When Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, market watchers and experts were worried that increased foreign competition could hurt the nation's agricultural sector.
But almost three years after that accession, a group of diligent local farmers in Miaoli County are proving that a potential crisis can also bring opportunity.
"Our business has been growing over the past few years, despite facing mushrooming foreign competition in the market," said Yeh Shu-huei (
Chyuan Shun is widely known for growing its own-brand Shanshui Rice (山水米). Expected revenue this year is NT$1.25 billion, a 16 percent rise over last year's revenues of NT$1.08 billion.
Currently, Shanshui rice has the number one position in the market, with a 7 percent share -- and the company seeks to push that figure to 10 percent soon, Yeh said. She added that the factory's daily capacity is 150 tonnes, the highest in Taiwan.
Besides capturing local consumers' stomachs, Yeh is using the WTO gateway to target overseas rice consumers, starting with Japan and neighboring Asian countries for whom rice is a principle food source. With the help of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (外貿協會), Chyuan Shun promoted its rice to overseas market for the first time in a food fair in Japan last month.
"We were surprised to received orders from Japanese sushi restaurants right after offering free samples during the exhibition," Yeh said. "It showed that our rice can compete with fine Japanese rice."
Taiwan exported US$2.63 billion in agricultural products in the first nine months of this year, with Japan its largest export outlet with US$1.01 billion of Taiwan's goods, according to government statistics.
However, Japan slaps a 490 percent tariff on rice imports, which makes foreign rice disadvantaged in that market in terms of price, especially the high-cost Taiwanese rice.
Nevertheless, Lee said the company will try to expand their export markets, focusing on southeast Asia where there are large numbers of overseas Chinese who prefer sticky rice to firm and loose Thai rice.
Given the inspiring rise of Shanshui rice from its humble beginnings, capturing those markets isn't just a pie-in-the-sky aspiration.
Back in 1979, when the nation's economy was taking off as one of the Asia's "Four Dragons," Lee Tung-chao (李東朝), president of Chyuan Shun and Yeh's husband, quit his job as an engineer at the state-run Taiwan Power Co (台電) in Taipei to return to his hometown in Miaoli County and become a blue-collar rice merchant. Why did he give up a comfortable engineer's salary?
"Because it's such a boring life," said Lee in a recent interview, as he beamed at his wife. "I like challenges."
Lee's switch came as a huge surprise to Yeh. Worried that Yeh might oppose his decision, Lee did not tell Yeh about his move until his rice-grinding plant was about to open.
A native Taipei City girl who had never done farm work in her life, Yeh could not help weeping when she stood in front of the couple's shabby new house in the countryside. But mustering her resolve, she wiped her tears away and determined that she would show that she was her husband's best helper, both at home and at work.
Now, more than two decades later, Yeh reminisces about the picturesque countryside she found in the early days, where ducks waddled in the crop fields.