Strawberry fields forever : Lawyer’s Bukidnon farm specializes in strawberries

Atty. Ferdinand Taglucop is a lawyer who plants strawberries on his farm. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

By Henrylito D. Tacio

If there’s one fruit that commands attention, it’s the strawberry (Fragaria ananassa).

Strawberries are one of the healthiest fruits around. It is a temperate crop, and so in a tropical country like the Philippines it is hard to come by. It is grown mostly in cooler places like Baguio. La Trinidad, in Benguet, is considered the “Strawberry Capital of the Philippines.”

“The strawberry is grown in the Philippines at high elevations where the relatively-low temperature conditions are more suitable for its growth and development,” said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Growing them under warmer, lowland conditions results in less fruit quality and low yield.

Aside from those in Baguio and Benguet, strawberries are also grown in Cebu and Cavite. In Mindanao, strawberries can be found in rolling foothills of Mount Apo, particularly Balutakay in Bansalan, Davao del Sur and Kapatagan, Digos City.

In Davao City, strawberries are grown in Marilog District. In Bukidnon, there are also known areas where strawberries thrive. In fact, there’s a counterpart of La Trinidad and known as Taglucop Strawberry Hills (TSH) located at barangay Lorega in Kitaotao, Bukidnon.

Atty. Ferdinand Taglucop, owner of TSH, said he bought the 1.9-hectare property with an objective of turning it into a vacation place for his family. His work as a lawyer brings to various parts of the country. His wife, Jenny, is managing their travel agency. The couple has four children.

The couple built a small house at the upper portion of the land. Whenever they want to relax and be far from the busy schedule of their work, they come to the place. Then, one time, the children told them they wanted to experience strawberry picking, just like what people were doing in La Trinidad.

Since the land is situated 1,200 meters above sea level and has cool weather, it is best suited for growing strawberries.

Atty. Taglucop decided to plant strawberries at the lower portion of the land. After two years, they bore few fruits. At one time, he brought some strawberry plants that were grown in pots at the upper portion. A month later, the caretaker told him that one pot was bearing several fruits.

He was so excited. This was the beginning of his affair with strawberries. He found out that the flowers of strawberries are induced, among other things, because of the coolness of the night. “Even if it is too hot during the day,” he said, “as long as it is cool during the night, flowers will be induced.”

Atty. Ferdinand Taglucop is a lawyer who plants strawberries on his farm. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

His wife took some photos of the strawberries and posted them on her social media account. Their friends saw the photos and asked if they could come and do strawberry picking, too. “But we had only 10 strawberry-bearing pots,” Atty. Taglucop said. “And so, we decided to plant more strawberries.”

It was just a matter of time that he discovered that growing strawberries was difficult. “One time, I ordered 200,000 pesos worth of seedlings and planted them,” he said. “After a week or so, the leaves turned black as if they were burned. We didn’t know if they were attacked by pests or something.”

Because of this incident, he now knows why previous people who planted strawberries did not continue doing so.

Atty. Taglucop is a very determined man. If he starts something, he wants to finish it successfully. And that was what he did. He persisted. He never gave up. He studied how to grow strawberries through reading and watching instructional videos. “Whenever my wife and I go abroad, I go to universities known for growing strawberries. I talked with people who have technical knowledge. I even attended online courses.”

It paid off. He was able to grow strawberries successfully. “Somehow, we managed our strawberries,” he said. “If you don’t have the right knowledge, the right technology, you are bound to fail.”

Atty. Taglucop considered failures not a hindrance but rather a way to persevere. “Based on our failures,” he admitted, “we know our loopholes.”

Although strawberries are native to temperate countries, there are now varieties that have been bred and adapted to growing in warmer climates. When he started planting strawberries, he grew different varieties. He got his initial stocks of planting materials from Baguio and some seeds from other countries.

“A lot of varieties were not suited under our conditions due to disease pressure and climatic considerations,” he said. “By the process of elimination, we now only grow San Andreas, an ever-bearing variety from California. Another one is Honeoye, a short-day cultivar from Japan.”

Strawberries can be grown anywhere but if they are cultivated in hot conditions, they may not produce good berries. They prefer soil with proper drainage and a combination of both cool and warm environmental conditions.

This is the area where the first strawberries were grown on the farm. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Before he became a lawyer, Atty. Taglucop graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering. He used to work with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology so he knows about weather, too.

He grows strawberries through hydroponics (drip-type with cocopeat and rice hull as the media). He also grows strawberries on the ground, the conventional type, but with drip irrigation.

Atty. Taglucop uses plastic sheeting in both methods. Plastic sheeting keeps the fruit from coming into direct contact with the soil. In addition, it reduces crop loss from insect attacks and rot.

