Youths in rural communities tend to head for the city, where they find new opportunities and greater excitement. However, one entrepreneur who left the city life behind to return to his fishing village hopes to encourage others to follow him. Chang Po-jen took over his father’s fish farm, but he was not content to farm the way his father had. He changed the farm’s management and distribution models, and now he trains other young fish farmers, even encouraging them to start their own fish-farming businesses. Let’s hear from Chang and some of the youths who work with him. Our Sunday in-depth report.
One by one the chef places the uncooked shrimp in the hot frying pan. Once they start to turn red, he adds garlic, butter, salt and pepper, before placing the shrimp atop a salad.
Before shrimp gets used by this high-end French restaurant, it must go through a strict selection process.
It has to be high quality. That means it must be the right level of sweetness, and it must be fresh. It has to be very, very good quality before we can select it to use for our ingredients.
In its pursuit for low emissions and sustainability, this restaurant buys local ingredients. To that end, he works with shrimp farmer Chang Po-jen in Kaohsiung’s Mituo District.
Since I had planned to use his shrimp I had to try it first. The day I went there we all tried some, and I felt it was very fresh, very delicious. I also requested of him that I could go see his farming process. His family’s shrimp farm was the only one that wasn’t using any chemicals in its farming process.
Chang lays out freshly harvested shrimp on a counter for grading. In 2010, when he was 32 years old, Chang left a high-paying job at a pharmaceutical trading company and returned home to take over his father’s shrimp farm. Having studied nutrition in college and bioengineering in graduate school, he knows the importance of food safety to the industry.
To put his farming ideas into practice, Chang later left his father’s farm and went out to rent a pond from another fish farmer. Contrary to traditional fish-farming methods, he engages in ecologically friendly, low-density farming. The shrimp also share the pond with fish, which allows the shrimp to eat the uneaten feed left behind by the fish, and at the same time to purify the water. This ecologically friendly environment also allows Chang to obtain additional income from the fish in his pond.
The fish I gather from my pond include many species that can be prepared in a variety of ways including fish steak, soup made with the bones, dishes made with the stomach or skin, fish filet, or we can do fish collars. With just one catch from the pond, a whole product line appears. There could be between 10 and 20 products from that catch.
Unlike with the traditional dealer acquisition model, Chang produces and sells his products on his own. This means he has to seek out channels to sell his fish.
When I first returned to my hometown to raise fish, I often carried my products with me, delivering them and visiting customers all over the place.
Chang’s hard work was motivated by the challenges he saw fishing communities facing.
The problems my father’s generation faced in the industry were largely related to marketing. After they were finished with production, they had only one channel for distribution, which was the wholesaler. They didn’t have any other options, because in selling their own products they had no marketing network. So, the power to set the prices was in someone else’s hands. We met with over 1,000 fish farmers, including men and women in their 80s who had to carry 30-kilogram bags of feed by themselves. When you see that it makes you ask, “Is there nobody younger in your family, nobody stronger who can do this work?”
In response to the labor shortage in fishing communities, Chang in 2013 invited aquaculture students from the city to help out with harvesting and repair of the aerators used in the fish ponds. He aimed to create work and help the communities at the same time.
Chi Peng-yi stands atop a raft throwing a net into the pond. Chi is one of the recruits brought in by Chang to help harvest fish. His work hours are flexible, and he can earn NT$1,500 to NT$1,800 for four hours of work every day.
In a month I can earn roughly NT$85,000. Of course, during the mullet season I can earn more – nearly NT$100,000. In the slow seasons I earn around NT$70,000.
However, working on the fish farm also involves hidden dangers. Farmers must endure cold winter temperatures, and sometimes total darkness in the water.
Some fish like the mullet and the milkfish are harvested at night, when it’s impossible to see anything. You might cast the net, and then disappear, having fallen into the water.
Chang’s hope is that his recruits won’t just help out on the fish farms, but will also consider becoming entrepreneurs.
I train them with the skills they need like raising and harvesting the fish, and maintaining the equipment. Then I teach them about the overall operations of the industry, including the management aspects. After that, they can make a choice. They can decide to work for a fish farm as an employee, or they can take the next step and create their own aquaculture business.
Entrepreneurs will receive assistance through joint operations. Chang works with the National Fishermen’s Association to rent ponds from retired fishers, and then provides those to the entrepreneur for free, leaving them responsible only for maintenance and feed expenses. They keep all profits.
Hung Wei-chun, who previously learned fish farming from Chang, made the decision to buy a nearly 1,000 square meter fish pond and chase his dream of business ownership.
I worked here continuously for six years. Toward the end, Chang gave us the opportunity to start businesses, to give things a try on our own. At the moment I’m just breaking even.
Chang currently leases 18 ponds accounting for 7 hectares, but says that expanding that would prove quite difficult. Many farmers adhere to the traditional idea that land should be passed on to the next generation, he says.
Farmers and fish farmers are all similar in that they all have one thing in common. When their time comes, they pass the land on to their sons or daughters. They give it to their own children, or other family members.
Despite challenges, Chang actively pushes ahead with his ideas. Alongside one pond, he built a cafe, and invites nearby students to try their hand at catching shrimp and feeding fish. He hopes this will foster an ecological mindset.
However, not everyone supports Chang’s efforts to bring life to the fish-farming community.
The older generation feels that their decades of experience means much more than that of younger fish farmers. They feel that their experience is more significant than that of the children they raised who went off to school, and who previously didn’t farm fish.
Chang says his father wanted him to fully focus on raising fish, and to leave the marketing to others. However, his hope is to diversify management in the industry, he says.
If I were only planning to return home to live the same life as my father, then I may as well not have returned. To return is to seek change. For children to obtain the approval of their parents is difficult, because although we don’t fail, our accomplishments are never enough in their eyes.
Youth who return to rural communities generally face the generation gap, but for Chang, his success is confirmed by his awards including one from the UK-based Social Value International, making him one of very few in Taiwan to be personally conferred the award.
Chang’s ideas may be at odd with older fish farmers, but he hopes his efforts and perseverance will bring fresh, young talent to the industry, and new life to fishing communities.
For more Taiwan news, tune in:
Sun to Fri at 9:30 pm on Channel 152
Tue to Sat at 1 am on Channel 53