Dahu, Birthplace of Taiwan U-Pick Farming
Text: Nick Kembel
Photos: Maggie Song
Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries. Everywhere I look, I see giant, succulent strawberries. Strawberry fields, strawberry hats, strawberry bus stops, strawberry statues, strawberry wine, strawberry ice cream. No, I’m not caught in a strange strawberry-wonderland dream. This place is real, and it’s called Dahu. Join us as we visit a strawberry farm and winery in the heart of Taiwan’s prime strawberry-growing region.
Until quite recently, it was not common to see strawberries in Taiwan’s markets. The first record of local strawberry cultivation dates to 1934, when seedlings were imported from Japan. In the early stages, strawberry growing was small-scale – and largely unsuccessful. In 1952, Marshall strawberries were imported from the US, and the sector gradually expanded.
Dahu, a rural township in northwestern Taiwan’s Miaoli County, was the island’s earliest center of strawberry production. In December and January, the region provides all the right conditions for strawberry cultivation: deep, slightly acidic soil rich in organic material, sufficient drainage, a cool climate, little rainfall, and a significant drop between daytime and nighttime temperatures.
In its early days, most of the strawberries harvested here were sold to jam producers. Then, in the late ’70s, farmers unloading their trucks at the farmhouses along Provincial Highway 3 began enticing drivers to stop and buy the just-picked produce. In the mid ’80s there came a full reorientation toward selling fresh strawberries to the public. Demand for the fruit increased across Taiwan, and farms grew in size. To decrease the manpower burden of farms, “U-Pick” farming was introduced in Taiwan, with farmers’ allowing visitors to pick their own fruit.
The U-Pick phenomenon was incredibly successful and tourists arrived in droves. At the time fewer people had cars in Taiwan, so the area’s public transportation system was overwhelmed. These days there are traffic jams on the area’s section of Provincial Highway 3 on most weekends, starting early in the day.
To get a better idea of how things work at a U-Pick farm, we pay a visit to Sanlunche Strawberry Farm, located 3 kilometers south of Dahu village. Sanlunche means “pedicab” in Chinese, and the farm’s name harks back to when current owner Rao Ming-lin’s father established it 42 years ago, and would pedal his strawberries into the village on a tricycle to hawk them to potential buyers.
Farmer Rao explains to us that his farm is in fact smack in the middle of the Dahu strawberry-producing area, surrounded by other farms selling the same product. Despite the competition, however, Sanlunche maintains a steady influx of customers with minimal advertising.
“We produce nothing but the highest-quality strawberries. As such, most of our customers find out about us through word of mouth.” Rao leads us to one of the greenhouses on site to demonstrate how to pick strawberries. He explains that, when the strawberry industry picked up in Taiwan, farmers had to switch to a different variety better suited for producing larger yields. Like many of the farmers in the area, he grows Taoyuan No. 1, a cultivar perfected by Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture through selective breeding of the Fengxiang variety imported from Japan in 1985. Taoyuan No. 1 strawberries are large and heart-shaped, with juicy flesh and a sweet-and-sour taste.
Rao explains that the size and sweetness of a strawberry are unrelated. Rather, it is proper ripeness that is the key when picking. He points out that while his strawberries don’t get as dark-red as some other varieties, they are surprisingly sweet.
“Every farm uses different cultivation methods,” he says. “So there is a lot of variety in the strawberries produced by the farms.” In such a competitive market, Rao ensures the finest fruits by farming with care and adopting sustainable practices. He uses organic fertilizers and minimal pesticides, and lets the land lie fallow with a mulch of grass and tree bark in the non-growing season. As a result, he claims, his strawberries are sweeter and more fragrant than most others sold in the area. Rao also leaves his best strawberries for pickers, whereas many other farmers remove them for sale to markets before the tourists arrive.
Greenhouses provide protection from excess rain and pests, but due to their exorbitant cost, only a portion of Rao’s strawberries is covered. “Sure, some of the strawberries in the uncovered fields are eaten by birds,” he says, “but that’s fine. We take something from nature, so it’s only fair that we give something back.”
