The amazing revival in the cultivation of tropical fruit trees

By Pablito P. Pamplona

There are many tropical fruit trees grown for high income in South East Asia. These include pummelo, tamarind, guava, durian, longkong (lanzones), magosteen, jackfruit, mango, and many others. I carried out recent updates on three kinds of fruit trees, namely, durian, mangosteen, and longkong by visiting the production regions in Malaysia and Thailand. These countries are the leading and trendsetters in the cultivation of these fruit trees.

What was observed was truly amazing! There is a grand revival in the cultivation of these fruit trees. This revival is propelled by the almost unlimited demand in the world market, particularly in China, Europe and Russia. China has recently signed an agreement with Malaysia to accept ten 20-foot vans of durian fruits daily. Thailand has long been a traditional supplier of durian in China and is now exporting huge volumes during the harvest season. In China, durian is both consumed as fruits and for producing highly demanded added-value products. The price of durian ice cream, pastries, coffee, etc. is almost twice the price of products with non-durian components.

These fruit trees are also the leading choices for retirement – planted as good source of income for buying medicine and vacation trips. They also provide the highest income as reforestation crops. In Malaysia and Thailand, it is common to see wide forestlands of these three crops. As native plants of Southeast Asia, these crops provide excellent reforestation land cover just like narra, molave, and others with one major difference: these fruit trees provide farmers with regular high income annually, while the commercial forest trees just provide ground cover, with limited income.

Revival strategies

Modern durian farms are anchored on the planting of varieties like Musang King (D197) which are early maturing and very prolific in producing quality fruits.

In both Malaysia and Thailand, the old durian plantations are being rehabilitated. Old tall durian trees of low productivity or inferior variety are cut a meter above the ground and tap-worked to new varieties like D197 (Musang King) and other superior early maturing, disease resistance, and high yielding varieties. New fields are being opened for cultivation by cutting rubber and oil palm trees and also include natural growing forest trees. Many environmentalists in Malaysia consider the expansion of durian cultivation as a new threat to the environment as naturally growing forest trees are cut and replaced with fruit trees, particularly durian. Their concern is unfounded as durian, mangosteen, and duku lanzones are native trees of the country which can provide very luxuriant and productive ground cover similar to many commercial forest trees. Fruit trees are planted using advanced technologies which include planting in mount for drainage and provided with excellent irrigation system installed prior to planting to ensure plant survival and long years of productivity even during long El Niño. Adequate care, particularly regular fertilization, makes the trees fruitful four years after planting.

Durian harvest season…where are the fruits?

During the first week of May this year, my wife, Emy, and I made a week’s documentation on the durian-leading provinces in Thailand – Chantaburi and Trat. It’s durian harvest season in these provinces. We noted trees with many fruits but the traditional marketplaces, which previously had abundant durian fruits, have now limited fruit displays; many are deformed and rejects.

Large volume fruit markets as shown above are slowly disappearing in Thailand inspite of planting expansion. The fruits become more expensive – three times the price than five years ago. More of the fruits produced are packed in production centers for foreign markets.

Moreover, the price of the fruits was expensive – three or more times the price than five years ago. So we asked our Thai friends, where are the fruits? They pointed us to a typical durian community where several refrigerated 20 footer vans were lined up to be loaded with selected and classified fruits for export. We dropped in on one of the fruit stands and bought three deformed fruits of the Kradumtong variety at the cost of 200 Baht/kg or P360/kg, as compared to only less than R60/kg before. Indeed, the price of the fruits have gone up even in the domestic market, to the benefit of the fruit farmers. The increased income of the locals capacitated them to buy more durian fruits. This is a trend we also noted in the Philippines.

The durian season in Thailand is from May to August – that’s the time when they export to China. The durian season in the Philippines is from August to October – a big potential for the Philippines to produce and export durian fruits to China. Two years ago, I got two guests from Malaysia who wanted to partner with me in growing durian in the Philippines so they could extend in months their market for durian, and also to produce durian in the Philippines for Malaysia and Thailand during their off-season. Remembering my background in promoting durian cultivation in the country in the 1990’s, I decided to initiate the revival of durian production in the Philippines not through foreign partnership, but by helping many small Filipino farmers. Last year, I started the revival of our fruit nursery – the innovative Thai nurseries serving as my models.

A call from Canada to plant mangosteen and durian

Last March 2019, I got a phone call from Darlene G. Sumastre, who put an order to buy 200 LPM (large-size planting materials) of mangosteen seedlings and 200 LPM of grafted durian. Since she was calling from Canada, I told her that these fruit trees are not suitable to be planted there. She related that 16 years ago, before going to Canada to work as a nurse with her husband who now works as an engineer in the oil drilling company in Texas, USA, they bought from our nursery LPM of mangosteen, durian, and longkong, which they intercropped with coconut in Gingoog City, Misamis Oriental. While she worked abroad, her retired mother, Clarita M. Guirnela, managed the farm, which she did excellently by following the techniques discussed in my books. When I delivered the 200 LPM mangosteen to Darlene’s farm, I noted that her mother provides the plants with adequate weeding, mulching, fertilization, and irrigation, the reason for the high yield and income.

