Quality teas and savvy marketing will help the nation's tea farmers withstand competition from abroad, tea farmers and government officials said yesterday.
As part of a new Council of Agriculture campaign, 10 teas were selected as the nation's best in a multi-stage blind-tasting competition yesterday.
At an event to award the prizes, Premier Chang Chun-hsiung (張俊雄) exhorted tea farmers not to take their tea varieties and know-how abroad to nations with cheaper labor.
"Taiwan's tea needs to be protected by us all, don't make the short-sighted decision of starting farms abroad," he said.
Others acknowledged that cheap imported oolongs, often from farms started by Taiwanese, are already a reality in the nation's marketplace.
Nantou tea grower and one of the competition winners Tseng Chun-li (曾俊浰) said that although oolongs from Vietnam and Indonesia are inferior in quality, they are cheap and often sold mixed with local teas and labeled as local to fool consumers.
"Many are not discerning enough to taste the difference," he said.
Media reports in recent weeks have suggested that many farmers have allowed their tea gardens to go untended since tea prices are being driven lower by cheap imports.
At yesterday's event, however, few farmers seemed worried about a lack of demand.
"I started selling my tea by myself five years ago rather than selling to a wholesaler and I never looked back," said Hsieh Chao-yang (謝朝陽), a winner from Ilan County.
"I build relationships with my consumers by going to agricultural shows, and now many come to Ilan just to see my tea garden and buy my tea because they know what they're getting," he said.
Hsieh credits the council for helping him with the technical assistance required to market his own teas.
Hsieh and other quality tea producers can thrive by building their own "brand" teas and establishing a direct link to their customers, turning their tea gardens into tourist retreats, said Tea Research and Extention Station manager Lin Muh-lien (林木連).
"Inevitably, they cannot get top dollar from wholesalers," Lin said. "They also get a chance to market niche products, giving consumers more choice."
Tseng Jun-ting (曾潤廷), a Hsinchu County tea farmer who won a prize yesterday for his oriental beauty tea, said he used to sell his spring tea at rock-bottom prices to wholesalers as second-grade oolong because oriental beauty tea can only be made from summer grown tea.
"Then I found out if I make green tea out of it and sell it as it `honey green tea,' my customers love it," he said.
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