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Taiwan seeking to return to Japan's hirami lemon market

Hu Jong-i, center, director general of the Agriculture and Food Agency under the Council of Agriculture, poses for the media at a press conference to promote Taiwan's indigenous tangerine, sometimes called shiikuwasha or hirami lemon. (Kyodo)

TAIPEI (Kyodo) -- Taiwan is making a strong push to return to the expanding market in Japan for a citrus fruit considered a health product, Taiwanese authorities said Friday.

    Hu Jong-i, director general of the Agriculture and Food Agency under the Council of Agriculture, told the press conference that Taiwan, which previously exported hirami lemon juice to Japan from 2014 to 2016, aims to resume exports next year.

    Hirami lemon, also known as shiikuwasha and flat lemon, is a small, green citrus fruit of the mandarin family that grows wild in the southwest of the Japanese archipelago of Okinawa as well as mountainous areas of eastern Taiwan.

    The high-priced lemon, which contains large amounts of vitamin C and carotene, became popular in Japan in 2000 thanks to a TV program boasting of its nutritional benefits.

    Taiwan began actively planting hirami lemons in 2008, mainly in the southern county of Pingtung. The area planted for the lemon has grown from 45 hectares to 280 hectares this year due in part to government incentives.

    Hirami lemon has been included in a government program encouraging farmers to replace the "green gold" of betel nut plants with other crops. Betel nuts, known as "Taiwan's chewing gum," are considered not only unfriendly to the environment, but also likely unsafe as regular chewing is linked to mouth cancer.

    If more hirami lemon trees are planted, Hu said, it will not only be good for the environment, but also benefit consumers.

    "Our goal is to make Pingtung a county of longevity like Ogimi Village in Okinawa," Hu said. The lemon is one of the signature agricultural products of Ogimi, which is famous for the longevity of the local people.

    The agency also hopes to see hirami lemons become a new "green gold" industry as the wild crop is low maintenance and has high return value, Hu said.

    Taiwan exported 180 tons of raw hirami lemon juice to Japan annually from 2014 to 2016. However, exports were suspended as production could not keep up with the demand.

    Taiwan's largest hirami lemon grower, Chiu Yung-feng, who is in Pingtung County, said he grows 30 hectares of organic hirami lemons on his own land and contracts out 250 more hectares. If all goes well, Chiu said he hopes to increase the planting area by 20 to 30 hectares annually.

    While the yield of the 280 hectares is 400 tons this year, he hopes to see it grow to 600 tons next year. Approximately 60 percent of the annual yield of the 280 hectares is for domestic consumption, with the remaining 40 percent bound for Japan and China.

    Chiu said the Taiwanese variety of hirami lemon has higher nutrition values than the cheaper calamondin or Philippine lime, which is smaller, rounder and has a milder taste.

    In addition to the bottled raw hirami lemon drink, Chiu said he is working with food manufacturers to explore different kinds of products such as pastries, jam, and sausages. The pulp can also be fed to pigs to obtain a hirami lemon pork.

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