GDME Fruits and Vegetables leads PH highland farmers to global market
OVERLOOKING carrot and romaine fields in one of the highland vegetable terraces of Maria’s Farm, situated on over 2,000 above sea level (ASL) in the town of Mangkayan, Benguet.
The province of Benguet has been making a mark in the international market as a premier sourcing hub of high-end agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, coffee, and other highland crops.
With more than half of its residents or 100,000 farmers toiling on more than 30,000-hectare farms scattered in vegetable-producing towns, Benguet is living up to its moniker of being the “Salad Bowl of the Philippines.”
But the farmers from the province, including most areas in the Cordillera, has yet to realize their full market potential in the lucrative export industry. This contributes to the economic disadvantage of Cordilleran farmers as the region’s agriculture sector have the least contribution to their economy, despite employing 46 percent of the labor force or 348,000 of its total 766,000 abled bodies.
“The lack of drive from our farmers to export much of it has got to do with their local and limited mindset,” said Maricel Hernaez. “Many of our farmers in the Cordillera are producing crops with the idea of harvesting it only either for their own household consumption or for selling at the local vegetable trading post.”
Philippine fruits and vegetables from highland to overseas
A former overseas filipino worker (OFW), Hernaez came back to the Philippines with a dream: to abolish the domestic-centric mindset of the Cordillera farmers and help them penetrate the international market.
Born and raised in a farming family in Cordillera, her life-mission sprung during her service as a domestic helper for five years in Singapore, where she has keenly followed the sky-rocketing prices and huge demand for highland fruits and vegetables.
Ms. Maricel Hernaez, owner of GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading.
“Grabe ang taas ng presyo ng gulay sa Singapore, for example nalang ‘yung isang malaking patatas minsan umaabot ng two dollars at pati ‘yung cabbage nasa mahigit one dollar ang 250 grams. Dito sa Pilipinas, nasa limang piso lang ang patatas na malalaki at yung cabbage, isang kilo na katumbas ng one dollar mo,” she shared. “Kung produkto lang naman ang paguusapan, competitive ang galing sa Pilipinas pagdating sa laki at kalidad.”
During her final working year in Singapore, Hernaez met up with the Philippine Trade and Investment Centre (PTIC) in Singapore to seek guidance on her plan to become a vegetable and fruit exporter. In March 2015, she came back to the Philippines and immediately established her company, GDME Fruits and Vegetables Trading, taking inspiration from her farmer parents: Gilbert Domerez (father) and Mercy Espara (mother).
“My parents who made a living through farming have inspired me to pursue this dream,” she elated. “They are the foundation of my goal of nurture the country’s agri-export market by tapping the promising farmings groups and communities in Cordillera.”
A tall order
Having no farmland to call her own, Hernaez has been operating GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading for the past two years as its sole networking, monitoring, and marketing officer for farming communities across Benguet.
Through her networking with the Benguet farmers, it has always been a challenge for her to explain, innovate, and change some of their farming methods and even their products to suit the demand of the global market.
“Going one by one with the farmers, I always explain that we have the tools to compete with other countries. We are situated at a higher elevation with the perfect soil and climate. Most importantly, our farmers are hard-working,” she stressed. “But, I tell them we should comply with food standards and certifications. I also encourage them to plant the crops that are in-demand because if we plant crops that no one wants to buy then it will just go to waste.”
Without a formal academic background in agriculture, she has always been looking for fresh ideas and new ways on how to improve her technical know-how on the export industry by attending seminars and partnering with government agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
“I never missed opportunities where I can learn new things. Last May, I joined IFEX Philippines, together with our Benguet farmers, where we encountered people who are willing to help us grow,” Hernaez said. “We were also glad to meet foreign buyers that are really interested in our fruits and vegetable products.”
Now, GDME Fruits and Vegetables Trading has already partnered and is consolidating the harvest of more than 60 farmers in communities located in the municipalities of Kibungan, which is considered the “Little Alaska of the Philippines,” Mankayan, and Kabayan.
Among her community partners are the Bosingan Multi-purpose Cooperative, Mankayan Young Farmers, Maria’s Farm, and the Bashoy Kabayan Multi-purpose Cooperative.
