By JAMES TABABA
Enrico Batungbacal, a dedicated and skilled mango farmer, has spent over three decades cultivating his farm in Zambales, Philippines. Despite facing numerous challenges along the way, his unwavering determination and love for farming have allowed him to overcome obstacles and establish a successful farm business. He is the owner and general manager of Batungbacal Farm.
Enrico’s farming story began in 1973 when his father, an electrical engineer, acquired the farm. Although his father primarily worked as an electrical businessman in Manila, he had a profound passion for farming. Enrico and his family would join his father on weekends, enduring a nine-hour journey from Manila to Zambales.
The farm spanned an impressive 190 hectares where 10000 mango trees were planted. However, maintaining a farm of that size became a financial burden for his father. He had an electrical business in Manila, and a significant portion of his earnings went into keeping the farm running. He continued to develop and improve it with unwavering dedication.
Around the time Enrico was in his third year of high school, his father fell ill. It was approximately in 1982 when his father had a stroke, which greatly affected his physical mobility. Despite the challenges he faced, his father continued his efforts on the farm, although he struggled to make the journey due to his condition. Enrico often accompanied him, providing support and spending time together on the farm.
In 1988, Enrico graduated from Ateneo de Manila, having completed his studies in Management and Economics. A few weeks before their graduation, Enrico had a heartfelt conversation with his father. Enrico told his father, “ I want to help to organize your farm so that it will make money. So that it’s not so much of a burden for you anymore to operate it.”
After returning from a trip following his graduation in 1988, Enrico made the decision to stay at the farm. That marked the beginning of Enrico’s journey. From 1988 until the present day, he has dedicated 35 years to farming and its development.
Early development and challenges
The circumstances at that time presented several challenges. The farm still lacked electricity, and the house was constructed with inexpensive materials, including a cogon roof. Additionally, reaching the farm from the main highway involved navigating a four-kilometer dirt road that was difficult to traverse due to the presence of enormous rocks and erosion, as it had not been properly maintained.
Enrico’s journey into farming encountered a turbulent start. It was on October 25, 1988, his birthday, when an imposing super typhoon named “Unsang” made its appearance. The mango trees on his farm had already bloomed with flowers, but the typhoon brought adverse weather conditions, marking his first encounter with the challenges of farming.
During the onslaught of the typhoon, a significant number of trees were uprooted and toppled, leaving only the bare stems and branches behind as the leaves were swept away. Fortunately, despite the setback, Enrico managed to break even. This achievement brought a sense of fulfillment, as it indicated that the expenses invested in the farm had been recouped.
The following year, in 1989, a similar scenario unfolded with the arrival of typhoon “Saling.” The force of the storm was such that the roof of Enrico’s home was carried away. Once again, numerous trees succumbed to the powerful winds, echoing the challenges faced the previous year.
He was determined to continue his journey, to prove himself, and to unlock his full potential of the farm. “What I learned when facing challenges is to never give up. I’m not done, I haven’t proven anything yet,” Enrico said.
In the years that followed, the mangoes experienced a period of significant growth under Enrico’s management. The farm’s production increased substantially, allowing for a more abundant harvest. Initially, transportation of the mangoes was done using a pickup truck. However, as the demand continued to rise, Enrico decided to upgrade their hauling capabilities by acquiring an Elf truck. During the peak mango season, the trips for the Elf truck started as two to three times a week but gradually evolved into a daily routine. The increasing volume of mangoes necessitated further adjustments, leading Enrico to eventually rent a larger truck to accommodate their expanding operations.
During this time, the mangoes were packed and transported in kaing baskets, the traditional Filipino basket made from bamboo or rattan that is woven tightly for carrying and storing goods, each carrying approximately 10 kilos of mangoes. These baskets were then transported to their house in Manila. Enrico’s mother took charge of repacking the mangoes, preparing them for sale to her network of friends and acquaintances. Through dedicated efforts and the delivery of high-quality mangoes, they slowly began to establish a market presence. Remarkably, some of the customers who started purchasing from them during that period remain loyal customers to this day.
Shift in marketing
Enrico initially would transport and sell a truckload of mangoes to the local buying stations in Zambales, which catered to exporters. However, this process involved the stations sorting the mangoes and selecting only the best ones for export. Approximately 30% of the mangoes did not meet the export-grade criteria and were rejected, leaving Enrico with only 300 mangoes out of every 1,000 kilos brought.
