farmers.
On their small holding, Tomo and Nono grow green vegetables, red- and-white radishes, cherry tomatoes, fennel, purple broccoli, leek, and oakleaf lettuce, which are all hugely popular among health conscious consumers.
Nono set up a blog site on which she posts photos and descriptions of their produce and recipes that feature organic products. In the two years since it was launched, the site has had 370,000 hits and has won an award.
A year ago, Nono began organizing camps that offer people the opportunity to gain farming experience and she has been distributing free organic food samples at department stores in Taipei, Tainan and Kaohsiung.
"We're just trying to keep our farm viable, find our niche and use direct marketing to convince our customers that we are supplying them with safe healthy products from a clean wholesome environment, " Tomo said.
The company is still struggling to make ends meet because sales are shrinking in the wake of several typhoons and amid the economic downturn, according to Nono.
"Consumers are reluctant to pay the premium prices associated with many organic products," she said.
However, Genki Home will continue its struggle to bring to the market food products that are healthy and free from chemicals, the couple said.
"Once our customers like what we supply, we know we're on the right track," Tomo said.
He thinks that sticking to pesticide-free farming is "a matter of conscience" and sees organic farming as much more than just a means of earning a living.
"In our use of the land, we need to love it and protect it, " he said. "We also need to instill environmentally friendly habits in our children and let them know that organic farmers are guardians of the earth because this type of farming helps to restore the land."




Updated : 2021-04-22 23:18 GMT+08:00