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Strawberry farms: Juicy future in doubt
by Jimmy Laking

“Wife, into the garden and set me a plot/
With strawberry roots, the best to be got./Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,/Well chosen and picked, prove   excellent good.” 
Five hundred points of good husbandry by Thomas Tusser, 1557

By worldwide standard, what passes off as a strawberry industry for both Baguio City and Benguet is merely a “collection of a number of farms” by comparison. The total area planted to strawberry averages 50 hectares every production season, 80 percent of which is found in La Trinidad. The rest are in Baguio City and parts of Tublay and Atok. In contrast, the state of Florida uses 6,300 acres (or about 2,549 hec-tares) every strawberry production.

What is small may become even smaller. Benguet State University faculty member Dr. Danilo P. Padua, who has done researches on strawberry production, doubts if the bulk of strawberry production which is concentrated in the valley floor would be around for the next 30 years.

“It is contingent on development,” he said, referring to the rise of residential houses on lands formerly planted to the crop, especially in the swamp area and in the adjoining areas located in barangays Pico, Betag, Poblacion, and Puguis.

He expressed fear that if the increase in souvenir shops and residential buildings in the swamp area are not stopped, the valley’s strawberry fields would further diminish in size.

La Trinidad councilor Francis Lee feared as much and is troubled that privately owned lands in the valley floor that used to be planted with strawberry have been taken over by residential and commercial buildings.

Spanish origin
There is no known account on how strawberry (Fragaria vesca), a plant described as of North American origin, came to the highlands of Benguet.

It is widely believed that it must have been among several crops introduced by Japanese settlers before World War II, as it was the Japanese that first introduced irrigation canals in Barangay Pico. Other accounts said the first plants were introduced in Camp 7 by Japanese settlers immediately after work on the Kennon Road began.

Still, the most likely explanation was that it came by way of Spanish missionaries as was briefly discussed by Robert R. Reed in his book “City of Pines: The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital.”  

In a chapter entitled “The reality of La Trinidad,” Reed mentioned that the Spanish government made La Trinidad as a major commandancia capital and as a nascent hill station to include military barracks, a parade ground, an armory, district headquarters, and four small general stores.

They also made it the site of a “small botanical garden of combined aesthetic and functional design and served as landscaped promenade and as a place of ongoing agricultural experimentation.”

The roots of commercial gardening, he said, began at this period when the Spaniards envisaged the widespread cultivation of mid-latitudinal vegetables and fruits and the subsequent development of lowland markets to absorb the harvested produce.

“Predictably, the more thoughtful Spaniards assigned to highland commandancias were usually intrigued by the cooler climate and by the environmental diversity of their surroundings, and it is not unlikely that some specially inquisitive individuals began to experiment with highly valued temperate crops soon after the permanent establishment of Spanish rule,” he added.

“As they experimented  with a variety of mid-latitudinal vegetables and berries,  the Spaniards and other Europeans also made serious attempts to develop extensive coffee, cacao, and tea plantations in the hills of Benguet,” Reed added. Consequently, coffee and “considerable quantities of excellent potatoes” were in fact dispatched to Manila on a fairly regular basis during the later years of Spanish dominion.

Is it therefore not surprising that the first known commercial varieties in the 1960s were named “Missionary” and “Giant” as La Trinidad councilor Romeo Salda would recall decades later.  

“Both bore small but juicy fruits,” he said.

Today, the varieties come from Japan, Europe, and mostly the United States. The BSU had gotten into the act by cross breeding a number of varieties but locals seem to prefer most, “Sweet Charlie,” which was developed by the University of Florida.  

Political will
The improvement of varieties notwithstanding, Padua laments that the threat posed by “development” in the reduction of strawberry fields does not seem to be a priority concern of authorities, notably by local authorities who have adopted the fruit as the town’s official crop.

While BSU may be expected to hold on to its 40 hectares of strawberry farms, there is no predicting how the individual adjoining landowners would decide in “five to 10 years from now.”

The key, he said, is political will, and the challenge is directed to municipal officials to address this concern. He has also proposed a moratorium in building construction inside the farm areas.

Still others say some stewardship or partnership agreements could be forged with landowners to ensure that the strawberry fields would last for the next 20 to 50 years.

Both councilors Salda and Lee indicated that intervention has not been ruled out. “One suggestion is for the municipal government to buy off the lands but we have not discussed it seriously really,” said Salda.

There was also no executive order or legislation to suggest that municipal officials are looking at the situation with an eye to the future.   

Discerning strawberry growers said that if local authorities and the various concerned agencies cannot even get their acts together to ensure clean irrigation for the strawberry farms, keeping intact the strawberry fields forever is a tall order even for one who has super-imposed his image on every piece of business license.

The upside is that strawberry fields are now emerging in bits and pieces elsewhere in the province, notably in the mountain farms of barangays Puguis and Wangal in La Trinidad, in Tublay, in Atok, in Bakun, and in Buguias. The boundary areas with Ifugao, said Padua, also show promise as strawberry production areas.

For now, what we see is what we get.

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