Among these three crops, the first choice of Darlene for expansion is mangosteen. She never experienced any mortality with mangosteen. According to Guirnela, the crop is easy to take care of, particularly with no spraying of pesticides. I noted the same experience in the MILF’s (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao. No mortality was noted in the ten hectares (ha) of mangosteen planted in 1999 under my supervision. Guirnela related that during the last fruiting season, a buyer contracted 92 flowering mangosteen trees to harvest and buy the fruits for R300,000 which were paid in advance – at flowering stage. She also got good income from longkong and durian. Darlene’s purpose of planting more trees is in preparation for their retirement years. While the couple earned high income abroad, they consider Canada and USA as lonely places for retirement.

The secret of the productivity of Darlene Sumastre’s fruit farm is intercropping it with tall coconut trees. Her 72 year-old mother ensures that the plants are provided with adequate weeding, mulching, fertilization, irrigation, and pruning.

Their desire is to retire in the Philippines with friends and with these fruit trees giving them high income for sustenance and source of funds in going around the world.

Retirement crops are viewed differently by people from different backgrounds and walks in life. A retiring lawyer in Makati who frequents Thailand asked me for a planting design and planting materials for a five hectare Nam Hom intercropped with longkong in Batangas. A retired chief of staff of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) is also asking for my help in developing a combination of Nam Hom coconut and cacao in the province of Rizal. Moreover, I got a phone call from Carmelta Manlapaz, 72 years old, from Taytay, Rizal who is expanding her durian farm from one to four ha using the Puyat variety because she found it highly adaptable and profitable in their area. She related that caring for her trees keeps her young and healthy. This reminds me of the higher number of successful women fruit growers than men I met in Malaysia and Thailand.

Furthermore, a successful hotelier in Dumaguete City, Santiago Siera, is developing a farm with a majority of fruit trees including Nam Hom and Nam Wan coconut. The produce are intended for the hotel’s restaurant. I also know of a successful OCW (Overseas Contract Worker) in the USA who took a two-week vacation in Bacolod City last month to surprise his father by giving him a retirement farm composed of Nam Hom coconut in grateful appreciation of the support his father had given him while schooling in Manila years back. In the USA, Nam Hom coconut juice from Thailand has become his favorite refreshing drink.

Making an amazing forest cover with fruit trees

While in the government service as a professor and researcher at the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan, Cotabato, I bought an eight-hectare farm of rugged, hilly, deforested grassland beside a river at the slope of Mt. Apo in Barangay Pangao-an, Magpet, Cotabato. That time, I sidelined on weekend as a consultant and was paid generously by Ambassador Danding Cojuangco. I used my consultancy fee to buy the land where I planted fruit trees, except at the property’s borders where I planted more than 500 mahogany and narra trees. Acacia and bamboo trees were also planted along the river banks. My neighbors planted commercial forest trees like Gmelina, falcata, rubber trees, and others, supported by DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources). Now, these farms have become naturally-grown forests, creating a healthy and invigorating environment. The erosion of the sloping portion is prevented by planting forage grasses which are cut and fed to milking goats. This coming harvest season, the fruits of the longkong trees at the flowering stage are already contracted by a Manila-based fruit distributor for R800-R1,200 per tree. In spite of the El Niño during the first half of this year, the trees grew luxuriantly due to the irrigation water which was pumped up from the river. My neighbors have income every 14 years from logging commercial forest trees. Their income is a fraction of what my farm annually provides. My children are developing the farm as a fruit-based resort to showcase the advantage of using high-value fruit trees for reforestation. Cottages are being constructed using lumber sowed from selected mahogany and acacia trees I planted at the borders of the property.

A chance to view a fruit tree farm

Those who are interested to view the productivity of the longkong trees from Narathiwat, Thailand are invited to a harvest festival on the fourth week of this month in my farm. The farm is easily accessible by a cemented road from Kidapawan City. Moreover, the farm is extremely peaceful, healthful, and invigorating for a weekend vacation. We have reserved some longkong trees, free of contract, where guests and visitors can pick the fruits they want to buy and bring home. Some mangosteen trees, Musang King, and other durian varieties which are being rehabilitated, are available for viewing. We may also conduct an on-farm training on fruit tree production. We are particularly inviting DENR personnel for a new and more innovative outlook on alternative reforestation techniques for high farm income and to overcome rural poverty.

Longkong plants at TPFN Kabacan sourced out from the one and only original longkong tree in Narathiwat, Thailand 21 years ago. These are probably the oldest longkong trees in the Philippines. The large canopy of the trees produces from 1,000 to 1,200 kg of fruits annually.

In Barangay Dagupan, Kabacan, Cotabato, we have 20 longkong trees which originated from the mother longkong tree in Narathiwat, Thailand. The Thais consider this tree as the only source of true longkong, producing large bunches of aromatic, sweet, almost seedless, latexless fruits. The trees in Kabacan are almost 21 years old, providing big canopies, with each tree bearing an estimate of 1,000 to 1,200 kgs of fruits per tree this year (Fig. 8). Probably, these are the oldest longkong trees in the Philippines since I was the first Filipino to penetrate the jungle of Narathiwat, Thailand (as I was told by the villagers) to view what the Thais consider as the one and only original longkong tree. The tree was almost 150 years old at the time of my visit.

Indeed, planting fruit trees ensures good income during retirement life and a good legacy to the next generation, as well as the environment. There is, however, a need to learn techniques on how to ensure that fruit trees would live for several generations. In durian, this includes the selection of the right varieties such as King Kunyit, Puang Manee, Puyat, and Kradumtong; and for all crops, the techniques of good drainage, irrigation, and regular care for the plants.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2019 issue. 

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