When it comes to orchids, Taiwan is the place to be for growers, traders, researchers, breeders and other enthusiasts. The assortment is wide and deep. The number of growers and breeders is high. Phalaenopsis is the most important crop by far, both for the domestic market and for the export of flowers, plants and cuttings. In the beginning of March, industry professionals from all over the world come to the Taiwan International Orchid Show (TIOS). To look around, to catch up and to trade.
By Hans Neefjes
Three of the plants on the exhibition tables of Char Ming Agriculture, the company of Tsang-Yu Lee, have been put to one side. Lee has been growing phalaenopsis in Taiwan since 1989 and has his own breeding programme. Colleagues from all over the world receive a warm welcome in his greenhouse with flowering novelties. “That plant over there was picked by Opti-flor, and the other two in the corner are for Anthura”, explains employee Julia Hung.
Hung knows how it works. Companies choose cultivars with potential, preferably from crossing products that are still unnamed. That way, they’re ahead of everyone else, allowing them to claim exclusivity. Subsequent testing will be needed to determine if the new product is an improved version of an existing cultivar, or a nice addition, maybe through a new concept. A green light is normally followed by propagation in selected labs.
Breeders use the Taiwanese novelties for their own breeding programmes. New, unique genes are highly desirable. The two plants that Anthura chose have flowers with a large lip, something you wouldn’t easily find in the Netherlands.
The scene at Char Ming Agriculture took place during the Taiwan International Orchid Show (TIOS). This ten-day event, which ran from the 3rd until the 12th of March this year, has been held in the Tainan district in southern Taiwan since 2005. The location was the so-called Taiwan Orchid Plantation, an area that the Taiwanese government assigned to orchid growers/breeders in 2004. It consists of a total of 157 ha, cultivated by 84 companies. This makes it the largest concentration of orchid companies worldwide. The greenhouses are mostly used to cultivate phalaenopsis.
The trade show, which is held in a few of the greenhouses within the complex, is funded by the government. The government’s aim with the orchid show is to help the growers, as orchid is an important export product for Taiwan. Industry professionals can attend conferences, talks, meetings and there’s also a trade hall, where Taiwanese growers can meet customers. And as our visit to Char Ming Agriculture illustrated, it’s easy to drop by some of the show greenhouses too.
Thirty export companies
Ahby Tseng explains, on behalf of the Taiwan Orchid Growers Association (TOGA), that around thirty growers are showing their produce at TIOS, which is similar to other trade fairs we know. Tseng is the Secretary General of the non-profit organisation, which aims to support the orchid industry of Taiwan.
“Out of the 400 phalaenopsis companies in Taiwan, around 250 grow for the local market only. The rest grows for export as well as the local market. But there are only 30 exporting companies. That means that they also trade orchids from colleagues, who are too small to manage their own exports, or don’t want to do it. Those thirty companies often have a nursery abroad as well, mostly in the USA. They ship young plants by boat”, said Ahby Tseng.
He continues with a more detailed breakdown of the Taiwanese orchid export industry. The group of thirty exporting companies consists of 10 large and 20 smaller companies. Sogo, bought by Dümmen Orange in 2017, is one of the top-10 companies, just like Tai-Ling, Taisuco and Star Orchids. “They’re all modern companies, many with at least a few entrepreneurs of the new generation in place. Young people like international business. The orchid industry attracts a lot of young people in Taiwan, more than other agricultural sectors.”
Employees of Taisuco, a state company that focusses on a range of activities, and started with phalaenopsis in 1987, don’t want to share too many details. They estimate that with their 9 ha, they’re no longer the largest nursery in Taiwan. The acreage of their four locations in North America is about the same.
How about their nursery in Almere, a 3.7-ha greenhouse which they moved into in 2011? The greenhouse from where they were going to expand their European customer base. Initially with flowering plants, and after that with propagation materials of cultivars from Taisuco’s breeding programme. The greenhouse in Almere has been standing empty since 2016. Taisuco still owns it, according to the employees. They don’t know yet if and when it’s going to be used again for phalaenopsis cultivation. The company prioritises other activities at the moment.
