Not Your Traditional Agriculture

White-jade snails

Specialist farmers in Taiwan are concentrating on such niche areas as snails, deer antlers, and “red quinoa.” 

Text and photos by Steven Crook & Katy Hui-wen Hung

The 11 metric tons of meat that Akwey Chen dispatched to his customers in 2018 is just one-tenth the volume produced by the average pig farm in Taiwan – but enough, he believes, for him to rank as the island’s no. 1 source of farmed snails.

The mainstays of Taiwanese agriculture are rice, fruits and vegetables, and hog and poultry raising. But like Chen, a number of local producers have decided to specialize in the unconventional. Besides snails, examples include longan honey, an indigenous relative of quinoa, deer antler velvet, and a species of hibiscus.

Snail farmer Chen established Fanong Snail Farm in 2013 in his hometown of Fenglin, Hualien County, following a varied career that included running a pub in Hualien City and working as a real-estate notary (代書). “I wanted to change my job,” he says. “I read about this on the internet, and I thought it could be a good business.”

With the help of his mother and up to three employees during busy periods, Chen now raises white-jade snails on approximately 21.5 hectares of rented land. He grows leafy vegetables to feed to the creatures on another eight hectares, and now sells around two million snails per year.

White-jade land snails are albino morphs of the Giant African snails that are common throughout rural Taiwan. Introduced to the island by the Japanese authorities in 1932, Giant African snails are often collected and eaten by people in rural areas. Urban dwellers, however, have never developed a taste for their dark meat.

“Compared with black snails, white-jade snails do taste a bit different,” Chen explains. “Black snail meat has an unpleasant odor; white-jade snail meat doesn’t. The flesh of white-jade snails is ‘QQ’ [chewy and bouncy]; that of black snails is harder. That’s why Western-style restaurants won’t use them.”

In Taiwan, many white-jade snails are eaten in gratin dishes. Black snails are often cooked three-cup style (in a wok, with a cup each of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil), or sautéed with chili, ginger, oyster sauce, chicken stock, soy sauce, and rice wine.

Farmers in Taiwan have been raising white-jade snails for at least 40 years. Before Chen got his operation up to speed, however, the largest farms had annual outputs of only 100,000 to 200,000 snails, and none could supply snail meat throughout the year. By guaranteeing year-round production, Chen’s system has freed local restaurateurs from their dependence on imports, but it has required considerable ingenuity and investment.

He has obtained two patents, one for a water heater that keeps the snails’ winter quarters above 18 degrees Celsius, the other for a chamber that induces hibernation. Because snails don’t grow while hibernating, the technique enables Fanong Snail Farm to avoid oversupply issues.

Winter in Fenglin typically kills 20% of the white-jade snails left outdoors. Rather than put up with such losses, or harvest his snails all at once, Chen brings them indoors. In a repurposed pig sty, they breed and thrive during the coldest four months of the year, protected from rats by a group of cats. Rodent-proof moats surround the fields in which Chen raises snails between spring and late autumn. Unlike hog and cattle farmers, he doesn’t have to worry about livestock diseases, though when the snails are outdoors, bird predators are a problem.

Chen does not use pesticides on his fields, yet he admits that chemicals may sometimes enter the snails’ bodies via the scraps he sometimes collects from nearby markets to feed them. White-jade snails are not fussy eaters. “So long as it doesn’t have a strong smell or a distinctive taste, any leafy vegetable is okay,” he says.

The slaughtering process is labor-intensive, each snail being killed individually using a two-pronged fork. “One person can kill 2,500 snails in a day,” says Chen, who is trying to invent a machine to take over this task. In accordance with European practices for snail farming (also known as heliciculture), the meat is frozen to minus 60 degrees Celsius within two hours in bags weighing either one catty (600 grams) or double that. A one-catty packet typically contains the flesh of 70 snails.

So far, Chen has not exported any snail meat, although he has received inquiries from Japan. He also raises – but is not ready to begin selling – garden snails, which in French cuisine are known as petit gris.

Keeping bees

Akwey Chen’s friend and fellow Fenglin resident Chen Gui-heng is among Taiwan’s estimated 1,000 professional beekeepers. Since 1985, the honey and royal-jelly farm he runs with his wife has expanded from 150 hives of Italian honey bees to around 200.

“We haven’t grown much because it’s just the two of us. We don’t want to take on more than we can cope with,” says Chen Gui-heng. He was the first beekeeper in Taiwan to obtain USDA National Organic Program certification, but does not export.

Chen Gui-heng’s bees produce longan honey, which is popular in Taiwan.

According to the Taiwan Beekeeping Association, local honey yields have fluctuated wildly over the past decade. The 2018 figure of 9,015 metric tons was 68% higher than that of 2009, but 40% lower than the 2011 total. In the same period, the number of hives grew by 90%, and royal jelly production nearly tripled.

Because demand for longan honey has not let up, honey imported from Vietnam and Thailand is often mixed with the output of local hives or passed off as Taiwanese longan honey. “This is common knowledge among local beekeepers,” says Chen Gui-heng.

Most of the trees on Chen Gui-heng’s land are longans, and he explains the enduring popularity of longan honey: “It tastes good and it doesn’t crystallize. Taiwanese people prefer liquid honey to solid honey because they like to add it to beverages.” Honey is consumed in refreshing favorites like lemon honey tea, tea made from xiancao (仙草, also known as Chinese mesona), and Aiyu jelly (愛玉凍).

