Sweet or bell pepper is a high-value fruit vegetable that many farmers, especially those in the highlands of Benguet and Mountain Province in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), Nueva Vizcaya in Cagayan Valley, and Bukidnon in Northern Mindanao find profitable to produce.

By Tony A. Rodriguez

The introduction of new varieties that are high-yielding, pest- and disease-resistant, and highly suited for new production technologies are of great advantage to the farmers, especially the increasing number who invest in crop protection structures like greenhouses and rain shelters in which the crop can be grown throughout the year.

A Model Farm

A farm in Barangay Banangan in the town of Sablan in the CAR province of Benguet is a good example. The farm, managed by Tarcilo Balusdan, has been growing sweet pepper for more than 10 years. At present, Balusdan grows the crop in several greenhouses with an aggregate floor area of 6,000 square meters in different sitios of Banangan. The structures contain a total of about 17,000 hybrid sweet pepper plants.

Domel Mayangao of Allied Botanical Corp. admires green Rijk Zwaan Compas F1 fruits.

Balusdan gave the reasons the farm has been producing sweet pepper for that length of time. “My boss, the farm owner, likes the crop and its profitability,” he said. “He doesn’t necessarily profit very much from it all of the time but he’s a simple man, content with what he makes. He’s also very comfortable with how we market our produce. Our town is only nine kilometers away from La Trinidad, the provincial capital and trading center.”

Sablan, Benguet’s least-populous and westernmost municipality, lies west-north-west of La Trinidad along Quirino Highway (formerly Naguilian Road) going down to Bauang town in La Union Province, an alternate route for going up to Baguio City.

A Productive Variety

Balusdan’s management of the farm has seen changes brought about by new sweet pepper varieties and new cultural practices. He now plants just the newest variety of hybrid sweet pepper: Compas F1 from the big Dutch plant breeding company Rijk Zwaan, which has supplied superior hybrid sweet pepper varieties to Filipino farmers since 2005.

It is represented in the country by the Allied Botanical Corporation (ABC). Since the farm began growing hybrid varieties, Balusdan has planted Rijk Zwaan sweet pepper cultivars.

Farm worker gathers leaf trimmings for disposal.

The new variety is highly productive and highly suitable for mid- to high-elevation planting. It bears large, blocky fruit in every leaf node with easy fruit setting, and is resistant to the Potato Y Virus, Tobacco Mosaic Virus, and Tomato Spotted Wilt diseases.

In only the farm’s first crop of Compas, the plants have lasted nearly 10 months after sowing, with harvesting for green fruit beginning at only 65 days after transplanting (DAT). For ripe red fruit that consumers want during the Christmas holidays, harvesting is at 70 to 90 DAT.

“After harvesting Compas fruit for just the first three months, I could already say that the variety is probably the best that we have grown since we began planting sweet pepper,” said Balusdan. “Compas has the most vigorous plants that produce the best-quality green fruits that are thick-fleshed and of good weight.”

Balusdan works with only four caretakers in all the greenhouses. “That’s because they’re already experienced,” he said. “If you hire inexperienced helpers, you’ll need more men.”

To start the growing cycle, the workers sow Compas F1 seeds in seedling trays filled with the germinating and growing medium Klasmann Peat-based Substrate, which ABC also distributes exclusively.

“We have been using the TS1 variant of Klasmann for more than four years now,” said Balusdan. “With it, we attain very high seed germination rates, and all our seedlings survive because of their high vigor. Their excellent root development ensures fast, vigorous growth after being transplanted.”

Imported from Germany, Klasmann Peat-based substrate is popular among the country’s commercial vegetable and ornamental plant producers. The latter use it as a potting medium while the former use it in their seedling trays and small pots to ensure high seed germination and seedling survival rates. The product enables plants to absorb and retain moisture in the most beneficial way, and to have good aeration for their root systems. It also contains precise amounts of nutrients and trace elements needed by the plants, has adapted soil pH values, and is disease-, pest-, and weed-free.

Growing Technology

Balusdan’s workers sow seeds in screenhouses to provide shade and protect seedlings from heavy rain and pests such as aphids, which transmit viruses. They water the seedlings with a fine sprinkler as often as needed, seeing to it that the seedling trays are neither too wet nor too dry. They transplant the seedlings when these are 30 days old.

Farm helper Dionisio Mindong is set to haul away a crate of harvested Rijk Zwaan Compas F1 sweet pepper.

As is the practice of all greenhouse sweet pepper growers in the CAR today, Balusdan’s helpers no longer transplant their seedlings on plots or beds. They plant each seedling individually in size 20 plastic polybags that are 20 inches in diameter and 20 inches deep and filled with a growing medium of fine soil mixed with carbonized rice hull and coconut coir dust. The spacing of the polybags is 40 by 40 centimeters.

“The use of individual growing bags prevents the easy spread of any soil-borne disease that can infect our plants,” said Balusdan. “If there’s infection, all we need to do is immediately take the affected plant out of its pot to bury in the ground away from the greenhouse. The individual bags also do away with the problem of weeds without our having to use mulch, and enable us to better see to soil quality and pH. Sweet pepper grows best in sandy-loam soil with a pH reading of 5.5 to 6.5.”

The center area of each polybag is where the hole of the drip irrigation line waters and fertigates each plant. Drip irrigation is important in sweet pepper production as the plants are shallow-rooted and have low tolerance to overwatering, which will cause them to wilt and die. There’s no such problem with drip irrigation, which can be easily controlled. The farm sources its water supply from mountain springs.

To minimize transplanting shock to the seedlings, the men transplant in the late afternoon or on a cloudy day. They stick each plant into the soil up to half its total height, and immediately irrigate afterwards to enable the young plant to establish good root-to-soil contact.

When greenhouse-grown sweet pepper plants attain a height of 30 centimeters, farmers prune away excess stems to retain only one or two main stems to continue up the tightly-stretched plastic twine which serves as the trellis. The workers train the plants up their trellis by twirling the soft stem end or ends on the taut twine, trimming off excess leaves from time to time for increased ventilation to the plants. At 10 months, the plants reach a height of more than six feet.

“Other growers prefer a single stem that results in fewer but larger fruits for institutional buyers,” said Balusdan. “We choose two-stems for more fruits; although these are smaller, they are preferred by ordinary consumers and restaurants, and are thus easier to sell.”

In fertigating their plants, Balusdan’s helpers mix 15-15-30 fertilizer, calcium nitrate, potassium nitrate, and iron sulfate in the drip irrigation tanks. “I also follow up with a fifth item—prayer—so those inputs will be of the greatest benefit to us and not just go to waste,” he said.

The workers harvest fruit when these reach full size and become firm while still green. The fruits lose weight as they ripen so it’s more advantageous to sell them when they are green instead of when they are red. The fruits at the lower nodes of the plants are larger than those in the subsequent ones. As the plants’ stems are fragile and unnecessary injury to them can result in infection, the pickers use sharp knives in harvesting the crop.

“At present, our farmgate price for green Compas fruit is 70 to 80 pesos per kilo,” said Balusdan. “As the year gets older, that will gradually increase until we get the best prices in November and December. For us, that’s bonus time.”

This appeared as “Producing Sweet Pepper in Benguet” in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2015 issue.