For a time, the flowers in the majestic mountains of Benguet didn’t use to bloom.
The culprit was Fusarium Wilt, a soil-borne pathogen that attacks many types of plants, causing them to rot. When the plant plague struck the municipality of Atok, Benguet-native PJ Haight was growing carnations, which are highly sensitive to infections.
While Haight also grew snapdragons at the time, there was an oversupply of these blooms, resulting in price fluctuations. Compounding the situation, the grower was also experiencing health problems due to the chemical pesticides he was using. Things were in dire straits.
So when Haight stumbled upon succulents, it was like manna from heaven.
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“Bloom where you’re planted” is one adage that Haight lives by. He was provided with succulents, so succulents he grew. Succulents—a category to which the likes of Aloe Vera, Fasciated Haworthia, Queen of the Night, Crown-of-Thorns, and various cacti fall under—are plants that have a thickened skin, which allow them to retain water in challenged climates such as deserts.
A former trainer introduced the plants to Haight. He met him while on a Benguet government-funded student exchange program to Japan from 2007 to 2010. “[My Japanese trainer] was looking for a cool place to grow succulents. He was also looking for his ex-trainees, and he found me here in Atok,” he shares.
Haight started with 10 trees in a tiny lot. Now, he’s tending a 300 square-meter makeshift greenhouse with about 20 varieties of succulents from Benguet and Japan in different shapes, sizes, and colors. The farmer admits that he neither had the knowledge nor the affinity in growing these plants, but as life has taught him, everything can be learned and interest can grow. “It was all by trial and error at first, which made it hard,” he admits. “But once we learned the ropes, it got easier.”
At present, Haight regularly supplies to the said Japanese client. Orders can go as high as 1,500 seedlings per variety. The good thing about their arrangement is he doesn’t have to think about finding a market for their plants—his Japanese business partner does it for him. “What we do is focus on propagating the plants and make sure that they are of good quality,” he says. Demands go up during the colder months of December and diminish during August, when it’s hot in Japan.
The good thing about succulents, he says, is that they are low-maintenance—they need very little water (succulents are irrigated every 2 or 3 days) and are generally pest resistant, so there’s no need for fungicides that can endanger one’s health. Currently, there are three of them taking care of the succulent farm. It’s a full-time career, he notes, because they need to ensure the quality of succulents that they provide clients. This means plants that are healthy, with the leaves compact.
Haight is happy to note that the best quality of succulents come from Atok itself. “Our clients have been to different places. And they said the ones from Atok, Madaymen, and Buguias are the best. In more temperate areas, succulents tend to be loose and limp, and the Japanese don’t like that,” he explains.
Growing succulents is not without challenges because of unpredictable weather conditions, Haight confesses. “We have typhoons, monsoon season, dry season, frost. The changeable weather stunts the growth of the plants. Sometimes, giving vitamins can’t compensate for the change in weather conditions,” he says. Succulents prefer an environment that’s cool but not too dry; the ideal temperature to grow quality them is 10 °C to 15 °C. Having a heater would be a big help when there’s a frost, and he’s hoping to invest in one.
Meanwhile, PJ hopes that Mother Nature will be kind enough as they enjoy living a simple, healthy life in the Benguet boondocks.
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Photographs by Andre Drilon