Fertilization is very crucial in growing strawberries. “For hydroponics, we make our own nutrient solution from scratch,” he said. “We got our formula from the University of Texas and Ohio University.”

For strawberries grown on the ground, “we used dried chicken dung and vermicast at the time of planting,” he said. “We also apply complete fertilizer and calcium nitrate every month while they are growing. At the fruiting stage, we apply potassium and lower the nitrogen input.”

Water is another crucial component in growing strawberries. During normal weather conditions, strawberries need water equal to 1 to 1.5 inches of rain each week. “Watering is very crucial as strawberries are shallow rooters,” he explained. “We irrigate at least thrice a week if there is no rain.”

The most important thing is still the temperature. “You should have not more than 22 degrees Celsius at night to grow strawberries commercially under our conditions,” he pointed out. “What induces flowering in strawberries is the coolness at night. If you plant strawberries in warm areas, strawberries will still thrive but won’t bear as much fruit as when they are grown in cooler places.

“The day and night temperature difference (the bigger the better) induces flowering in strawberries,” he added.

Strawberries are self-pollinating. To produce a well-shaped berry, it is essential for good pollination to be attained otherwise the fruits produced are not well-formed. Pollination is realized mainly by insects but wind movement and moisture may also help.

Like most fruits, strawberries are also attacked by pests and diseases. The main pests are thrips, spider mites, Japanese beetles and worms. “We prevent them by using green labeled (near to organic) pesticides as much as possible,” he said.

The main diseases are fungal infection and root rots, among others. “We use organic lime and copper sulfate mix, some sulfur and other green labeled fungicides,” he said. “Our approach is IPM or integrated pest management to ensure sustainability and responsible application.”

There are eight stages in the life cycle of a strawberry plant: seed, germination, sprout, seedling, plant, plant with flowers, plant with fruit, and fruit with seeds. On average, it takes 60 to 90 days for a strawberry plant to mature from a seed to a delicious berry.

The average lifespan of strawberries is about six years. However, by its second year, there is already a notable drop in the amount of fruit produced. As such, he advised that by its third year, the crop should be replaced.

Right now, only 1.5 hectares is planted to strawberries.  “We are planning to expand our hydroponic systems as well as the conventional ones in the hope that all our guests can enjoy picking sweet strawberries any time they visit our place.”

Visitors and guests of Taglucop Strawberry Hills can personally hand pick strawberries at the farm. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

The Taglucop Strawberry Hills is now one of the most-often visited attractions in Bukidnon. “Guests can pick strawberries at our strawberry field for a fee as part of the activities that can be done in the resort,” Atty. Taglucop said. “For the experience, they pay P650 per basket.”

Before they are allowed to handpick strawberries, guests have to undergo orientation first. “If we don’t orientation first, they may damage the strawberry plants if harvesting is not properly done,” he said. “Some guests would just pull the berries and the plants altogether, uprooting and damaging the strawberry plants. This explains why picking is more expensive than buying harvested fresh strawberries. They are actually paying for the experience.”

The berries are picked by nipping off the stalk and not holding the fruit. The fruit is very soft and it bruises readily. Bruising, which shows up within a few hours after picking, spoils the appearance and reduces the shelf life of the fruit.

Guests and visitors who are interested in strawberry picking need to contact the management first. The TSH cannot cater all requests because they don’t want so many people picking fruits simultaneously. Otherwise, the strawberry plants will be trampled upon.

Is growing strawberries a profitable venture? “Yes, I believe so, especially if it is coupled with tourism activities and value adding,” Atty. Taglucop said.

At TSH, all harvested strawberries are utilized. “Aside from fresh strawberry picking, we also make different products from strawberries,” he said.

Among the products they are selling are the following: ice wine, pure strawberry jam, strawberry juice, strawberry shake, chocolate truffles with dried strawberry inside, strawberry trifle, strawberry chocolate fondue, strawberry panna cotta, burnt strawberry cheesecake, strawberry salad dressing and strawberry turon.

Aside from those, TSH has these products, too: strawberry soap, strawberry lotion, and strawberry recovery set.

Guests and visitors can taste not only strawberries but mulberries as well. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

“Managing a strawberry farm can be challenging,” Atty. Taglucop said. “It is one thing to plant strawberries. It is another thing to make your strawberry farm profitable and sustainable. You have to do your assignment well by learning the ‘proper’ science of strawberry cultivation; otherwise, the farm may not be sustainable.”

It’s been four years since the Taglucops planted strawberries on the farm. “We didn’t actually plant strawberries with profit or business in mind,” he said. “It was just a hobby and a joy for the family until it morphed into a worthwhile business enterprise.

“There were a lot of hits and misses. We paid our tuition, so to speak, before we learned how to make our farm sustainable,” he said, adding that the secret is: “family, passion, diligence, and learning the right science to grow the crop.”

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

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