A History of Taiwan’s Apple Farmers

Written by Hui-Tsen Hsiao (蕭彗岑), translated by Sam Robbins.

Image credit: Photo by 練聿修(Yu-Hsiu Lien), provided by author

In 2018, I headed to central Taiwan with two friends to interview husband and wife Ron and Lin in my pursuit to find people who had experiences growing apples in Taiwan. Apples aren’t one of the most common fruits grown in Taiwan, but a long and winding history follows Taiwanese apples. My pursuit of the history of these apples led me high into the mountains, into an iron cart hanging over a canyon, and to a history of legal disputes and contested land ownership.

The Zhongbu cross-island highway crosses from Taiwan’s West to East coast and passes over Taiwan’s central mountain range, exceeding two thousand metres above sea level at certain points. The highway is also a crucial route for transporting vegetables, fruit, and tea leaves grown in the Taiwanese mountains.

No postcode demarcates the fruit farms dotted along the highway. Rather, each field is marked by its distance in kilometres from the beginning of the road. Lin had already been waiting by the side of the road for a long time when we arrived. She asked if we were brave enough to come with her when she saw us. Following her line of sight, we noticed that there was no road from this point to the field. There was only a cable and a cart that crossed along the peaks and valleys of the mountains. Below the cart was a canyon hundreds of metres deep. We’d already come this far; what was there to be scared of? Although my heart was beating fast, we still got onboard the cart. Lin made a phone call to her husband, telling him to turn on the power and the cart slowly started etching forward. The gaps in the iron mesh below our feet gradually switched from solid land to a stream and then to a riverbed of grey sand. “Oh my god, I’m crossing a massive canyon” was all that was going through my head. I held firm onto the railing of the cage as I screamed internally but remained calm on the outside. This cart can quickly move along canyons and forest thickets in the mountain regions. They are generally used to transport fruit or tools. These carts mean that farmers don’t need to go to great lengths to build winding roads along the mountains and rely on these vehicles to overcome their isolation and difficulties with transportation.

Ron is a second-generation mountain farmer. Ron’s father came to Taiwan in 1949 with the Kuomintang government and left the military in 1959. Because Ron’s father came with the government to Taiwan, he was eligible for a segment of mountainous land provided to him by the ROC government. However, the segment of land Ron’s father was allotted was too far from the highway, and the transport was inconvenient, so Ron’s father and a handful of friends decided to develop another segment of land they chose themselves. Unfortunately, the government was unable to stop this type of behaviour. It was also worried of causing too much resentment amongst the populace, so those claiming mountain land [that was initially part of the ancestral land of Taiwan’s indigenous nations] faced few repercussions for their actions.

When Ron looks back at his childhood, he remembers how his dad used to carry nine plastic buckets and walk one kilometre to collect water. Water seeped from the crevices of mountain faces. Ron’s father would collect the water and then return. Later on, water pipes were used to connect water sources to a location closer to the farm. Although such pipes were convenient, they required frequent patrol and maintenance and often froze over in the winter. Repairs were needed whenever a typhoon came, or a tree fell onto the pipes. The high mountain regions are much cooler than the rest of Taiwan. There is a long enough period of cool weather in the winter that it is possible to grow apples which are usually unsuitable for Taiwan’s semi-tropical climate. In the beginning, apple seedlings were imported from abroad and were grafted onto crab-apple trees that are native to Taiwan. Ron’s fathers and his friends bought some seedlings from Dongshi (the western end of Zhongbu Cross-island highway, and also an important agricultural product distribution center in Central Taiwan). Ron’s father paid rent to the Forestry Bureau every year and renewed his contract every nine years. Through this kind of semi-legal system, Taiwan’s fruit farms appeared and operated across Lishan. Due to the related trends of urbanisation and industrialisation, Taiwan has gone through rapid social transformations. Large amounts of people have migrated from rural to urban area and agriculture is no longer the main way many make a living. Therefore, the demand to create new farmland started to decrease. The previous mindset of “man conquering nature” (⼈定勝天) that prompted the development of mountain forest regions increasingly became seen as an arrogant, cocky attitude that was shunned by mainstream society.

The government requested that Ron return the land he had acquired from his father in the 1990s. But Lin and Ron wanted to preserve their mountain land and continue farming. After a series of protests and attempts to tell their side of the story proved unsuccessful, the Forestry Bureau charged Lin and Ron, who asked them to return the land. “We’re not criminals, we’re just trying to make an honest living here in the mountains. We rely on our hard work, and we also have to deal with natural disasters and typhoons, but we first entered a law court because the Forestry Bureau brought a case against us” Apart from Lin and Ron, many farmers have had a similar experience. Farmers who go to court face defeat after defeat, and not a single farmer has won this kind of case.

Ron and Lin were required to remove all apple trees from the land they had to return to the government and demolish the house they had built on the land and the monorail they used for transportation. Most farmers choose to personally remove all trees and carry out the demolition to avoid paying expensive fees. Lin, who had been quietly listening to my conversation with Ron, but when the topic of returning their land came up, Lin agitatedly said, “They write up a sloppy official document that doesn’t even say anything meaningful, and now everything we’ve worked so hard to have has to go like that. You want us to demolish our own house, we cried and hugged as it happened. You’re a government agency, and you’re willing to let people go through this?” “And after we were forced to demolish our house, the debris from the house was even been set on fire” Ron added. 

When we visited Lin and Ron in 2018, they were still farming but in a different mountain area. “Every 25 square metre should have 75 trees,” Ron told us. He told us that the density of his trees exceeded the forestation standard as determined by the Forestry Bureau, but he’d already planted 1500 trees. Ron had tried to grow the type of trees that were in line with official regulations to stay on the right side of the law so that he could continue farming in the mountains.

At the end of 2021, I saw someone hawking two types of Taiwanese honey apples (台灣蜜蘋果). The fruit on the left of the stand were round, supple and bright red; those on the left were smaller and more irregular in shape and colour, with streaks of red and yellow. The hawker enthusiastically cut the apples to give us a free sample. “Are these apples you grow yourself?” I asked. “I ordered [from a wholesaler] the apples on the left (the redder apples), my cousin grew the apples on the right,” he replied, then adding, “at 77 kilometres along the Zhongbu cross-island highway.” When the customers who had been busy picking fruit heard this, they immediately said, “then, in that case, we want the one on the right.” Early on, when Taiwan still hadn’t fully opened up apple imports, apples from the US and Japan were seen as rare and precious by Taiwanese consumers. However, after more time has passed, what consumers consider as ‘good apples’ aren’t those that are imported but are rather those perhaps not-so-pretty but tasty apples grown natively in fields along the Zhongbu Cross-island highway.

Hui-Tsen Hsiao is the co-author of 尋找台灣味 (Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour). Hsiao had  involved in a rural investigation of Taiwan from 2018-2021 and took a close look at the transformation of culture, lifestyle and agricultural activities on rural area. 

This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here, and read the introduction to the special series by the book’s editor here.

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