By Henrylito D. Tacio
In The Light in the Heart, Roy T. Bennett wrote: “Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going. Tough situations build strong people in the end.”
This statement came into reality when coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19) hit the country in March 2020. For the sake of public safety, Filipinos were told to stay home. The country was in lockdown mode. Businesses were greatly affected.
One of those who was impacted from the beatings of the pandemic was Geoffrey C. Igagamao, a businessman from Davao City. As his T-shirt business—he designs, prints and makes shirts—was considered non-essential, his source of income dropped.
Being the principal breadwinner of the family, he had to find some cash to augment whatever savings he had. Fortunately, it was at this time that the plantito and plantita hype commenced.
Since his backyard was unattended, he decided to turn it into a vegetable garden. Aside from providing his family with a steady source of safe and fresh vegetables, he sold some of his harvests to his neighbors who were afraid of going to the public market.
But it wasn’t only him who was doing it. Others, particularly women, also planted and even collected ornamentals. There were those who really made money out of it as prices of ornamental plants skyrocketed.
Ornamental plants, grown primarily for their beauty and aesthetic quality, received the spotlight as people became devoted to gardening for stress relief. Besides, they had nothing to do at home, so they might as well grow ornamentals.
Igagamao saw the opportunity. He started selling vermicast, or worm castings, as an organic soil conditioner and a 100% natural fertilizer. He got his supply from a friend in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, who brought sacks whenever he visited Davao City.
But the income was not enough to support the needs of the couple and their five kids: Mico, Miggy, Janna, and twins Ayah and Aycah. It was at this time that Igagamao remembered the two-hectare farm given to him by his parents. He decided to visit the farm located in Balnate, a barangay in Magsaysay, Davao del Sur, about a two-hour ride from Davao City.
When he got there, he looked closely at the farm, which was planted with mangoes. But the mangoes—being abandoned and not fertilized—were not giving profitable harvests. He thought of planting it to another crop which would be a big hit in the market. He wanted to plant a crop that will be preferred by consumers.
After talking with some friends and people who were into farming, as well as conducting his own research, he decided to plant dragon fruit, a tropical fruit that is sweet and crunchy. It is described as a cross between kiwi and pear. A type of cactus actually, it has a creamy texture with tiny seeds similar to that of kiwi fruit.
Although his parents were farmers, Igagamao had never tried farming at all, so it was totally a new job for him. So, he watched all the videos pertaining to dragon fruits on YouTube. He also read whatever articles and features written on it he could find. He even visited dragon fruit farms and had the opportunity of talking with the late Mrs. Editha Dacuycuy of Ilocos, touted to be the queen of dragon fruits in the Philippines.
With the knowledge gained from his research, the self-made farmer built 134 posts in April 2021. Six months later, he added 760 posts. Before the year was over, he added 600 posts more. In every post, he planted four seedlings with a distance of 3 meters by 3 meters.
“I can’t say it’s hard or easy to grow and manage the dragon fruits,” he admitted. “But I can say I was doing well because the original 134 posts I had, the seedlings were growing great. I applied all the knowledge I knew.”
There are several varieties of dragon fruits. He selected what is scientifically known as Hylocereus polyrhizuz, the fruit with pink skin and pink flesh. It is larger and sweeter than the most common variety, which has pink skin and white flesh.
Igagamao got his planting materials from reliable sources in Kiblawan, Davao del Sur and Kidapawan, North Cotabato. When those sources couldn’t supply the planting materials he needed, he went to Ozamis City in Misamis Occidental.
Dragon fruits management
Like most neophyte farmers, he had to rely on the knowledge he got from his readings and consultations. Among those he put into practice were the following: planting the right cuttings, applying the recommended fertilizers, and doing weekly side pruning and monthly weeding removal. He also conducts personal disease management.
He found that the roots, stems, foliar and flower buds, flowers, and fruits are susceptible to attack by a range of pests and diseases. Pests include mites, thrips, ants, scale insects, mealy bugs, beetles, slugs, borers, nematodes, fruit flies and rodents such as mice, birds or bats.
“Every other day, I had to make rounds to check every post if there are plants which are attacked by pests or have diseases,” he said. “When I found a disease, I cut the diseased branch and burned it.”
Irrigation is critical during fertilizer applications and fruiting. He applies mostly natural fertilizers in the form of vermicast, carbonized rice hull, and goat manure. Commercial fertilizers are also used only as add-ons.
