By Sahlie P. Lacson
Silan Farm’s story is one that is full of inspiration. Husband and wife Edilberto, or Eddie, and Sheila Silan started with just 10 dragon fruit cuttings planted in a small part of a half-hectare property which Eddie inherited from his parents.
This is not to say that he came from a well-off family. It just so happened that his parents were able to save up (sans luxuries in life) in order to have something to bequeath to their eight children while doing their own brand of farming. Growing up, Eddie was already imbued with the farm life; this is the reason he went back to tilling the land, starting Silan Agri Farm in 1999.
A struggling beginning
The Silans used to sell garments in Baclaran in 1986. This was their simple means of livelihood as they were just starting their lives as husband and wife. Prior to that, Silan, a Marine Engineering graduate with an undergraduate in Mechanical Engineering, had just come back from Saudi Arabia, where he used to work as a machine operator in a subcontracting company until he was forced to return home after his company lost the bid for what used to be the company’s major project. Sheila, meanwhile, was able to get a job in a government entity.
Their RTW (ready-to-wear) buy-and-sell scheme was doing good until foreign competitors began to settle in the area, which resulted in a slump in sales. It was then after 10 years, that Silan decided to go back to Indang, Cavite where a half-hectare property bequeathed to them by his parents was standing idle for all that time.
Upon returning to his native hometown, Eddie initially helped his parents plant coffee, banana, and pineapple. It was until 1999 when he was fortunately given 10 stem cuttings of dragon fruit tree by his friend Alex Litton. Litton is a businessman who introduced the white-fleshed dragon fruit variety to the Philippines from Taiwan in 1992.
In order to set up cemented posts and other requirements to replant the cuttings, Eddie purchased materials from a hardware store near them through credit. The planting process was trial and error at first. Silan confessed how he, during the beginning, became very worried since he knew too little about dragon fruit farming. But being able to observe how the other crops that were planted in his parents’ farm grew and bear fruit, Silan was able to abundantly reap his first harvest a year after.
To add to his fortunes, in 2005, he was chosen as Techno Gabay Program’s Best Magsasaka Siyentista (MS) for his technology guide on tissue-culturing lakatan banana in Cavite.
Magsasaka Siyentista is a project of the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD). It provides investment packages to farmer beneficiaries in order to apply science-based practices on their farms with the aim of being able to share these practices with others. To do that, they need to continuously equip themselves with new knowledge to fit the world’s changing needs.
Silan applied the science-based practices he used in his tissue-cultured lakatan banana to his dragon fruit trees. Furthermore, through his recognition, he was able to go to different places, meet farmers and other stakeholders involved in farming and other industries, attend meetings and seminars, and give talks and speeches. One-by-one, Eddie was able to apply new farm inputs and technologies he gathered through the exchange of ideas and lessons, which all proved to be fruitful.
Being the frugal man that he is, Silan relayed how he was able to expand and acquire more and more properties during his long years in the business. “First, it was through the help of the owner of the store who loaned me the materials as I expanded my dragon fruit plantation. Every time I had harvest, I made sure to repay my loan through the income derived from the sales of my dragon fruit; afterwards, I would avail of another loan, to another loan, until I was able to expand from 10 posts, to 100 posts, until after a year that it became 675 posts.” On top of this, Silan also purchased more and more parcels of land whenever he had extra income. “So from half-hectare, Silan Agri Farm has 15 hectares now,” beams Silan.
Quality over quantity
Silan Farm values quality over quantity. As cited by Silan, this is their secret to enduring success; that just by the sight of the boxes bearing the name Silan Agri Farm, their customers are already assured of high-quality dragon fruits. “We don’t compromise quality over quantity. Say, when we deliver “primera klase” products, they are all “primera klase”. Our product is worth every penny of our customers,” says Silan. Their dragon fruit varies from “primera klase” (those fruits weighing 400-500 grams each), to “segunda klase” (those fruits weighing 300-350 grams each). (For the record, Silan Agri Farm was able to harvest a white fleshed dragonfruit weighing 1.6 kg each last season.) However, whatever the weight is, all uniformly taste delicious. “That is probably due to the nutrients (or care) I give to each tree which sometimes require different applications. You need to be observant since trees, just like human beings, have different requirements. Anything in excess is harmful and you need to determine what should be given in order to restore healthy trees and fruits,” Silan continues.