Furthermore, the prices offered by the buying stations were not particularly high, and they tended to fluctuate downward as the local harvest volume increased. Enrico perceived that the exporters took advantage of the surplus mangoes to maximize their profit margins.
“After going all through that, we did not see the value of our hard work with this kind of system where we sell to exporters. So that’s when we decided to start selling it by ourselves,” he said.
They started selling their mangoes independently, packaging them in 5kg tray-type boxes. This enabled them to set their own prices and maintain stability throughout the season. Their long-standing customers, some of whom had been loyal for 20-25 years, along with new customers attracted through social media, eagerly supported their farm by purchasing their produce. Despite the seasonal nature of mangoes, whenever Enrico announced the availability of their mangoes, their customers showed unwavering support. The farm’s ability to deliver the expected quality consistently became a valuable asset to their business.
Enrico’s direct sales approach allowed them to sell their mangoes at their desired price. This stability and customer satisfaction were rooted in the trust and loyalty fostered over the years. The farm’s reputation for consistently delivering high-quality mangoes was a significant attraction for customers seeking their produce, contributing to the ongoing success of their mango business.
“It’s an asset to our business because we were able to sell our mangoes at the same price throughout season. That’s the main attraction to our mango produce from the farm,” Enrico said.
The Zambales mangoes
Enrico’s mango farm is home to the renowned carabao mango Lamao strain. According to him, it is widely regarded as the most delicious variety of carabao mangoes. Enrico considers himself fortunate that his father chose to establish the mango farm in Zambales, as the location is known for producing some of the finest mangoes in the world. Enrico confidently asserts the superiority of Zambales mangoes without any bias. Interestingly, the seedlings used on their farm were not originally from Zambales but were purchased from Batangas and Los Banos in Laguna. However, once these seedlings are brought and cultivated in Zambales, they exhibit the desirable and sought-after qualities that make the fruit exceptional. If the same seedlings were planted in different regions of the country, such as Davao or Guimaras, the flavor would not be the same.
“If you ask me what’s the scientific reason, I have no idea until now,” he said. While the scientific reasons behind this phenomenon remain unclear to Enrico, it is often attributed to factors such as the soil composition or the proximity to the sea. However, similar conditions can also be found in other parts of the country, particularly in the western region. Enrico prefers to hear this feedback from his customers, who consistently express their satisfaction with the mangoes’ exceptional taste.
Nevertheless, proper farming methods are crucial to maintaining the fruit’s exceptional qualities. “However, the proper farming method is important, even if the mangoes came here in Zambales if not picked at the right time, we lose all those qualities,” he said. Enrico and his team have honed their skills in determining the ideal harvest time, ensuring that all the desirable qualities resulting from the farm’s location are present. This knowledge and attention to detail serve as their secret to success and have contributed to a loyal customer base.
Expanding beyond Metro Manila, Enrico’s farm has begun selling mangoes in other urban centers such as Pampanga, Laguna, Cavite, Bataan, and Baguio. Enrico follows his father’s advice to prioritize the Filipino market and only consider exporting once there is excess supply. Looking ahead, Enrico envisions that next year, the farm’s production improvements will lead to a surplus of mangoes. With this in mind, they are preparing to sell and export their mangoes to new markets while continuing to serve their loyal customers.
Diversification of crops
Enrico faced a period when he had to leave the farm for six years. Upon his return, he realized that restarting his farming endeavors was not as simple as picking up where he had left off.
“When I got back the problem was capital. I had to venture into other crops aside from mangoes that will give me faster return so I got into watermelon and honeydew production because it only takes two months for the return,” he said.
These crops offered a quicker return on investment, with a harvest cycle of just two months. Enrico recognized that by exploring different crops, he could mitigate the seasonal nature of mango farming.
Through his efforts, Enrico successfully cultivated and produced sweet watermelons and honeydew melons. He introduced these new products to the same markets where he sold his mangoes. To enhance their market appeal, he packaged them in boxes and applied stickers. Over time, these new products gained a following among consumers. Additionally, Enrico expanded his farming activities to include papaya, specifically the red lady papaya variety. This diversification led to an overall increase in the range of products he offered.
Enrico realized that simply having a fruit with an ordinary taste was not sufficient. The difficult situation that I am in is there are very high expectations of the market from our produce,” he said. His products needed to stand out and be exceptional.
Through careful cultivation and attention to detail, he was able to achieve this with papaya, honeydew melons, and watermelons. For example, he successfully increased the sweetness of his papayas from 10 to 14 brix, satisfying the market’s demand for exceptional taste.
