Good as gold


IBA, Zambales—For nine days in April, residents and visitors alike shared in the revelry of the 2023 Dinamulag Mango Festival, this year’s reiteration of an annual event that was revived after being sidelined by the pandemic in the past two years.

The “revenge celebration” was expectedly bigger: more participation in the streetdance and float parade; better products display; wider range of cultural and sports events; and, for the first time, farm demonstration and tours—all to showcase the pride of Zambales, which is the “Dinamulag” or carabao variety of mango that is famous the world over for its delectable taste.

Miss Palauig 2023 Alyssa Alday with a basket of mangoes from the Batungbacal Farms

But beneath the oomph and hoopla of the mango-themed festival was a serious effort to raise awareness and stir action among stakeholders in the mango industry to further develop their business.

Governor Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., whose office oversaw festival preparations, pointed out that the nine-day event “created a stronger bond among various sectors in terms of planning and implementing activities and programs that require whole-of-community approach.”

He also stressed that the festival was meant to identify the many potentials and resources in the province that the government is now tapping to build a better, sustainable future for Zambaleños.

Aside from being a vehicle to show the world what local culture and traditions are all about, the Mango Festival, he said, should demonstrate “how Zambaleños define and work for their future, and what kind of Zambales we are building in the present.”

Gold standard

Mango (Mangifera indica) is the country’s national fruit, and there are three well-known varieties of it in the Philippines: carabao, pico, and Katchamita, otherwise known as Indian mango. But the one that has made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 1995 as the sweetest in the world was the carabao variety, or the kinalabaw that Zambaleños grow as the dinamulag.

The more common carabao mango strains in Zambales are the Sta. Elena and Lamao. In Guimaras, they have the Super Galila, Talaban and Fresco; while Ilocos has the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) Gold.

Batungbacal Farms mango have their distinctive seal of quality

Fleshy and not fibrous, with smooth light-green skin that later ripens into deep yellow, the dina­mulag mango is considered the gold standard among Philippine mangoes because of its unique flavor that combines sweetness with a hint of tartness.

Note that the Sta. Elena strain in Zambales at one time was declared by Bureau of Agricultural Research of the Department of Agriculture as the sweetest carabao mango in the country. That was in 2003.

In 2016, however, Sta. Elena, which had a Brix reading (°Bx) of 18.98, was overtaken by the Guimaras Super Galila, which was marked at 22.3°Bx, as the sweetest. The Brix reading measures the dissolved sugar content.

Still, local growers attest that Zambales mangoes draw more buyers because of their taste.

Manang Shirley Velarde shows off premium quality Zambales mangoes at her stall in Iba, Zambales.

“It’s not sweet as in sugary like mangoes from other places, but it has this different kind of linamnam [full flavor] that mango lovers come back for,” described Enrico Batungbacal, who has grown mangoes in Palauig, Zambales, since 1988 after graduating from college.

“The best mango fruits are those grown in the northern part of Zambales—from Iba town (in the central part of the province) up to Santa Cruz, the northernmost,” Batungbacal said, echoing a “fact” accepted by Zambales natives. “Any scientific explanation for it must be in the location,” he hastened to add.

The Batungbacal Farms, he said, grows mangoes of the Lamao strain—five strains, in fact, from Lamao 1 to Lamao 5—of the carabao variety.

He recalled that his father initially brought mango seedlings from Batangas and Los Baños, areas not particularly known for delicious mangoes. However, these bore flavorful fruits.

Mango-themed streetdance in the recent Zambales Dinamulag Mango Festival

On the other hand, mango seeds or cultivars from Zambales and grown elsewhere did not bear fruits as delicious as those harvested locally, Batungbacal pointed out.

Mango business

A graduate of business administration, Batungbacal initially set out to properly set up in two years the farm that his father, a weekend farmer, started as a venture in 1973. That “two years” had since continued from 1988 up to now.

