Twenty-seven-year-old Lin Wen-hung (林文弘) was an office worker until he decided to return to his village in central Taiwan and help his parents with their betel nut plantation.
Quickly realizing that growing betel nuts was no longer lucrative because of a shrinking domestic market, in 2005 Lin decided to grow coffee on the family’s land in Guosing Township (國姓), Nantou County.
“The golden age of betel nuts has passed, and my parents could no longer do hard work,” Lin said.
But unlike many of the agricultural success stories trumpeted in recent months to encourage people to go into farming, Lin has struggled, and his experience provides a cautionary tale for city slickers lured by the promise of high-end agriculture.
He has learned that without marketing savvy and the right crop, romantic notions of getting back to nature can be dashed.
Lin’s interest in growing coffee was spurred by the trend for local-grown coffee that took off after Gukeng Township (古坑), Yunlin County, organized the first Taiwan Coffee Festival in October 2003.
“It gave us the idea that maybe coffee could bring us extra income” since coffee is one of the most popular drinks in Taiwan, the young farmer said.
Using some of his betel nut trees to shade the coffee trees — which thrive in temperatures ranging from 19ºC to 25ºC — also meant he would not have to cut down his betel nut trees to make way for another crop.
Lin said the shelter provided by the betel nut trees, along with his use of organic fertilizer, resulted in good-quality coffee beans, but as he has since found out, quality is not enough.
Though his harvest of 2 tonnes to 3 tonnes of coffee last year was the biggest of any coffee farm in Guosing — one of Taiwan’s five largest coffee growing areas — he has so far sold only about a third.
“I still haven’t been able to find a marketing channel. So far, I’ve only been able to sell my product to friends and relatives,” he said. “I still have to rely on betel nuts to feed the family.”
Lin has invested around NT$2 million (US$60,000) in seedlings and machines to grow his coffee beans, and plenty more in labor and time, but after a three-year wait for the trees to bear fruit, he has sold only NT$500,000 worth of product to date.
“Marketing is the biggest challenge,” Lin said.
One potential outlet for his coffee beans are the thousands of specialty coffee shops around Taiwan, many of which sell so-called estate-grown coffee, but there are two main barriers to entry for local growers: price and availability.
The Taipei-based Jeanlook Co imports beans from acclaimed farms around the world, and roasts and brews them in their own coffee shop. Taiwanese beans are not on the menu even though the shop would like to offer customers the choice.
“Customers must ask for it and we’ll serve it if we happen to have the beans,” said Jeanlook’s Tika Lu, who runs the company’s coffee shop.
The problem, he said, is that Taiwan’s coffee output is generally small-scale and unstable, and the beans are expensive.
Not only is it hard to get a consistent supply of a variety of beans from local suppliers, the cost of buying local coffee beans is 40 times higher than that of importing raw beans from Ethiopia, Lu said.
Wu Yi-ling (吳怡玲), the chairwoman of the Taiwan Coffee Association, agrees that price is a major barrier to market entry.