Silan remembers a Chinese businessman from Sto. Cristo in Binondo as his first customer who ordered from him 10 kilos of dragon fruit after he brought in samples for taste-testing. At that time, his Chinese buyer was the one commanding the price since Silan had no idea then on marketing. However, just before he left the Binondo area, he was able to get at least 120 kilos of orders to be delivered the following day. Silan was so ecstatic after receiving P6,000, which according to him, was already a large amount during that time. And so the Chinese businessman became his regular buyer until 2011, when more and more suppliers of dragon fruit increased in the area. “One of my customers called me one time and asked me to stop delivery since there are already many traders of dragon fruit,” relayed Eddie. “But after two years, he called me and asked me to deliver to them again since more and more customers were asking for the dragon fruits from our brand. And because of that, we were the ones who commanded the price the (next) time we got back to deliver.”
Silan Farm cultivates three dragon fruit varieties: the red skin and white flesh (Hylocereusundatus), the red skin and red pulp (Hylocereuscostaricensis), and the yellow skin and white pulp (Hylocereusmegelanthus). The most saleable among these varieties is the red skin and red pulp, which appeals to local supermarket buyers. The other two varieties, on the other hand, appeal to their resort and hotel customers, which the latter uses for salad preparations due to their aesthetic appeal. “They do not use the red skin-red pulp variety to avoid the red colorant present in such variety when the juice melts,” says Eddie.
Silan Agri Farm applies 80-90% organic nutrients and very little amounts of inorganic since, as Eddie says, plants also need other nutrients such as NPK (complete fertilizer), calcium, magnesium, humus (or humic acid) as a soil conditioner. “Chances are, when you spray more and more chemical fertilizers, complications will start to abound in the trees’ stems and roots.” They are also very careful not to harm pollinators and other insects present in the area which also contribute beneficially to the flowering of their crops.
Harvest season is from May to October (which sometimes lasts until early November), just six months after planting. Silan Farm is able to harvest 70-80 tons in one cropping season, which they sell to their regular buyers from P80-P100 per kilo. According to Silan, their harvest is mostly insufficient, given the demand. “Most of our customers are Chinese buyers,” says Silan. He narrated that Chinese, according to belief, uses dragon fruit as one of their offerings to thwart negative vibes among businesses during “ghost month,” or the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls in August. “They say that the fruit’s appearance, which has spikes and resembles a dragon… is able to ward off the bad vibes and spirits that haunt businesses during the month of August,” Silan declares.
Other cash crops for sustainable farming
Since dragon fruit is a seasonal crop, Silan also cultivates cash crops such as eggplant, papaya, tomato, ampalaya, cucumber, black pepper, red hot chili pepper, and coconut intercropped among dragon fruit trees. They also have MD2 pineapples or the “Super Sweet” variety from which 8,000 planting materials from Bukidnon were initially provided to them by BPI (Bureau of Plant Industry) two years ago as their (exclusive) private partner for test-planting in Cavite.
Presently, Silan has 21 workers (he employs two workers for every hectare of dragon fruit tree) who have made farming their regular means of livelihood. “How can you stop production when you know that you have workers whose livelihood is dependent on you? (As) much as we need to provide livelihood for ourselves, we also need to provide livelihood for their family. That is the reason why we need to produce cash crops – to have a sustainable means of income,” Silan confesses.
Silan’s daughter, Ella, also does her share in helping their family’s farm workers. Slowly, she buys them calves, which she lets them care for. And when the cow is sold, the profit is equally divided between her and the farmer. Say, Ella bought a calf at R10,000 and it was later sold at P40,000, the P30,000 profit is equally divided between her and the farm worker who reared it. “The R15,000 additional income for the farm worker could already go a long way, for example, in providing for their children’s tuition fee needs,” says Ella.