Once visitors have collected and paid for their strawberries, they can take them to go – or enjoy them on the spot in a bowl, doused with sweetened condensed milk. Strawberry jam and ice cream are also on offer, not to mention strawberry beer, which actually tastes like strawberries, unlike a lot of the faux-flavored offerings sold around the world.
To visit Sanlunche, hire a taxi in Dahu village, or catch bus no. 5655 or 5663 and get off at ShuitouliaoBridge. The farm is on the other side of the a red steel bridge.
While passing through Dahu village, it’s hard to miss Dahu Wineland Resort, a veritable strawberry theme park. When you spot the huge 30-foot strawberry out front, you’ll know you’re there. The facility is a mecca for tourists who’ve come to experience all things related to the strawberry. In the first floor gift shop, you can find everything from strawberry cakes to strawberry pajamas. To learn more about the history of strawberry cultivation in Dahu, try the Strawberry Culture Museum on the third floor. If strawberry omelets, fried fish with strawberry sauce, or other strawberry-adorned foods sound appetizing to you, try the restaurant on the fourth floor. The fifth-floor terrace offers a commanding view of the village’s strawberry farms and surrounding mountains.
If it’s drink you seek, head straight to the back of the building. Here you’ll find the Dahu Winery, famous for its strawberry wine, which comes in 6.5%, 11%, and 16% alcohol varieties. Free samples are on offer. Alternatively, grab a strawberry beer and head out back to guzzle it down on a patio with a front-row view of an adjacent U-Pick farm. Dispersed throughout the winery are numerous food stalls selling more strawberry-themed snacks. Strawberry wine sausages are a popular choice; you can never go wrong with strawberry shaved ice; kids will love the strawberry popcorn; and the deep fried strawberries are worth trying.
With leisure farms getting more and more popular across Taiwan, perhaps the most interesting thing about visiting Dahu, besides all the strawberry mania, is getting a first-hand look at where it all began.
There are regular Hsinchu Bus Co. buses running between Dahu village and Miaoli Railway Station.
Tips for Picking Strawberries
Times and Prices
The strawberry-growing season in Dahu is from December to April. Sanlunche Strawberry Farm is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm, but early birds of course get the best picks of the bunch. Some tourists arrive as early as 6:30 am! Come on a weekday if you can, because it is incredibly busy on weekends and there are often traffic jams through the day. Peak picking time is 10-12 noon.
When you enter, you will be provided with a basket and a pair of shears. Rain boots are also available if the fields are muddy. Once you’ve finished, the staff will weigh and package your strawberries for you. Prices fluctuate according to local supply. When we were there, we paid NT$250 per jin (600g).
Choosing the Right Strawberries
Dahu farmers recommend choosing strawberries that are about 80% ripe if you want to take them home. If too ripe, they will go bad quickly. Go for the ones that have a bright red color, fragrant smell, and green, non-wilted petals. Strawberries redden with exposure to the sun, so if the non-exposed side is a little white, this is not a problem. Avoid the ones that are bruised or have been damaged by pests or diseases. Strawberries are fragile, and must be picked carefully.
How to Pick
1. Bend with your knees to avoid back injury.
2. Pinch the stem with your thumb and index finger an inch above the strawberry while cradling the fruit in your hand.
3. Cut the stem just above the leaves.
4. Place the strawberry carefully in the basket.
5. Don’t fill your basket more than five strawberries deep or they will get bruised.
After You Leave
1. Put the strawberries into the refrigerator as soon as you get home.
2. Do not rinse them or remove the leaves until just before you eat them, as this hastens deterioration.
3. Eat them within one week; reduce this to 3-4 days later in the season.
English and Chinese
|Hsinchu Bus Co.||新竹客運|
|Taoyuan No. 1||桃園一號|
Sanlunche Strawberry Farm (大湖三輪車草莓園)
Add:Shuitouliao, Dahu Township, Miaoli County (苗栗縣大湖鄉水頭寮) (at km 133 of Prov. Hwy 3; look for the red steel bridge)
Tel: (037) 990-749, 0935-991-562
Dahu Wineland Resort – Strawberry Cultural Building (大湖酒莊 – 草莓文化館)
Add:2-4, Baliaowan, Fuxing Village, Dahu Township, Miaoli County (苗栗縣大湖鄉富興村八寮灣2-4號)
Tel: (037) 994-986