Today, the Batungbacal Farms is a 120-hectare spread on rolling land naturally fed by creeks in Barangay Bulawen at the eastern part of Palauig. The area has been planted to 6,000 mango trees, as well as guava, papaya and honeydew.

The fresh mangoes from the farm—duly marked with stickers bearing the Batungbacal Farms logo—have since become synonymous with quality Zambales mangoes and immediately became popular among clients in Alabang, where they were first sold commercially.

Other mango products made by Green Thumb

Batungbacal said his clients would be the ones to say that Zambales mangoes were the best.

“In terms of taste, there wouldn’t be any comparison with mango fruits from other places,” he declared, and that is even with Guimaras mangoes recently given the seal as the country’s first geographical indication (GI), a marketing tool that is supposed to highlight the product’s distinctiveness.

“In the end, it would boil down to quality and taste. Zambales mangoes are tastier and we consistently delivery quality, which allows us to command the right price at any time,” he stressed.

Batungbacal said he is preparing to enter the export market next year, with direct buyers from France and Dubai already inquiring specifically for mangoes with the Batungbacal brand.

Growing mangoes

According to a report by the Zambales Provincial Agriculture Office (ZPAO) that detailed the state of the mango industry in the province from 2018 to 2022, mango production has gradually increased even as the number of trees and area planted to this valuable cash crop had remained virtually unchanged.

The ZPAO recorded total mango production at 12,944.22 metric tons in 2018 and slightly going down to 12,041.53 MT in 2019. However, it rebounded to 16,838.74 MT in 2020, then to 19,686.71 MT in 2023, and 18,919.18 MT in 2022.

This was despite the fact that the area planted and harvested remained at 8,851 hectares in 2018; 8,835.7 hectares in 2019; and 8,836.53 hectares from 2020 to 2022.

In the last five years, the average number of fruit-bearing trees remained at 56 per hectare, with the total of fruiting trees at 492,638 in 2018; 491,901 in 2019; 494,901 in 2020; and back to 491,901 in 2021 and 2022.

The average yield per tree, however, significantly increased from 26.27 kilograms in 2018 to 24.48 kg in 2019; 34.23 kg in 2020; 40.02 kg in 2021; and 38.46 kg in 2022.

As such, Zambales was top contributor to carabao mango production in Central Luzon in 2022, with a total of 396,181 trees, or 29 percent of the total, and ranked number one in the region; 7,558 harvested area, or 30 percent of the regional total, and also ranked number one; and 16,476.31 metric tons production, or 47 percent of the total, with number one ranking.

The general trend was also observed at the Batungbacal Farms, where all-out production in 2018 yielded some 400 metric tons of mangoes from about 6,000 trees.

Even when production had to be controlled in the last three years because of the La Niña condition that also posed greater risks from cecid fly infestation, Batungbacal harvested 120 MT from just 1,000 trees. This made for an average harvest of 120 kilos per tree, compared to just 66 kilos per tree during full production in 2018.

With quality at its premium, Batungbacal mangoes command a good price: small size at P650 per box of 5 kilos; regular at P750 per box; medium at P900 per box; large at P1,100 per box; extra large at P1,400 per box; and jumbo at P1,900 per box.

The bigger sizes get sold out first, Batungbacal said.

Selling quality

Aside from fresh mangoes, Zambales is increasingly being recognized for its dried mango and other fruit extracts. One of the more popular producers of these is Green Thumb, a backyard enterprise located in Barangay Lauis, Candelaria, Zambales.

Its proprietor Evelyn Grace told the BusinessMirror that business continued to boom since she set up a backyard venture with her husband after getting married in 1987.

“We were married in June, acquired a lot, then planted mango trees in December to get this business going,” she said.

There were 12 trees remaining in their 2,200-square-meter lot, from the original seeded and grafted cultivars that started fruiting in 1991. At first, they sold fruits that were exported to Japan at a time when mango-buying stations were in vogue in Zambales and local growers competed to get their export quota.

“But we had the edge—from P10 to P25 more per kilo, because our products did not use any inorganic fertilizer, this showed in a better taste that the Japanese liked better,” Grace said.

