MANILA - In a small rustic town just an hour and a half drive from Manila, there's a two-hectare farm off the main highway of Barangay Palaypalay, Jalajala town in Rizal.
Farm owner Edna Sanchez, 62, said she is getting ready to harvest her crops in a week's time. Unlike some farms in the town, Sanchez’s main crop is not rice or vegetables but dragon fruit.
Sanchez bought her farm in December 2010 just two years after retirement from the Manila Electric Co., the Philippines' largest distributor of electric power. A former team leader at Meralco for 28 years, she said she was enticed to go into farming after seeing how it could give jobs to farm workers.
Sanchez first tried her hand at planting organic or naturally grown vegetables in 1.2 hectares of her property. However, the twin challenges of growing the vegetables organically and finding buyers for her produce proved to be more difficult than she first thought.
“Growing organic vegetables is much harder than just buying fertilizer off the rack and using it on the farm. I had to make my own fertilizer. It’s more labor intensive. And then when I finally grew the vegetables, the middle men were getting rich by buying them from me cheap,” she said in an interview.
Some of the organic vegetables sold at the Sanchez farm came way too cheap when compared to those in the supermarket: tomatoes were sometimes sold for 25 pesos a kilo, eggplants at 12 pesos a kilo, and chili pepper for 15-20 pesos a kilo. Part of the reason why the organic vegetables were selling so cheaply is because the harvest was timed during the peak season when regular vegetables were priced at their lowest.
It was during that time that Sanchez discovered and fell in love with the idea of turning her organic vegetable farm to an organic dragon fruit farm. At that time, no farm in Jalajala, Rizal was planting dragon fruit on a large scale.
“I first saw the dragon fruits during a Lakbay Aral tour in Cavite in August 2011. I immediately took a liking to it because I thought the dragon fruit was unique. There wasn’t a lot of dragon fruit being sold in Rizal. And the fruit itself had a lot of health benefits,” she said.
Sanchez bought a total of 4,000 dragon fruit cuttings in Cavite – at a cost of 100 pesos a piece or 400,000 pesos total - and made space in her farm for the new crop. Pretty soon, majority of the farm would be taken over by the strange-looking cactus plants.
"I bought the cuttings in August and started planting on the second week of September 2011. By March 2012, the first flowers of the dragon fruit cacti were growing. By April, we already had fruits – just seven months after we started. After six months, we had harvested about 4,400 kilos of dragon fruit, all naturally grown,” she said with a smile.
Necessity births invention
The boom in the dragon fruit harvest also raised her previous problem of too much supply and not enough buyers. While many locals in Jalajala and her own hometown of Angono, Rizal were aware of the fruit, many had yet to taste it or even buy it regularly while in season.
It was during this time when unscrupulous middlemen were lowballing the dragon fruit prices from the regular 140 pesos a kilo to a third of the price that Sanchez decided to look for other products that could be made from the fruit.
First, she tapped the expertise of a Department of Science and Technology employee on how to make fruit preserves from the dragon fruit. She also started making dragon fruit powder for baking and dragon fruit concentrate that could be used to make juice.
An attempt to make wine from fermented dragon fruit also led to a happy accident: the wine was kept too long and had already turned into vinegar.
“The funny thing is – the vinegar was the best I’ve ever tasted. Even the buyers said the vinegar was even better than the best balsamic vinegar sold in the market,” she said.
Today, some of the Sanchez Farm dragon fruit products are sold in Angono, Antipolo and even as far as Binondo in Manila. Some companies have also started placing orders for Sanchez Farm dragon fruit jam, vinegar and wine as Christmas giveaways.
She also admits dreaming of some day exporting her but only when she knows it will make a profit. “I’m taking things one at a time. The market for dragon fruits and byproducts isn’t well established but it will get there,” she said.
Finding your niche
Fruit growers in Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand may be ahead when it comes to cultivating dragon fruit but farmers in the Philippines are fast catching up.
Many locals in places such as Cavite and Ilocos Norte are turning their backyards into pocket dragon fruit gardens while large plantations are dedicated to the propagation of the fruit.
Ilocos Norte recently celebrated its third annual Dragon Fruit Festival, proof of the popularity of the scaly pitaya and the efforts of Gov. Imee Marcos to develop the dragon fruit industry. There are at least six varieties of dragon fruit in 70 hectares of dragon fruit plantations in the Ilocos region.
A Philippine Star report, meanwhile, quoted Mariano Marcos State University president Miriam Pascua as saying that businessmen from China have expressed interest in importing dragon fruit products from the Philippines including jam, jelly, wine, and soap.
Senen Perlada, director of the Philippine Bureau of Export Trade Promotion, said one way for local fruit growers to tap the export market is to study existing free trade agreements signed by the Philippines with neighboring countries to find out what kind of products are most in demand in these countries.
The Philippines currently has free trade agreements with Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It has also entered into free trade agreements through the ASEAN with China, Korea, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Speaking at a local stakeholders’ forum, Perlada said the utilization rate of the seven FTAs remains low due to lack of information and fear of greater competition.
“One way to solve this is to stop looking inwardly at the problem. For example, sugar only looks at the local market and is fearful of the outside market. It is time to look at the available markets and see if we can penetrate those markets,” he said.
For his part, Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. president Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis, Jr. urged the Philippine government to finish the industry road maps to address FTA issues ahead of the planned ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.
He said that while the export industry has been an obvious beneficiary of globalization, it is the bigger players that have adopted best management practices to increase productivity while leaving micro, small and medium enterprises behind.
“MSMEs need help to make the adjustment to realize the perks of the system,” he said, adding that exporters’ group could help such enterprises through advocacy, bank credit assistance, one-stop export and import documentation, and training.
Perlada said one way that the ASEAN Economic Community will affect local business is that it converts the region into a single market as well as a single production base. This means Filipino businessmen could import raw materials with zero to low tariffs from FTA countries or even set up manufacturing sites in FTA areas with attractive investment incentives. He cited the case of Liwayway Marketing, maker of the popular Oishi snacks, which has factories in mainland China.
Ortiz Luis said the benefits of the FTAs signed by the Philippines far outweigh the challenges. “Free trade doesn’t mean failed trade. There are some countries (in ASEAN) where we can’t compete in terms of exporting our own products while there are others where can export to, like Vietnam and Singapore. It's a question of finding our niche,” he said.