Igagamao has no problem as to the source of water. There is a creek near his farm. He also gets water from the spring not far from his farm. “Dragon fruits may belong to the cactus family but they need water, especially at the time when they are fruiting,” he said.
Pruning, whether major or minor ones, is a regular operation, regardless of the age of the dragon fruits. “I have to prune them in order to have an open, manageable and productive umbrella-shaped canopy,” he said.
Igagamao is not alone in doing all these management practices, however. He has someone to help him on his farm. “I have instructed him [on] what to do when I am not around,” he said.
In the past, he was on the farm only three days a week. After a day’s work, he went home to his parents’ house in Bansalan, which is about a 30-minute ride. (His family lives in Davao City, which is about 90 kilometers away from the farm.)
When the dragon fruits started bearing fruit, he wanted to take care of them personally, so he decided to build a small hut in the middle of the farm. He stays there for five days and goes home to Davao City on weekends.
The first batch of dragon fruits started bearing fruit the following year. He was able to harvest 100 kilograms from the 134 posts in April 2022. The other batches of dragon fruits from different posts followed thereafter.
Today, he harvests around 200 kilograms every week. He started harvesting last March, and will end by the end of October. Because it’s harvesting season, he hired another laborer to help.
Igagamao sells his dragon fruits at P160 per kilogram. “Most people here are not familiar with dragon fruits, unlike mangoes,” he said. “In fact, when I planted dragon fruits, our neighbors were wondering what plant I was planting.”
He doesn’t have any problem selling his fruits, however. He does it through social media marketing. He and his wife, Joanne, post the farm’s produced fruits on their Facebook account and the buyers just respond by telling him how many kilograms they want. Most of those who do this are of Chinese descent.
Igagamao also has an online store where people can order the volume of dragon fruits they want. He doesn’t deliver them but asks someone to bring the fruits to people who order them. He also has consolidators that sell the fruits in malls in Davao City.
He is thinking of distributing his dragon fruits to various hotels once his crops are producing optimum fruits. Right now, he gets only seven kilograms of fruits per post. After three years, he could get about 20 kilograms per post. The optimum 50 kilograms per post may be attained when the plants are already 10 years old.
From the initial two hectares, the dragon fruit farm is now three hectares. He asked his sibling, who works as a nurse in the United States, if he can use the one hectare she inherited from their parents. She agreed. All in all, there are 1,500 posts with four dragon fruit plants grown on each post.
There are a few mango trees still standing on the farm. Aside from dragon fruits, he also planted grapes., which occupy about 150 square meters of the farm. He also is also raising some chickens and goats.
“I added them to maximize the yield of my farm,” he pointed out. “At least, I have other fallbacks in case one is not performing well.”
Since a lot of people are now requesting to visit his farm, he is thinking of turning it into one of the farm tourism destinations in the province. “That’s my ultimate goal,” he said. “I want to showcase it to farmer-wannabes that there is income in serious farming.”
He is also aiming the farm to become a Learning Site for Agriculture (LSA). “I have just applied for LSA at the Agricultural Training Institute of the Department of Agriculture,” he said.
According to ATI guidelines, to qualify as a Learning Site, the farmer should be a successful or model farmer who is willing to act as resource person and trainer and turn the farm into a demonstration area or a hands-on learning site.
Aside from selling fresh dragon fruits, he has also ventured into wine making, which he “discovered” by accident. When he went to Ozamis City to buy planting materials, he also bought 150 kilograms of dragon fruits.
When they arrived home, about 80 kilograms were destroyed during the trip. Instead of throwing them away, his wife Joan thought of turning them into wine. She consulted some friends and learned more from YouTube posts. They also consulted the Department of Science and Technology.
After six months, they tasted the wine and it was alright. People who have bought from them want to get more bottles of the Balnate Reserve, the name of the wine.
But due lack of raw materials (less dragon fruits), he has stopped making wine in the meantime. “My future plan is to continue my wine making,” he said.
Formula for success
Igagamao has gone a long, long way. The city man is now loving every bit of farming. Had it not been for the pandemic, he would never have discovered that farming is a profitable venture (although his family is still doing the T-shirt business).
“If you go into farming, you should love doing it in order for it to prosper,” he said. “Industriousness, perseverance and determination may be all but you can do it if you love doing and like what you are doing.”
Or as Roy T. Bennett said, “Challenge and adversity are meant to help you know who you are. Storms hit your weakness, but unlock your true strength.”
Photos by Henrilito Tacio