At that time, she added, they used to harvest about 10 crates of 24 kilos each per tree. “And 90 percent of these made the grade for Japan,” she said.

Grace said that even during the pandemic, they maintained their price for fresh mango at P300 to P350 per kilo in Manila because it was top quality.

Like Batungbacal, Grace revealed that quality is anchored on fruit maturity, which averages from 115 to 130 days after flowering. During harvest in the cold months of December to February, Grace said they waited for at least 120 days before harvest. In the summer months beginning March, fruits mature faster and could be harvested after 110 or 115 days.

From fresh mango exports, Grace then ventured into producing dried mango in 1988 upon the suggestion of a farm worker from Cebu.

“It took me five years to master the process through trial and error,” Grace recalled. And because she disliked the use of preservatives for her mango products, the Green Thumb brand of dried mango has a shelf life of only six months, compared to the preserved “for export” kind that could last up to two years.

Still, quality sells better, Grace said, noting how before the pandemic, her firm used to sell 1.5 metric tons of dried mango per year just to walk-in buyers, pasalubong centers, restaurants, and companies and government agencies that placed direct orders, sometimes for 30 boxes of 50 packs each at a time.

Aside from fresh and dried mangoes, Green Thumb also produces mango nectar, wine, vinegar, pickles and chutney.

Now, Grace has also started training mango stakeholders from other areas like Tarlac and Pampanga, teaching them how to manufacture various mango products.

“Sayang, if I kept the technology to myself,” she said. “If it would help others, and promote the mango industry more, why not share it?”

Industry challenges

Despite the seeming resilience of the local mango industry, the golden pride of Zambales faces serious threats and challenges from natural and man-made factors.

In terms of technology, the Zambales Provincial Agriculture Office identifies problems related to density planting, plant nutrition, pest management, and irrigation.

Threats, meanwhile, include climate change, pesticide pollution, heavy metals decomposition, high investment, and backyard planting.

In recent years, however, the most serious problem faced by local mango growers was cecid fly (Procontarinia mangivora) infestation, which causes the galling of young leaves, and, more damaging, mars the skin of mango fruits with brown to black, scab-like spots that are commonly called kurikong.

“This has been hurting the industry in the past eight to 10 years,” notes Batungbacal, who limited mango production last year to just 1,000 trees out of the 6,000 in his farm.

“Because of the cecid fly problem, a lot of growers have stopped operation altogether because they have been losing for several years in a row,” he adds.

Aside from pest management, the type of farm production also impacts on industry yield, says Batungbacal, pointing out that the widespread practice of contract spraying does more harm than good.

“It’s only in the Philippines that we do this—getting a contractor to spray chemicals for 70 percent of the harvest, and leaving 30 percent of the production to the tree owner,” notes Batungbacal.

“What’s bad about this is that after harvest, the trees are left without care, no application of fertilizer, no trimming, as there is no more incentive for both owner and contractor to rehabilitate the trees in between spraying. In the long run, this leads to low yield,” he adds.

Shrinking production

In the Third Luzon Mango Congress held on April 28 in Botolan, Zambales, Senator Imee Marcos pointed to yet another weakness in the local mango industry—the inability to produce significant volumes of mango products that could address demand for Philippine mangoes abroad.

She says that a recent China trip had revealed a huge demand for Philippine mangoes that the country simply cannot supply.

“How could we cope with the demand, when instead of increasing production we have 3.8 percent reduction of 10 to 12 metric tons a year since 2021?” laments the senator.

“Even Vietnam that only wanted to copy our mangoes previously, has overtaken us in production. The mangoes from Vietnam, as well as from India and Mexico, are no longer fibrous and are already aromatic like Philippine mangoes,” she adds.

She says that while the Philippines has been struggling with the cecid fly problem in the last 15 to 20 years, other countries have advanced their research and development and produced better mango varieties.

