By JAMES TABABA
As a horticulturist, Benson “Wilson” Aboujafari dedicated his time to develop growing techniques for imported and temperate fruit trees to grow in the Philippine climate. He believes that with proper agricultural practices, fruits that seem impossible to grow in the Philippines can successfully be acclimatized and cultivated in the country. He wants Filipinos to taste and experience foreign fruits without having to travel abroad.
Aboujarfari is the owner and manager of Wilson’s Instant Tree Bank in San Fernando, Pampanga. Aboujafari has loved plants, especially fruit trees, since he was a child. Even though his parents wanted him to be a civil engineer, he still chose to study agriculture at the University of the Philippines–Los Banos. He continued his studies and got his doctorate of philosophy in plant pathology and plant breeding, helping him develop several innovations in agriculture.
Starting 1987, Aboujafari and his family built a farm to produce thousands of trees to supply lumber to the Philippine landscaping industry. In 1992, they bought their first spade machine, which is used to dig up huge trees by balling their roots for transplanting. With this machine, they could supply instant trees with a high survival rate for landscaping. This method of instantly transplanting trees is where Wilson’s Instant Tree Bank name originated. Today, they still supply ornamental and fruiting trees like African Talisay, Bismarck palm, African oil palm, and mulberry trees to landscaping clientele.
Innovations throughout the years
Aboujafari has developed and introduced different crops for people to enjoy and commercialize. In 2009, he introduced the Long-nose Macopa variety, a cross between the local macopa and duhat. Unlike the usual local commercial macopa, this variety is superior in quality as it is crunchy, seedless, and has no hollow cavity inside.
Strawberries are usually grown in cold areas with high elevations, but in 2015, Aboujafari introduced his heat-resistant variety of strawberries. This variety of strawberries are adapted to the hot weather condition of Pampanga.
That same year, Aboujafari introduced his Illinois mulberry, which is now the flagship crop of his farm.
The Illinois mulberry plant
Wilson’s Instant Tree Bank is the first farm to propagate and commercialize the plant and fruit of the Illinois mulberry in the Philippines. The Illinois mulberry is a shrub whose fruit is green when unripe and reddish-black when ripe.
“The Illinois mulberry is an imported crop. I brought this crop eight years ago from Chicago. We have a local Philippine mulberry variety, but the fruits are small and only suitable as food for silkworms,” Aboujafari said. “In Chicago, mulberries are only fruiting once a year because of the temperate weather conditions. I research how to increase this fruit’s production cycle with the Philippines’ climate. Now, we are able to harvest mulberry fruits six to seven times a year, “ he added.
In other countries, mulberry is very expensive because of its seasonality, but through the pruning technique and innovations developed by Aboujafari, Illinois mulberry plants can fruit every 45 days. Because of this, they can sell fruits at affordable prices and offer them all year round.
According to Lizzy Aboujafari, Benson’s daughter and farm co-manager, visitors from different locations visit the farm to purchase mulberries because it is still not widely available in the Philippine market. Aside from the fruits, the leaves of the mulberry are purchased for their medicinal properties.
According to Benson, mulberry is a super fruit. It has the highest antioxidant out of all berries. Mulberry fruits and leaves are known to improve digestive and liver health, lower cholesterol, reduce cancer risk, and improve blood circulation.
At first, the primary source of income of the farm was the selling of ornamental and fruit trees. But because of the influx of fruits, they started processing their harvests, especially the mulberry, into other products. They now manufacture their own mulberry wine and jams and currently supply restaurants and hotels with said products.
Activities that the farm offers
The farm is a recommended destination by the tourism department of San Fernando, Pampanga. For those who want to relax and relieve stress from work or get away from the pollution of the city, Benson recommends relaxing and trying their mulberry fruit-picking activity on the farm. Aside from mulberry, other fruits like Davao pomelo, duhat, and golden empire caimito can also be picked when available.
Tourists can visit the farm for free and enjoy mulberry fruit picking and wine tasting. They only have to pay for their picked mulberries that cost only P50 per cup.
“People go here to enjoy a different kind of experience. Not just buying the products but the experience where you bring your family and bond together,” Lizzy said.
Aside from fruit picking and buying seedlings, tourists can have their glamping and picnic activities. Some other customers celebrate their birthdays or romantic dates inside the farm as they also offer food catering.
For families visiting, kids can experience tree-planting activities.
Propagating plants for the future
At the age of 66, Benson Aboujafari still develops more fruit trees for the Filipinos to enjoy and discover. Among these are the Persian sweet lemon, dates from England, imported grafted figs, and grafted apples. Most of these crops are hard to propagate and need certain interventions to grow here in the Philippines.
“Our business is more on passion. If you observe, our prices are very low compared to other farms and markets. Usually, business is meant to generate income, but for us, especially for my father, there is love and passion involved,” Lizzy said. “My father’s success is because he is happy with what he is doing. He enjoys it, loves it, and is blessed in return.”
“My mission is when something is not available to the Philippines, we bring it in and give a chance to our people to enjoy,” Benson said. With his successful research and innovations, we can now taste foreign fruits at affordable prices.
Photo courtesy of Wilson’s Instant Tree Bank