Strawberry Fields Aren’t Forever

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LA TRINIDAD, Benguet — Contrary to the song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” sung by a popular rock band called the Beatles, strawberry plants in the fields of this  municipality and in other outlying Benguet areas, wallow in watery state ever since the land had been subjected to relentless hammering by the rains the past weeks.

One of La Trinidad’s major tourist attractions, the strawberry fields, already in cessation as early as March due to the pandemic are now   fields of soggy plains unfit presently in transplanting strawberry runners.

Strawberries are one among La Trinidad’s One Tone One Product (OTOP) which earned for the municipality the Guinness Record of baking the world’s largest strawberry cake.

Joel Channoy, a strawberry farm help, said last Friday at the Benguet State University (BSU) strawberry fields that except for some   growers who have adopted strawberry vertical farming modular that can fit in buildings, majority of strawberry growers still use the open field type plots in growing strawberries and covered with plastic.

The result? These plots are easily swamped by heavy rains, resulting to whatever planted on the beds easily subjected to rot, Channoy explained.

Since March, the strawberry growers have tried switching to planting other vegetables, like Green Ice, Romaine variety of lettuce as well as other vegetables to recoup some of their financial loss when they were forced to stop planting the lucrative strawberries, Channoy explained.

Stanley Galasa, a cut-flower grower in La Trinidad said he observed there is a need to address the problem of heavy rain water accumulating at the BSU strawberry farms whenever there is heavy rainfall.

Galasa noted that accumulating rain water transects or cuts across the BSU strawberry fields, totally immersing the fields.

“Instead of the rain water emptying directly at the Balili River, it passes first across the fields, filling the trenches that separate the beds and eventually inundating them and the strawberry plants, before the water recedes to Balili river.” Galace explained.

“There is a need to construct an outlet that allows rain water to go directly towards Balili River, instead of the rainwater snaking along the plot trenches,” Galasa said.

For now, Channoy explained that strawberry growers will wait it out until the month of September and the following months before resuming strawberry planting, a fact also echoed by Galasa. Presuming no further typhoons will cut across CAR, the two pointed out.

Channoy, in explaining the irony of too much water at the strawberry fields said, “If there is no water, there really is no life for plants, but too much of it also causes the strawberries and other vegetables to perish.”

Strawberry farmers in La Trinidad have particularly felt the impact of Typhoon Fabian and the succeeding monsoon, Channoy said.

Such scenario in La Trinidad is a bit different from strawberry growers in the municipalities of Atok, Madaymen, in Mountain Trail Buguias, Mankayan, Tublay and Tuba. Many of them have grown strawberry in higher elevated areas.

Products of these municipalities continue to trickle to markets in La Trinidad and Baguio City, but not enough to fill demands, according to Channoy.

Help extended by the Office of the Municipal Agriculture headed by Ms. Felicita D. Ticbaen revealed strawberry farmers in Benguet have been very receptive in trying various technologies to increase productivity in the farm.

There are three methods being used and these include open field production which is from November to May, off season production which constitutes July to November and elevated strawberry production, used to maximize an area, ease in farming management and for tourism purpose, the Municipal Agriculture Office explained.

There are about 74 hectares solely devoted to strawberry production in La Trinidad and managed by about 1,078 strawberry farmers who, in the process are aided by about 560 farm helpers.

Average production months for the open field reaches 6 months and 10 months for the protected fields, the Municipal Agriculture Office noted.

Around 38 persons in the municipality are licensed to engage in strawberry processing while about 126 persons are strawberry vendors. There are 5 rural based strawberry organizations in La Trinidad.

Common strawberry offered to consumers are the Festival and Sweet Charlie varieties. The Municipal Agriculture Office said strawberry production has already expanded in the areas of Mankayan, Buguias, Atok, Tublay and Tuba.

While production has started to catch up with other Benguet farmers, all   face constant challenges which include pest and disease outbreak, typhoons, monsoon, La Nina, El Nino a, climate change, decreasing production areas due to commercialization, supply of quality planting materials, lack of technology on all-season production, improvement of post-harvest and value addition technologies, organic production and limited sources or irrigation water.

On researches being conducted on  strawberry runners, the Municipal Agriculture Office and BSU found out that using light on the strawberry plants, one strawberry plant is able to produce around 65 quality runners, while chilled mother plants can produce 75 quality runners.

In the open field cultivation in La Trinidad which is about 27 hectares, it is capable of producing an average of 12 metric tons or more, and these are sold per kilo at an average of 200-300 pesos.

For off-season production which involves “elevated from ground technology,” average production reaches 15 metric tons per hectare and sold at 400 pesos. The government of Japan had been extending help and knowledge to La Trinidad farmers on strawberry production by technology maximizing limited space.

In the control of pests and diseases, the Japan experts have introduced biological control using predatory mites. In La Trinidad, the predatory mite, scientifically called Neoseiulus longispinosus and naturally present in the poinsettia flower or Christmas flower can kill the spider mites that infest strawberries.

Biological control of strawberry pests has been proven by BSU and the Municipal Agriculture Office of its effects as slow, long, low cost and improved quality of berries, as compared to strawberry plants treated with pesticides for these develop pest resistance.

“Market for strawberry is far from saturated with plenty of room for growth,” the municipal agriculture office emphasized.

La Trinidad happens to be strategically embedded and with concerted efforts from stakeholders, the growth of the strawberry industry is assured. In fact, the LGUs and other government partners have already distributed processing supplies and equipment to make the industry competitive.

Competitive in the sense that the industry is already capable of producing products like strawberry wine, strawberry ice cream, as fresh berries, marketed as potted strawberries, strawberry preserves, strawberry candy, strawberry soap, lotion or lip balm, among others.

Strawberry farm help Joel Channoy recalled an incident in 2004 when La Trinidad won the World Guinness Record. He happened to be at the BSU strawberry farm and many visitors were picking berries happily.

A young lad who spotted a pretty Benguet lass who was directing visitors where to pick strawberries, said to the lady, “Ma’am, hindi po pambabastos pero your lips a and cheek are like strawberries that compels me to kiss you.” Cordilleran ladies are known for rosy cheeks.

The young Benguet lady rose to the occasion and answered, “Hala!” (Oh, No!). Well, anyway, you can buzz me on the cheek only.” The young lad did so, to the applause of visitors gathering strawberries.