At Star Orchids, we’re given a tour by Candace Lin, the 25-year old daughter of the owner. She studied biology, but she and her two brothers recently joined her father (55) in the company, which he started in 1987.
Candace Lin is sales manager at Star Orchids. Marketing and export are probably going to be her main tasks. Why she joined the company? “Phalaenopsis is a beautiful product and the sector is challenging, with plenty of opportunities, as you’ve probably already heard from all the other young people you’ve met here.”
Star Orchids consists of 7 hectares of greenhouses, spread out over three locations in Tainan, and two greenhouses plus a head office in Chiayi. Their latest greenhouse in Tainan (1.8 ha) was recently completed. The company has their own breeding programme, but the main focus is on growing and exporting young plants in three different pot sizes. “We’ll probably expand our breeding activities, since we can’t buy everything we like.”
The company’s assortment consists of nearly 100 cultivars. Their star product is White Dream, also referred to as V8. This cultivar accounts for around 75% of their production. V8 is Star Orchids’ own selection from the well-known, large-flowered, white phalaenopsis known as V3. V3 has been on the market since 1993 and is the most important cut phalaenopsis by far, some growers in Taiwan have nothing but this cultivar in their greenhouse.
With their 7-metre post height, Star Orchids’ greenhouses are exceptionally tall. They’re completely covered with black mesh cloth on the outside, to prevent irradiation. It’s a familiar image in Taiwan. Unlike many of their colleagues, only a small area of Star Orchids’ greenhouses are equipped with the pad and fan system for cooling. That area is used for their breeding activities, which requires extra cooling. In the rest of the greenhouses, the combination of external shading, greenhouse height, three internal shades, humidifier and ventilation, is sufficient to achieve a good climate.
What kind of production does the company have? “In this 2-ha greenhouse, we grow 1.5 million plants in 3.8-inch pots, comparable to 13-cm pots, per year. The plants are shipped as young plants to the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam and Japan. Not to the Netherlands yet”, says Candace Lin with a smile.
In the warehouse we can see how the plants are carefully packaged in special export boxes. Lin also points out the machine they use to water and feed the plants in the greenhouse. A semi-automatic machine fitted with various nozzles, that can drive over the containers. “Our own design. It saves 20% on labour and watering is much more accurate than when it’s done manually with a hose.”
More professional market
Many exhibitors at the trade fair emphasise that the phalaenopsis industry is rapidly becoming more professional. Requirements for the quality of propagation materials, flowers and young plants, are becoming stricter. The demand for new breeding techniques and the protection of plant variety rights is increasing. These aspects were also highlighted during the talks at TIOS.
Competition from China is currently growing, especially because of support from the Chinese government. Ahby Tseng of TOGA doesn’t consider it a big threat, though. “China doesn’t know the market and the Chinese assortment, volume and quality makes the orchids mostly suitable for their domestic market. No, the biggest threat comes primarily from within Taiwan. It’s important that companies continue to collaborate. Only by working together, we’ll be able to expand, do research, improve the quality, organise shows, innovate and focus on international marketing.”
Taiwanese orchid exports stable
The annual Taiwanese plant and flower exports amount to €190 million. Around 85% of that is orchid. Phalaenopsis accounts for three quarters of the export value of orchid. The total orchid turnover has been fairly stable since 2014.
The USA and Japan have been the most important distribution markets for many years. The export value of orchid (flowers, plants and cuttings) amounted to respectively 46 and 41 million euros in 2017. The Netherlands has been the third biggest export country for Taiwan since 2011. In 2017, the total value of orchids sold to the Netherlands was €12 million. This was a few percent decrease for the second year in a row, while exports to the USA and Japan are still growing.
Sales to Vietnam increasing
Vietnam and South Korea are export destinations 4 and 5, and especially the Vietnamese market is growing rapidly (60% in 2017, reaching a total value of €9.6 million). Australia has been the 6th biggest export destination for Taiwan since 2013, with a total export value of €6.2 million.
TOGA estimates that the current global production of phalaenopsis consists of 300 million plants. The Netherlands is the largest producer, with more than 125 million plants, followed by Taiwan with around 90 million.