In the face of the continuing mango pest problem, Marcos cited a need to develop new, sturdier mango varieties, as well as further increase production and intensify marketing and promotion efforts.

Sustaining the momentum

As a high-value cash crop, Zambales mango has the opportunity to make it big because of its superb taste and high marketability.

Dr. Jhino Ilano, assistant director of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Export Marketing Bureau, unveiled opportunities for the mango industry in the recent Central Luzon Mango Congress, among them an unrealized export potential of $121 million in the next five years for fresh or dried mangoes, guavas and mangosteens.

Ilano also cited an unrealized export potential of $192 million in the next five years for products that included prepared or preserved edible plant parts; raw, steamed or boiled, or frozen fruits and nuts; fruit jams; and mixtures of nuts or dried fruits.

While mango export is dominated by countries like Thailand, with export quantity of 382,093 metric tons; the Netherlands (265,935 MT), and Mexico (429,391 MT), the Philippines was at the tail-end with just 16,262 MT. He added that the country’s export revenue had reached a total $16.2 million for fresh mangoes and $55.7 million for processed mangoes in 2022.

The top mango importers, Ilano added, are the United States with 4.5 million metric tons; the Netherlands, 2.1 million MT; the United Arab Emirates, 847,700 MT; Germany, 808.025 MT; and the United Kingdom, 720,299 MT.

As of now, the Philippines exports most of its fresh mango to Hong Kong, with $9.9 million in 2022; South Korea, $3.4 million; the United States, $1.1 million; Singapore, $393,643; and Japan, $375,342.

Ilano said that the Philippines must take advantage of trends shaping the global mango industry, including increased global demand for mangoes due to its nutritional characteristics and properties; low penetration of the global market by tropical countries that produce mangoes; and the need for specific orchard management techniques due to the climate-change phenomenon.

He also said that among the top fastest-growing product categories with mango ingredients include air care, fragrances, paper products, hard surface care, dishwashing products, sweet spreads, toilet care, fabric care, sweeteners and sugar, and soap and bath products.

Gift to the world

Given the challenges and opportunities to the local mango industry, mango stakeholders in Zambales, with the assistance of the provincial government, are eyeing better production in the years ahead by rethinking concepts in farm production and management, as well as retooling to better meet increasing demands.

Rethinking and retooling, for sure, would take time and increased inputs, but it is the only way to the future, opined Batungbacal, who was recently recognized by the Department of Agriculture as an outstanding farmer in the fruit category of the High Value Crops Development Program.

“It’s a good thing that Governor Ebdane gave the support of his administration to strengthen the local mango industry by forming the Zambales Mango Industry Board, because it paved the way for assistance from the various agencies like the DOST (Department of Science and Technology), DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), Tesda (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority), Department of Tourism, and the PRMSU (President Ramon Magsaysay State University),” Batungbacal acknowledged.

Even the recent Zambales Mango Festival helped a lot by bringing people to mango farms for the mango-picking activities, and thus helping them appreciate mango farming, he added.

“Zambales mangoes are a gift to the world. We have a better product, and the only thing we need to ensure is better marketing and how to bring this better package to all corners of the world,” Batungbacal told the BusinessMirror during a tour of the farm on June 15.

He said the strategy for this would require a transition from contract farming to managed farms, where stakeholders, including contract sprayers, would join together to integrate and manage small farms and set up a mechanized system for spraying, irrigation, pruning and harvesting.

“This could be done with high-density farming technique, which is also called slim hedge, with about 30 to 50 trees in one hectare,” Batungbacal explained.

In this way, he said trees are planted close together to form a hedge, which are pruned and kept at an ideal height of just four meters. This would not only promote easy sunlight penetration and easier spraying, but also result in efficient harvesting.

“We have here 6,000 trees in this farm in an area of 120 hectares. With high-density farming, 10 hectares alone could be planted to 6,000 trees! Imagine what that would do to the local mango industry,” Batungbacal enthused.

Image credits: Henry Empeño, Zambales Tourism Office, Batungbacal Farms