Taiwan’s struggling star fruit sector stages a comeback
After struggling for years, Taiwan’s star fruit sector has been on an upswing lately. Local farmers and exporters are pinning their hopes on public-private collaboration for further growth.
Star fruits, or carambola, are rich in minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and dietary fibers. In cross-section they resemble stars, thus their name. Given the species’ unique sweet and sour flavor that comes from a relatively high content of oxalic acid, star fruits are considered a popular thirst quencher among local consumers.
Council of Agriculture statistics show that in Taiwan over 1,200 hectares of farmland, scattered throughout the western part of the island, are dedicated to growing the produce. Annual output amounted to around 16,000 tons in 2011.
“Star fruit is a tropical species originating from Southeast Asia, with Taiwan being its northernmost habitat,” said Liu Pi-chuan, associate horticulturist at the COA Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute. “Thanks to the exceptional cultivation skills of Taiwan’s farmers, locally grown star fruits are now superior to their rivals from Malaysia and Thailand in both appearance and flavor.”
Liu said some local farmers had tried to grow star fruits in mainland China in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Their attempts failed because the climate and environment there are not fit for growing the fruit—or many other types of produce commonly found here,” the researcher said. “Taiwan is indeed a treasure island when it comes to agriculture.”
With food contamination involving pesticide residues being a major concern to consumers, a special way of growing star fruits in Taiwan makes them especially appealing to health conscious consumers, said Chen Chia-hsin, who in 2000 introduced net house cultivation to his orchard in the southern county of Pingtung. Chen, who has more 20 years of experience in the business, won a national award for outstanding farming skills the same year.
According to the veteran farmer, net house farming reduces pesticide usage by more than 50 percent, as star fruits cultivated using this method are covered by paper bags early on in their growth stage and stay protected from insects and other pests until they are harvested. “So my star fruits are actually among the safest produce in Taiwan.”
Furthermore, the controlled environment allows the fruit to be harvested year-round, whereas in the past it could only grow in fall and winter. “These benefits make the initial investment in materials and extra effort worthwhile,” Chen said, adding that the traceability and certification systems initiated by the COA have also been instrumental in ensuring product quality and safety.
Once a popular product, star fruits fell out of favor among local consumers after reports linking them to several cases of kidney failure in the early 2000s, according to Liu. “Although there was no evidence to substantiate these claims, the damage had been done and the public started shunning the fruit in droves.”
“As a matter of fact, the majority of Taiwan’s star fruit orchards are operated by very senior farmers, and nearly one-third of the land now lays fallow,” Liu said. Compared with other species, star fruits require much more manpower given their laborious cultivation process. “Younger farmers are not willing to commit themselves as they see no future in growing the fruit. This is really one of the biggest threats to the sector.”
The brighter side of the story is that exports have remained stable over the years, according to Juang Lao-dar, director of Crop Production Division under the COA Agriculture and Food Agency. “While star fruits seem to have been forgotten in Taiwan, they are becoming increasingly popular in overseas markets,” he said.
With annual exports exceeding 2,500 tons in recent years, the 15-percent weighting in total output is the highest among all local fruit exports, he said, adding that steady external demand has been a major force in keeping domestic prices relatively stable. Hong Kong and mainland China make up the majority of Taiwan’s outgoing shipments, followed by North America.
“Although demand from mainland China is steady and huge, retail prices there are not as attractive as those offered by the U.S. and Canada,” said Jan Yi-chang, chairman of a Kaohsiung-based produce exporter. “We are stepping up efforts in North America, as we believe our product stands a good chance of securing a larger slice of the market there.”
Another market with even greater potential is the European Union, which Jan described as being almost completely untapped. “Star fruits are mostly used for plate decoration in Europe, where products from Malaysia are the dominant imports given their smaller sizes and lower prices,” Jan said.
The exporter said he is trying to promote the local offering as a quality fruit in Europe, but acknowledges that it has been an uphill battle. “We have had a hard time convincing the Europeans that star fruits come in sizes and flavors different from those found in Malaysia,” Jan said. “It takes time and great effort to educate consumers. But if and when we succeed, the opportunities will be there for us to grasp.”
Japan is also a market full of possibility, according to Chen, who said he has been receiving farming delegations from Okinawa for years. “The Japanese always ask a lot of questions during their visits to my orchard. Star fruits are considered a premium produce and sell for very handsome prices in Japan. I think our government can really help us make inroads there.”
On the domestic front, Juang said the COA is ready to introduce a new variety with a lower level of oxalic acid later this year for consumers that are highly health conscious. “We are also working on ways to process star fruits into various kinds of food products and beverages.” The COA hopes these efforts to reintroduce star fruits will generate more visibility for the produce and steer the sector back to a healthy growth track, he said.
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