Sage Advice from Davao City’s Orchid Queen

By Zac B. Sarian

Sally Leuenberger, who might as well be called Davao City’s Orchid Queen, is one of the most successful orchid growers in the country today. One uncontestable proof is that at the last Kadayawan orchid show in Davao City, she bagged practically all the major prizes in the different orchid competition categories.

Her hybrid Vanda was adjudged the Best Orchid in Show; her two Waling-waling plants won the first and second prizes in their category; and her strap leaf Vandas won all the three top prizes in their category. In the mixed genera category, her orchids also won the top three prizes. It was only in the Dendrobium category that she took the second and third prizes instead of first prize. On top of that, her exhibit booth was adjudged the first prize winner.

Who is Sally Leuenberger of Davao City? She is a top rate CPA (certified public accountant) who used to audit the books of professionals, businessmen, hospitals, schools, and other business enterprises. Her accountancy practice was lucrative but somehow, she was fascinated with orchids.

Sally posing with her prize-winning Waling-waling at the 2016 Kadayawan garden show.

It all started when she bought her first Vanda orchid in 1981. A client who sold it to her challenged her. If the plant survived up to the next garden show, then she would be ready to start a hobby. And that was the beginning of her love affair with orchids.

Five years later, in 1985, she was charting her life’s direction. Should she abandon her accountancy practice which she developed for 20 years? After thinking the matter over, she decided, in her own words, “to grow orchids and beautify the world.”

She developed her orchid business in four stages. For five years, it was just a hobby without any
selling. After five years as hobbyist, she started selling some of her plants, and that was the livelihood stage, during which she did not abandon her accountancy practice altogether. Sometimes, if she sold a flowering orchid for, say, P100, she would use the money to buy a community pot with about 30 baby orchids. That was her strategy to increase her orchid population systematically.

The next stage was as an entrepreneur. That was when she gave up her accountancy practice and focused on orchid growing. As her farm expanded, she entered what she calls the commercial stage.

That meant full-scale production and marketing.

Before she became a commercial grower, she attended a lot of seminars on the orchid business, read books and journals, and attended trade shows in the Philippines and abroad. She also participated in shows in Davao, Manila, and even abroad with some financial support from the government as a representative from the Philippines.

A panoramic view of the SUL Orchids growing area.

Today she is the owner of SUL Orchids, a seven-hectare orchid farm that has at any one time more than 300,000 orchid plants of various ages.

Winning plant competitions in garden shows is proof that her orchids are of good quality. The expense involved in putting up an exhibit in garden shows is surely much more than the cash prize she receives, but the payoff is in the image of high quality she earns for her plants.

She does not only enter plant competitions. One very expensive competition, she said, is competing in the float parade during the Kadayawan celebration. She did not mind the big
expense, however, because for three consecutive years she won the first prize. And that certainly added to the prestige of SUL Orchids.

A lot of people buy Sally’s orchids not only because of their high quality but also because of reasonable prices. Many buyers purchase in bulk. Many of them are plant shop owners or traders from different parts of the country. Unlike other orchid producers, Sally doesn’t sell cut flowers. She sells only live plants, both those in bloom and young ones that are not yet in bloom.

Her advice to people aspiring to put up a profitable orchid business is to start small and expand as one gets the experience and skills in growing and marketing plants. They should have complete records of expenses and sales so they will know if they are making money or not.

She states in Filipino the traits she would recommend to aspiring orchid commercial growers, namely: “Sipag, Tiyaga, Tipid, Invest” or STTI. One should be hardworking, persevering, and know how to save and to invest.

In order to grow the business, one should invest in the business 80 percent of the profit and take only 20 percent for personal matters. Of course, there are other management strategies that Sally adopts to make her orchid business enjoyable and profitable.

Livestock For Her Scholars

In a small portion of her farm that is not occupied by orchids, she raises cattle and goats. From starting with just a few head of cattle some years back, she usually has about 30 head or thereabouts at any one time these days. Cows are profitable, according to Sally. She could sell each for P18,000 to P35,000. And her income from her cows and goats enables her to pay for the financial support of their 25 national high school scholars from three schools in Tugbok, Ma-a, and Davao City.

Of course, another benefit she gets from her animals is that they keep down the grass. The grass cuttings in the areas occupied by orchids are also fed to the ruminants.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s October 2016 issue. 

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