Tue, Sep 17, 2013 - Page 5 News List

Banana industry in need of hit product

FRUITLESS:Low labor costs abroad have contributed to a more than fourfold drop in banana exports since 1967, while the sector looks for its version of the pineapple cake

By Catherine Shu  /  NY Times News Service, GREATER KAOHSIUNG

Despite these efforts to revive the industry, farmer Lu Ming, 76, has given up waiting for the banana’s ascendance.

In 1967, Lu decided to switch from farming rice to bananas. For two decades he cultivated banana trees in Greater Kaohsiung’s Qishan District (旗山), rising at 5am and working until sunset. In the beginning, he earned enough money to hire workers to help harvest the fruit and package it for shipment.

However, Taiwanese farmers could not compete with lower labor costs in the Philippines and exports began to plunge. According to the council, banana exports to Japan — a major market — plummeted to 9,161 tonnes last year, from 42,600 tonnes in 1967.

By the early 1980s, Lu could no longer afford laborers, so he and his wife began selling candy from sidewalk stalls to make ends meet. Lu, who still farms and works odd jobs, said that now, there are years when his banana harvest brings in less than NT$100,000, far below the average annual income of NT$452,400.

Although the profitability of farming bananas has diminished, a silver lining can be found in the businesses that have sprung up around the memories of the boom times.

Once a warehouse for bananas before they were loaded onto ships destined for Japan, the Banana Pier in Greater Kaohsiung is now a seaside entertainment complex. The Banana New Paradise restaurant appeals to nostalgic diners by featuring an indoor recreation of a typical 1960s village, and Qishan-based rock group Youthbanana organizes tours and working holidays at nearby farms, including Lu’s fields.

Although farming bananas has become increasingly less profitable, Lu said he has never wanted to stop cultivating them.

“When I was younger, we would roast bananas like yams, feed the peels to pigs and use the leaves to steam buns or fold into toy boats for our children,” he said. “It wasn’t just about growing and selling. It’s a culture that I want to survive.”

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