At the age of 27 (and is second in a brood of three), Ella is already in charge of the Marketing Department of Silan Agri Farm. The older Silan saw Ella’s interest and love for farming since she opted to stay on the farm to help him oversee the day-to-day activities even before finishing a degree in Entrepreneurship at the University of Sto. Tomas. Right now, Ella is finishing her Master’s degree, also in Entrepreneurship at De La Salle University. Silan’s other children, Sheena and Edward, are working in a government office and studying IT (Information Technology) in college, respectively.
Actually, as confided by Eddie, what inspires him to expand and acquire more and more properties is his family. “Maybe, if I don’t see in them any interest in farming, I won’t be persuaded as well to work and till the land. I am after my children’s future. I want to acquire more and more properties now that I still have the capacity to do it, because maybe in five years’ time, I may not be able to do that anymore since (land) prices are continuously increasing, simultaneous with the developments here in Cavite,” said Silan. Also, he reminds his family to value the land and cultivate it in order to provide for the increasing population and demand for food.
Silan returns his gratitude to all those who helped him establish his own niche in agriculture. Silan now maintains one-third of the dragon fruit plantation in the whole of Cavite, having 10 hectares (1,000 posts in every hectare) of his 15 hectare-farm devoted to dragon fruit; Data shows that there are 30 hectares of dragon fruit plantation in the province.
He administers free seminars and training to whoever is interested in dragon fruit farming, being an ATI (Agricultural Training Institute) accredited farm. He also personally visits, together with his team of trained farmers, start-up farms for dragon fruit.
Silan gets paid for the stem cuttings, which guarantee quality harvest for buyers; but for all the other requirements such as designing, establishing, and maintaining the farm, Silan does this for free. “Investing, establishing, and maintaining a dragon fruit farm is no joke. So as promised to all our clients, we continue the service of supporting and assisting their farms in order to keep the plants healthy and profitable. We are gratified seeing them harvest tons and tons of fruits which bring them enough means of livelihood,” remarks Silan.
At present, Silan is the consultant on Agro-Modernization in the province of Cavite and president of Cavite Modern Growers, Inc. established by the provincial government. Here, he helps in transforming the agricultural sector into one that is dynamic, technologically advanced, and competitive yet centered on human resource development. He also leads in the implementation of a community-based Science and Technology-based farm project on certain commodities, being a Magsasaka Siyentista. With this, Silan is able to share his knowledge and uplift the standards in farming of fellow farmers in the province.
“Looking back, I could still remember how my wife and I used to go to far-flung markets as far as Tanza (also in Cavite) to offer dragon fruit among customers from sunup to sundown. Even if we offered free tasting, still, they were not at all convinced to buy since the crop was still unfamiliar to them,” Silan recalls. “With God’s grace and hard work, I was able to uplift the life of my family now and give back to the community by giving them decent employment, much so, provide quality and safe foods to eat.”
“For farmers who trusted us in designing, establishing, and maintaining their farms no matter how small or big it is, their happiness is our happiness. Because we treat and care for their farms truly like our own,” concludes Silan.
More for the future
Silan Agri Farm was recently granted a P5 million support fund from DOST-PCAARRD to transform the farm into a Science and Technology-based Convergence of Agriculture and Tourism (SciCAT) site. It has a target project completion of two years that would likewise create jobs for local farmers, processors, and entrepreneurs in Indang, Cavite. The project that is being implemented by the Cavite State University (CvSU) is somewhat similar to farm tourism, which is one of the come-ons in agriculture that is also helping the tourism industry get a major boost.
With all these, surely, Silan Agri Farm has more to offer for the future of agriculture, not only in Cavite, but for the rest of the country and for the multitude of farmers whom he was able and will be able to help and work with.
This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s December 2019 issue.