Refrigeration and freezing technologies are helping Taiwanese fruit farmers cope with overproduction problems and are opening up new possibilities for businesses in a country well known for its fruits.
After an overproduction of lychees last year, Taiwan's Council of Agriculture collaborated with trading companies to refrigerated the fruits and sell them in Southeast Asia, said Wang Yi-ting, an assistant researcher at the council's Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute. Fifty tons of lychees were sold to Singapore and Malaysia to help alleviate the problem of overproduction, according to Wang.
"The lychees flew off the shelves the first day they arrived at the stores," Wang said.
She said the cold-storage technology at the institute does not involve antiseptics but relies on the adjustment of heat and cold to keep fruits' freshness and natural appearance. "The future aim of Taiwan's agriculture is not only to achieve good taste, but also safety," said Wang.
But she admitted that the technology has not been widely adopted by industries because it requires the maintenance of a comprehensive cold-storage supply chain, from harvesting and packaging to loading, customs clearance and eventually sales. Companies need to be willing to invest in the new technology and change their old methods, said Wang.
She said the institute's efforts to develop new lychee varieties could also help Taiwan's industry gain a competitive edge in the frozen fruit market. The institute has so far developed at least one new variety of lychee that is suitable for freezing, said Wang, adding that not all lychee varieties share that property.
"The texture of some lychee varieties change after they thaw out," said Wang, who is responsible for fresh fruit and vegetable storage at the institute. She said the development of new varieties will allow the lychee growing season to extended to four months, from the current four to six weeks.
Few people who know more about freezing fruit than Eagle Lu, chairman of BinGo-C, a Taiwanese fresh fruit ice cream company.
Lu, who established BinGo-C in 2010, said many companies are unwilling to invest in frozen fruit technology because of the high costs. Having grown up in a farming family, Lu said, he can sympathize with farmers. He recalled watching his father harvest sand pears and "speechlessly looking up to the sky with tears in his eyes" whenever a typhoon wrecked the farm.
Overproduction is just as bad, as more people are needed to harvest the fruit, which raises costs, he said. Lu's shops sell ice cream made of and topped with frozen fruit such as lychees, mangoes, papayas and bananas. The fruits are cleaned in dust-free rooms, then quickly frozen at minus 35 degrees Celsius and cut into blocks to be spread on the ice cream.
Lu said there is no need to worry that the texture of the fruits will change. "It's like frozen bluefin tuna. It still tastes good after it is taken out of the refrigerator," he said. "I chose the 'Jade Purse' lychee variety to go with my ice cream because of its thick flesh and small seeds. Or else with all the effort, it wouldn't be worth the cost."
"Jade Purse" is one of the two major lychee varieties cultivated in Taiwan.
Lu has since expanded his stores to Shanghai and Huangshan in China, and is preparing to open a new branch in Hainan, China's southernmost province. He said that while it is difficult to sell such high-end fruit products, his dream is to build a famous Taiwanese ice cream brand to allow more people to taste the country's delicious fruits.
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