Hernaez points to one of the field of Maria’s Farm where a variety of crops are planted all year round, such as potatoes, cabbages, carrots, romaine, and radish.
Fresh from the highlands, they offer various strains of potato, radish, carrot, chayote, cucumber, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, tomato, romaine zucchini, sugar beets, bell pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, onion leeks, snow peas, and green beans.
Patches of sugarloaf cabbages at Maria’s Farm.
“In our farm, we are able to grow fruits in bigger sizes. For instance, in our cabbagesm, we are cultivating the scorpio F1 hybrid and sugarloaf varieties. When fully grown, these varieties are able to reach an average net weight of 2 kilograms each, while your regular lowland cabbage varieties only reaches 1 kilograms each. It’s twice the size,” she said.
Its partner farmers are also cultivating strawberry, lemon, parsley, cilantro, kale, mint, basil, alfalfa, arugula, red radish, young corn, fennel leaves, and okra.
They also have some of the iconic Cordillera processed goods, such as sweet and sour chili sauce, strawberry jam, peanut butter, and kimchi.
Fresh, newly uprooted potatoes.
Hernaez said an exporting farmer will be able to earn at least 15 pesos more per kilo of their products. She added: “Some might even go double the price when depending on their reception on our quality and demand.”
“With these products, we are targeting the demand in Singapore and other nearby ASEAN countries, as well as those in the Middle East,” she added. “We are also open to offers from other buyers across the globe that can be beneficial to the livelihood of our farmers.”
Benguet farmers moving forward
While the high elevation ensures its quality, the highland fruits and vegetables are also prone to risks of climate change, making its price highly volatile.
“We know that there is a demand for our agricultural products, but the next step is how we can corner that demand? With our talks with people that we met on IFEX Philippines, we should be able to do it if we set our fruits and vegetables at stable prices and produce them at a sustainable rate. It’s a challenge for us here in the highland considering the ever-changing weather conditions,” said Hernaez.
Faced with this predicament, Hernaez is trying to hit two birds in one stone in creating a viable year-round crop rotation system: working on identifying the in-demand varieties crops that are also tolerant to extreme weather and those that are resistant to pests and diseases.
“With this method, we also can minimize the use of synthetic chemicals and inputs, or apply good farming practices which involve the balanced application of organic and chemical inputs,” she explained.
The former OFW also continues to widen her network to increase their product supply and selection and open more avenues of growth for other small-scale farming communities.
At the same time, she is helping Benguet farmers secure the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, an export standard promoted by the ASEAN community and is unanimously recognized globally.
Out of the 78 GAP-certified farms in the Philippines, only 4 farms are from Cordillera.
According to the Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Standards (DA-BAFS), GAP Certification ensures that a farm is not only in the quality of his crops, but in all aspects of farming.
Fifty-nine-year old farmer, Dolores Igme, shows their jumbo-sized winter melon or ash gourd. Igme is one of the farmers supported under the export initiative of GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading.
The GAP standard requires a scrutiny of the history of the farm site and its prior use; the type of soil, and its compatibility with crops and seed sources; the judicious use of pesticides and fertilizers, whether chemical or organic; the sources of potable water for irrigation and washing of crops; the harvest and post-handling procedures; the health and hygiene of the farmer and handlers, and other factors.
“Gusto kong makita sa mga farmers if they can eat their products raw and fresh, ‘yun na kasi uso din because there are a lot of vegetarians. ‘Yung iba kasi they have a lot of pesticide to the point na hindi na pwede makain kasi maamoy or matapang yung chemicals. At least with GAP [certification], we can be one stop closer to this goal,” she said.
Aside from GAP certifications, GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading is also working to secure Halal certifications for the small-scale farmers as they are targeting the demand for halal fruits and vegetables in the Middle East, particularly in Dubai and U.A.E.
Though the Philippine National Standards for Halal (PNS 2067: 2008), Halal products are at par with international standards to enhance the competitiveness of local industries, and to ensure product quality and safety for the consumers.
“GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading is committed to prime Cordilleran farmers to become export-ready in the global market so that they would grow together with the company and the booming Philippine food industry,” she said.
If you are interested on premium fruits and vegetables from Benguet, please contact Ms. Maricel Hernaez (Owner of GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading) at 0950-525-1170 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.