By Julius Barcelona and Jonathan Doctor

OFWs are the modern heroes of the Philippines, who tirelessly work in places far from home, serving strangers in unfamiliar cultures and climates. All these sacrifices are made to support their families back home. For many, finally returning home for good means the end of it all, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and make up for lost time with loved ones. But for Wilber Sabatchi, 38, of Mankayan, Benguet, returning home was just the beginning.

Wilber Sabatchi with a bountiful harvest of Red Star bell peppers. Though the market price changes daily, the demand for bell peppers is always high and prices are fairly good.

For 7 years, Sabatchi worked as a caregiver in Israel, then after marrying in 2010, he left again, this time for Korea as a factory worker. The pay was good; he was making around P40,000 to
P50,000 per month. He sent most of it home, praying everyday that his daughter would
remember him as her father. It was in 2014 that he finally gave up, unable to bear being
away from those he loved a moment longer.

But the sweetness of reunion was short-lived. Without his sizable foreign income, Sabatchi and his family were living on his meager savings. There was nothing that Mankayan offered that could compare to his former work abroad. Unwilling to leave his family again, even for somewhere as relatively close as Baguio, Sabatchi was uncertain about his future.

During his time in Israel, however, he heard many stories from his friends who worked on Israeli farms about how successful their operations were. His friends and neighbors in Mankayan were all farmers as well. They inspired him to try farming; after all, what did he have to lose? Owning land is never a bad investment, he reasoned, and so he decided to purchase a small plot of land. He turned to the internet for his education, devouring article after article, how-to after howto, getting himself ready for his biggest challenge yet.

Sabatchi tested the waters by planting easy-to-grow crops such as sayote and potatoes, thinking that it was a good way to get some experience in the complications of growing vegetables. However, he soon realized that because these crops were indeed easy to grow, everyone grew them, and the abundance of harvests meant they sold very cheaply in the market. He was getting not much more than P30 per kilo of sayote and P40 per kilo of potatoes.

Sabatchi admits Red Star isn’t the easiest crop to grow, and he often spends time on the internet searching for articles on how to care for his prized crop. His care for it is repaid many times over, as his Red Star fruits prolifically and generously.

Turning his attention elsewhere, Sabatchi decided to make the switch to bell peppers, a crop that had much higher value in the market. At prices ranging anywhere from P100 to P200 per
kilo, he felt it was worth the risk. He started with a cheap open pollinated variety of bell pepper,
thinking that this would bring down his costs while increasing his profits. Unfortunately, he soon learned that you do indeed get what you pay for; his bell peppers, though they looked nice, were thin-fleshed and had so much hollow space, they weighed little more than 100 grams each. After three planting seasons, he felt ready to give up once more.

It was Sabatchi’s friend Mark Banguingay who urged him not to do so. Banguingay introduced him to Jonathan Doctor, a technician of Known-You Seed, who gave Sabatchi a small sample of an F1 hybrid bell pepper named Red Star. Sabatchi initially balked at the increased price of the hybrid seeds, but again, he thought, what did he have to lose?

In a little over three months, Sabatchi’s Red Star was heavy with fruit and threatening to fall apart under its own weight. Though he knew the Red Star was meant to mature to red, he couldn’t wait a moment longer and started harvesting while they were still green. Each fruit was at least 200 grams and many weighed far more than that; the fruits were plump, squarish, and had a beautiful shine. From a population of only 60 plants, he achieved a yield of 300 kilos of fruit. The market price at the time of harvest was P150 per kilo, so he made P45,000. Sabatchi wasted no time, immediately buying more seeds with the money he made from his first crop of Red Star.

Sabatchi has influenced many friends to start plantng Red Star bell peppers as well. Though their individual plots are not big, they consolidate their harvests for better wholesale prices and lower logistical costs.

Now Sabatchi watches his prized Red Star as their little white flowers swell and grow, planting 5,000 plants for each 1,000 square meters. With each cropping, he makes around P150,000, sometimes more, depending on how the market moves. Instead of eating with strangers in a cold dormitory abroad, he savors having dinner everyday with the people he loves. Who would have thought that farming, of all things, would be just as good as working abroad? At long last, Sabatchi is back home.

Red Star Bell Pepper is a product of Known-You Seed Philippines, Inc. For inquiries and orders, please call 0917.320.1689 (Globe) or 0999.968.0630 (Smart and Sun), fax (075) 632.1785, or email kyp@knownyou.com. “Like” them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kyp168.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s November 2016 issue.