A seemingly inconspicuous side dish on the table, fresh and plump edamame is in fact the champion of Taiwan’s agricultural exports. In 2019, the crop’s trade volume was US$84.53 million (approximately NT$2.61 billion), and it has been the daily sales champion for 12 consecutive years. It is known as Taiwan’s “Green Gold” industry!
Hou Chao-Pai, who runs the Bai Sian Agricultural Products Co., Ltd. in Qishan, Kaohsiung, is 45 years old this year. He has been called Taiwan’s “Edamame Guru”. In 2014, his edamame farming landed him a place in the Forbes magazine and in 2019, he won one of the Top Ten Super Farmers Awards, which are the Oscars of the agricultural industry.
In his exclusive interview with the MOST Center for Global Affairs and Science Engagement, Hou Chao-Pai shared how he uses technology for precise management and creates a noteworthy export record for Taiwanese edamame.
Hou Chao-Pai said, “Agriculture is my family business. I grew up among pineapples, oranges and bamboo shoots. Farming is very hard work. Originally, my family hoped that I could just be a nice, boring office worker.” However, Hou Chao-Pai is unwilling to give up his father’s dedication to this career. Hou Chao-Pai took over his father’s edamame sales business at the age of 19, and took the reins of management. In doing so, not only did he learn edamame growing from scratch, he also took the long-term perspective. He took on debt without hesitation to invest a lot of money in large machinery, equipment, and smart management to establish a brand for Taiwanese edamame.
Increasing production efficiency through mechanized production
Parked beside his fields are large agricultural machines such as a planter, a tractor, and an edamame harvester. Each machine ranges from more than one million, all the way to ten million NT dollars. Since 2002, Hou Chao-Pai has been cooperating with the Council of Agriculture’s large farm plan. He is leased a large area of farmland from Taiwan Sugar Corporation to grow edamame, to expand his farm in size; he is also continued to purchase large agricultural machines that increase production efficiency.
The period from 1996 to 2000 was a bleak time for Taiwan’s edamame industry. Unable to compete with China’s low-cost advantages, Taiwan’s edamame export took a severe blow. In 2003, Japanese consumers lost confidence in the safety of edamame from China as a result of pesticide residues. And because of this, one order after another turned toward Taiwan.
At that time, Hou Chao-Pai was importing machines from abroad for scientific and mechanized production to ensure safe application of pesticides and tracking control. Once he introduced mechanized production, efficiency increased more than tenfold. Coupled with new varieties cultivated by the Agricultural Research and Extension Stations and improvement in back-end processing, the amount of time it takes to harvest edamame has been shortened. This means better freshness and improved quality, which in turn means greater international competitiveness. Now, not only has Taiwan’s edamame successfully won over the taste buds of Japanese people, it has also been successfully marketed to countries around the world. As Hou Chao-Pai proudly says, “With the exception of Africa, you can find edamame produced by Bai Sian Agricultural Products almost everywhere – Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia!”
Starting from scratch, and using technology for precision management
Hou Chao-Pai said that in his father’s generation, farming was all about “experience”. The climate and environment at that time were just right for growing edamame; there was no need for fertilizers to bring in a good crop.
“However,” he said, “with today’s climate change, and applying fertilizers and pesticides – those all result in higher costs. So, precision management is needed, and the most important thing in management is data collection.”
Hou Chao-Pai not only introduced smart equipment such as spraying machines, automated stone pickers, and laser leveling machines. He also installed soil sensors in the field and cooperated with Chunghwa Telecom to install a micro-weather station in the edamame field to collect soil fertility data and meteorological data for neighboring areas. Then, using this agricultural knowledge, he began to find entry points for standardization and smart applications.
Keeping Roots in Taiwan
Hou Chao-Pai admitted that acquiring land in Taiwan is not easy, which makes large-scale agricultural development difficult. This means that major overseas agricultural machinery companies consider the Taiwan market too small to have a presence in; and that, in turn, makes it difficult for Taiwanese farmers to purchase large farm equipment. And then, keeping the machines maintained after purchase becomes another major issue. All that means that, as a farm owner, Hou Chao-Pai not only inspects his fields with his agricultural machines; he also has to work alongside his employees to repair and maintain the machines.
An official from China once wanted to hire Hou Chao-Pai to teach edamame planting techniques. However, Hou Chao-Pai flatly refused. He thought to himself: Just because I’m in agriculture industry, does that mean there’s any reason to leave my hometown and go abroad?
Hou Chao-Pai points out that the current global edamame export market is dominated by Taiwan. Although it cannot compare with the low prices of China and Thailand, Taiwan has great advantages in quality and management. 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the catering industry, but orders for small bags of edamame for home cooking have bucked the trend and shown growth. Currently, Bai Sian Agricultural Products has an annual turnover of about NT$100 million. Bai Sian’s brilliant performance in export sales even attracted Forbes to Taiwan for an exclusive interview, making Hou Chao-Pai the first Taiwanese farmer to be featured in that magazine!
Hou Chao-Pai laughs and says that, in a society with highly developed industrialization, agriculture will be comparatively weak. Taiwan’s smart agriculture is still in the learning stage; and at present, Bai Sian’s agricultural production is based on digital infrastructure. In the future, the company will gradually move toward big data and artificial intelligence. Hou is convinced that as the “Island of Technology”, Taiwan has vast potential for developing advanced, sophisticated agriculture!