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Planting coffee in land of Oolong

A Taiwanese entrepreneur is planting world-class Arabica and Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee in the fertile hills of Fujian Province. Locals first sneered at the "bitter medicine." Now they clamor for seeds. Xu Lingui and Wang Fanfan report.

Visitors to Fujian Province's Tulou World Heritage Site - an ancient fortress-like earthen communal building - usually take home bags of Oolong tea leaves. But now, they have a new choice of souvenir, locally grown high-quality coffee.

The coffee farm, the brain-child of a Taiwanese businessman, is nestled in the mountains of Nankeng Town in the port city of Zhangzhou, where traders for centuries shipped Oolong tea to Southeast Asia or across the Indian Ocean.

Oolong is a traditional Chinese tea somewhere between green and black in oxidation.

"Despite a deep-rooted tea culture, as China's economy develops, there will be a huge market for coffee. Imagine if you want to ask a girl out in Shanghai, would you invite her to tea or coffee?" says Huang Wenkuang, who started the Nankeng Coffee Farm two years ago.

A veteran construction contractor in Taiwan, 57-year-old Huang first arrived in to Nankeng in 2005 to build himself a private resort, but the idea of a coffee farm soon struck him.

"There is not much high-quality brewed coffee available on the Chinese mainland," Huang says. "Just as low-grade Chinese tea is exported to regions where people don't know good tea, low-grade coffee beans are imported to China because traders think tea-drinking Chinese cannot tell the difference."

In today's China, more young people are switching to coffee for their morning jolt, but most of the 30,000 tons of coffee consumed by Chinese each year is made from low-grade beans.

Among a few domestic coffee brands, only Hougu, of the Yunnan Province-based Dehong Group, has become a major supplier to global coffee giants like Starbucks.

Huang not only wants to grab a share of the market, he aims for something noble.

To start, he brought from Taiwan the seeds of Arabica coffee and a few of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and leased 6.67 hectares of land from the Nankeng government.

"The mountain slopes in moisture-rich Nankeng, which resemble home of Blue Mountain coffee in Jamaica, are ideal for growing good coffee. The quality of the beans will be improved with Taiwanese farming expertise," Huang says.

After tasting the first fruits of that combination, Huang expanded his coffee farm to 33 hectares and will soon teach local farmers to grow coffee on another 133 hectares. He constructed a viewing platform on the mountain slope above the first 6.67-hectare coffee farm, where he serves steaming brewed coffee to visitors.

Huang says his initial investment was 12 million yuan (US$1.76 million) and he will invest more as he plans to build a whole coffee production line in Nankeng.

Local officials are encouraged by Huang's growing business.

"We see coffee as an emerging sector and a pillar of Nankeng's economy in the future," says Zhang Wenzhang, head of Nankeng township government. "We also like the idea of tourist agriculture. The view from the coffee farm platform is breathtaking. More travelers will come here for a break after visiting the Tulou."

Nankeng, with its dense forest and geological remoteness, served as a base of the armies of the Communist Party of China before they stormed cities in southeast Fujian Province and defeated the then-ruling Kuomintang, Zhang says.

But the former revolutionary base was left behind in the waves of export-led economic reforms that swept coastal China since the 1980s.

Zhang hopes Nankeng can catch up with the help of the coffee farm and other agricultural businesses.

"We hope Nankeng coffee will become China's Blue Mountain," says Lu Fengpeng, a local publicity official.

Many other Taiwanese have succeeded in agriculture on the mainland. Over the past decade, Zhangzhou has become a key Taiwanese agricultural investment destination. Taiwanese-funded farm projects were valued at US$2.8 billion by the end of 2009.

Ten Fu's Tea Co, one of the Zhangzhou-based Taiwanese corporations, has grown into China's largest tea company over the past decade with more than 1,000 retail chains on the mainland. Its assets have reportedly exceeded 1 billion yuan.

Though Huang faces more hurdles growing coffee in the traditionally tea-growing province, he has reason to be confident.

"When I started out, local farmers teased me, saying, 'Why is this Taiwanese so stupid as to grow something that tastes like bitter medicine?' but now, seeing the profits, they come to me for the seeds."


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