All kinds of fruit are grown in the rich soils of Taiwan, but people often do not realise that many fresh, ripe fruit does not even have the opportunity to enter the market. The only fate for it, stranded in its place of production, is to be eaten by the farmer or thrown on the fields for composting.
It turns out that “overripe fruit” is of zero value according to the market mechanism. Therefore, farmers usually calculate the right time to pick fruit as being just 70% ripeness. After a few days of transport, the fruit will reach the desired level of ripeness and is finally sold on the market.
However, there are still many uncontrollable variables. For example, fruit of the same kind, even grown on the same farm, might have different degrees of ripeness. As much as 3-5% of fruit reaches 80% ripeness even before the harvesting season commences. This is the case in Taitung, an important place of fruit production in Taiwan, where nearly 120,000 tonnes of fruit is grown every year. Of this, 3,000 to 6,000 tonnes is unable to be sold due to overripeness, resulting in a loss of more than NT $1 billion per year.
What is even more cruel is that a good harvest is not necessarily a good thing. When market demand cannot match a huge supply of fruit, farmers have to sell their produce at an unreasonably low price, hoping that customers will buy more. Even though it is heart-breaking to do so, at least it is better than seeing fruit rot in vain.
Aren’t there any other places for this juicy fresh fruit to go?
What to do with overripe fruit? Use the most traditional method: freeze it!
Lee Ming-huang, a travel-loving businessperson who had been working in the plastic industry for more than 20 years, bought a house in Taitung after falling in love with this scenic county surrounded by mountains and sea coast. Every time he went back to Taitung from Taipei for a holiday, he always found piles of fruit at his front door, which turned out to be gifts from his farmer neighbours who simply couldn’t sell it on.
The tea-growing industry, once prominent in Taitung’s Luye Township, has not been able to match competition from low-price imported tea over the last ten years and has been experiencing gradual decline.Some farmers have switched to growing fruit, but much of their crop cannot avoid the fate of rotting on site.
“Especially when the weather is hot, fruit farmers can only sit on their hands and worry about the quickly ripening sugar-apples not being shipped to marketplaces. Each one of these sugar-apples has been looked after so well!” said Lee Ming-huang. He asked himself, “Since fresh food can’t be stored for a long time, why not use the old method of freezing it?”
Although ice lollies are the most common form of frozen dessert in Taiwan, Lee Ming-huang has his own unique recipe. In 2008, he invested a great deal of money in changing the ground floor of his house into a factory and hiring newly-unemployed tea specialists to manage his production line. His ice lolly business, Spring Trading Company, was started soon afterwards.
Abandoning artificial flavours, colouring agents and other additives, the ice lollies that Spring Trading Company sells only consist of water, granulated sugar and fruit. In order to compete with other products on the market, the company needs to increase the proportion of fruit pulp by four or five times so that its products have sufficient aroma and flavour. “Other companies sell their passionfruit ice lollies with only two passionfruit seeds in them. The passionfruit ice lollies I sell are full of seeds!” said Lee Ming-huang.
Most of the overripe or unsaleable fruit used is bought from farmers in Luye Township or nearby villages. However, Lee Ming-huang does not take advantage of these farmers. Instead, he buys fruit that cannot enter the market at the market price of the day and uses it locally. The quality and freshness of the fruit are not compromised at all.
Treating people and the environment well, selling millions of ice lollies
However, the production of farm products fluctuates greatly and production output is usually unpredictable. In order to process the sudden influx of fruit during high season, Spring Trading Company has expanded its factory equipment sixfold over the last eight years. In addition, because most fruit is highly vulnerable to being crushed, Lee Ming-huang has to pack the fruit like eggs in layers. Every time he ships it, he needs to dispatch many trucks that are each loaded with 30 layers of fruit trays.
Moreover, each piece of fruit has a different size and shape, making it difficult to assess ripeness using a machine. Therefore, Spring Trading Company has hired many people to complete tasks like selecting fruit, squeezing, blending, injecting, inserting ice lolly sticks, removing ice lollies from moulds, and packaging. A total of 70% of the production procedure is completed by human labour, which means that Spring Trading Company has created many job opportunities for the local community.
The retail price of one Spring Trading Company ice lolly is NT $30, which is almost double the price of other ice lollies on the market, but only a quarter of the price of high-end ice cream. Two years after he started the business, Lee Ming-huang opened stalls in marketplaces and drove his Mercedes around to promote his ice lollies.
After investing tens of millions of dollars, he still could not make the business break even. “At that time, my friends who saw me peddling ice lollies on the street were very surprised. They all asked me what had happened to my life. Why would I sell ice lollies to passers-by?” said Lee Ming-huang.
Just when he was about to give up, Homemaker’s Union Consumers Co-op, which specialises in the sale of organic, non-toxic farm products, started to work with him. The outbreak of a series of food adulteration scandals in Taiwan has helped Spring Trading Company, which greatly values natural ingredients and local flavours, gain a foothold in the market.
Nowadays, you can easily buy Spring Trading Company’s ice lollies from the most widespread convenience stores, night markets, and the culturally-charged Eslite Bookstore and museums. Many people who have tried its ice lollies have rushed to spread the word to their family and friends, saying “That’s the brand of ice lollies with real fruit pulp and seeds.” Finally, the company’s annual sales have reached one million ice lollies and it has started to make a profit.
Until today, this small ice lolly factory has stuck to its original principles. It still regularly buys overripe fruit from about 20 farmers and maintains more than ten kinds of flavours. It also insists that as long as there are no additions to the kinds of fruit purchased, new flavours will not be developed. Spring Trading Company has employed more than ten local villagers, paying them more than they would earn working in the city.
Although all it may be selling is ice lollies, you can still feel the depth of Spring Trading Company’s sincerity in its endeavour to find a new way to reduce food waste, promote local agriculture and ensure food safety.