Despite these successes, Enrico faced challenges specific to papaya farming. The plants were vulnerable to typhoons due to their flimsy structure, often resulting in toppling. To mitigate this risk, Enrico followed a specific planting timing and employed strategies to protect the plants from adverse weather conditions.
The Philippine mango industry
Enrico’s experience in the mango industry revealed that many mango producers in the Philippines operate within the mango contracting system. In this system, mango landowners opt to hire contractors to apply flower inducers to their mango trees, rather than tending to them personally. The primary motivation for these contractors is financial gain, with little concern for the long-term health and improvement of the farms. Once the contractors complete their tasks, they often depart, leaving the farms without any further investment or maintenance. Consequently, the neglect of the trees over time has led to a decline in mango production compared to previous years.
Initially, the process of mango flower induction relied on potassium nitrate, but due to security concerns surrounding its potential use in explosives, its availability became limited to larger mango contractors. As a substitute, Enrico discovered that calcium nitrate serves as a more cost-effective and easily accessible flower inducer. Despite its benefits, the expense of applying flower inducers remains high, and there is also a significant risk associated with the presence of the cecid fly, a pest that affects mango trees.
“Currently, the only known preventive measure against the cecid fly is fruit bagging, as there are no effective chemical solutions available,” he said. While some products claim to control the pest, Enrico and his association have found them to be ineffective.
The infestation of the cecid fly has contributed to a decline in mango production, forcing many farmers to abandon mango farming due to financial losses sustained over multiple seasons. Enrico attributes these challenges to the neglect of proper tree care and the failure to implement adequate protocols and management practices for mango orchards. To address these issues, Enrico’s association collaborates closely with the Department of Agriculture, seeking to develop strategies that address tree welfare and enhance overall mango production.
According to Enrico, over time, the mango contractors have come to realize the importance of proper nutrition in mango farming. Through fertilization and nutrient management, mango contractors can significantly increase their yields. Furthermore, Enrico notes that weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña impact mango quality. Dry seasons generally result in better-quality mangoes, while wet seasons associated with La Niña tend to negatively affect fruit quality.
Recognizing that the mango industry is predominantly dominated by mango contractors, Enrico expresses his hope that more mango orchard owners will choose to engage in mango production instead of relying on contracts. He suggests that starting with a small area can be a profitable venture if proper management practices are implemented and investments are made accordingly.
As Enrico and his association continue their discussions with the Department of Agriculture, they strive to formulate comprehensive strategies that address these challenges and improve the state of mango production in the Philippines. Their goal is to ensure sustainable farming practices and the long-term viability of the industry.
Enrico expresses deep concern over the current state of the mango industry, noting its low viability due to numerous challenges. He believes that entering mango production now carries a higher risk of incurring losses rather than earning profits. Two major factors contributing to this risk are the prevalence of the cecid fly pest and the unpredictable weather conditions.
Enrico acknowledges the support provided by the government, specifically the Department of Agriculture, in assisting farmers to cope with these significant problems. However, he acknowledges that these issues have not yet been completely resolved. This saddens him because mangoes are a valuable product with export potential. The mango industry plays a significant role in the Philippines, spanning from Ilocos Norte to Zamboanga, encompassing several mango-producing regions.
“That is why I am very active in our association because we need to come together to find a solution. Fortunately, It is starting to get results. The production is getting better,” he said. However, a persistent problem lies in the low prices obtained for mangoes, often falling below the average production cost. The weakened export market contributes to this issue, with most of the produce being utilized for the local market, primarily by mango processors and retailers.
Enrico remains optimistic about the situation, particularly in the upcoming season, as the El Niño phenomenon is expected to result in a bumper crop. In Zambales, preparations are underway to ensure that the mangoes do not go to waste. He hopes that the mango industry can be restored because the fruit has the potential to become a symbol of the Philippines worldwide, given its exquisite taste. Enrico has yet to encounter any foreign nationals who do not appreciate the delectable flavor of Philippine mangoes. He believes that with collective effort and proper management, the mango industry can become a thriving sector that significantly contributes to the country’s economy.
“I hope we can fix it [the mango industry] because the mango fruit can be the gift of the Philippines to the world. Because it is very delectable. A haven’t met any foreign national who doesn’t like our mangoes. If we could get our act together, it’s a very good industry. It is a very good dollar earner for our country,” Enrico said.
In the upcoming article, Enrico will delve into the technological advancements implemented on his farm and shed light on their numerous advantages.
Photo courtesy of Batungbacal Farm