Chen Gui-heng and other beekeepers have noticed a disturbing trend that is making honey-production a less predictable business. Because recent winters have been unusually dry, longan and lychee trees – especially those in central and southern Taiwan – have been producing far fewer flowers. Some attribute the phenomenon to climate change.

A reddish honey from the hills near Keelung, made by bees that feed on the nectar of Mori Cleyera (an endemic evergreen tree), is among the 250-plus products available through Buy Directly from Farmers (直接跟農夫買, BDFF). A Taoyuan-based social enterprise established in 2014, BDFF evolved out of a Facebook group created in 2011 by King Hsin-yi.

King now leads a team of seven salaried full-timers. “We hope our customers can cherish and support our eco-friendly farmers,” he says. “And we hope people can enjoy fresh local food.”

The average age of Taiwan’s farmers is 62, and many of them fear that there will be no one to take over their fields when they are gone. “We spend a lot of time telling young farmers’ stories. They’re the future of the sector,” says King. BDFF’s customers tend to be youngish – many are in their late thirties – and most live in big cities.

Like Akwey Chen, Wu Zheng-zhong – who is also known by his Paiwan indigenous name Ljuwa – launched his agricultural venture after returning to where he had grown up. After learning that almost all the quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) consumed in Taiwan was imported from South America, Ljuwa in 2013 started growing the related Chenopodium formosanum, using seeds his grandmother had saved. Paiwan people call this pseudo-cereal djulis. In Mandarin, it is hong li (紅藜, often translated as “red quinoa”).

Djulis has been entered into the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity’s Ark of Taste – a catalogue of international traditional food products that are at risk of disappearing – which describes it as a “close botanical relative of quinoa,” adding that it is “known for having a high protein and fiber content, as well as for containing eight kinds of essential amino acids.” Djulis-flavored breads and cakes are available at several locations in eastern Taiwan, and cooking enthusiasts searching on icook.tw can find more than 170 recipes that incorporate djulis, including hamburger buns and squid-and-djulis flatbread. 

Conditions in Ljuwa’s home village in Taitung County’s Daren Township are ideal for the cultivation of djulis. However, his first attempt failed because he planted too late in the season. Having learned that djulis should be sown in October, he faced another issue. If it rains at the beginning of spring, around harvest time the cereal may be too wet to store. This problem was solved when farmers banded together to buy a drying machine. 

Djulis drying after harvest.

To promote djulis and develop sales channels, in 2015 Ljuwa hiked around Taiwan. During this trip he encouraged indigenous communities to rehabilitate abandoned farmland and urged young indigenous people to return to their home villages. Around that time, he gained the nickname “Mr. Djulis” (紅藜先生). He turned the moniker into a brand, and now sells his products through mrdjulis.com.tw.

As interest in djulis surged, so did the land area devoted to the crop. According to a May 2018 report on AgriHarvest.tw, djulis cultivation in Taitung County expanded from 40 hectares to 200 hectares between 2015 and 2018, and in Pingtung County from 30 hectares to more than 100. The increase caused a glut, and part of the crop had to be warehoused.

In the future, djulis may be promoted for its health benefits as much as for its taste. Recent studies by Taiwanese scientists suggest that djulis extracts reduce the risk of colon cancer, protect the liver, and counteract the aging of skin. The seeds of this plant may become a key ingredient in skincare products and health supplements.

Deer antler velvet

Some of Taiwan’s deer farmers raise animals not for their meat, but for antler velvet, which they market as both a traditional Chinese medicine and a modern dietary supplement. Unlike snail meat or djulis, antler velvet production (27,338 kilograms in 2018) is significant enough to be included in Council of Agriculture statistics. Since 2010, farmers have succeeded in lifting yields, even though the number of deer has decreased by 22%.

Damei Deer Ranch’s Facebook group claims that antler velvet preparations can enhance one’s memory and mental vitality, improve sleep quality, aid weight loss, strengthen the immune system and metabolism, and ameliorate impotence. The ranch keeps more than 30 sika and Formosan sambar deer – some of which cost NT$250,000 a head – under shelter on a plot of land smaller than a soccer pitch in Yunlin County’s Citong Township.

Sika deer

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa; 洛神花, luoshen hua) has been cultivated in eastern Taiwan since the Japanese colonial period. Its flowers are rich in vitamins B1, B2, and C, as well as beta carotene. More and more people have been using them to make teas and preserves, and to flavor baked items. Yet like their counterparts who grow djulis, roselle farmers have encountered price troughs.

In late 2018, a combination of bumper harvests and landowners jumping on the roselle bandwagon had so depressed prices that some farmers decided not to gather the flowers from their fields. Instead, they invited friends and relatives to pluck as many as they liked. 

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

“Oversupply is a very big problem, and it happens every year,” says BDFF’s King. To avoid unsalable surpluses, for the past four years the social enterprise has been asking customers to communicate their needs ahead of the planting season so that the information can be shared with its partners.

Older farmers prefer to follow their instincts, but many of BDFF’s partners act on its advice. “The younger generation knows the meaning of data,” says King. 

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