“Bakit walang pananim (fruit trees) e madami namang bakanteng lupa?” That was the question foremost in Renato Belen’s mind when he saw vacant lots in and around their barangay. That was in 1987. “Nang magtanong ako sa iba-ibang barangay, ang sagot nila ay wala daw makunan ng pananim. Duon ko naisipang mag-start ng nursery at mula noon nagtuloy tuloy na.” Here is the Inspiring story of one of the country’s most productive nurseries and the man behind it. A story that also inspired other farming/plant enthusiasts from all over the country.

Measuring 1.7 hectares, the family-owned property Renato started on sits in Brgy. San Juan, San Pablo City, Laguna. The first few years were devoted to nursery operations, the first crops being rambutan, robusta coffee and citrus. Rich soil, cool climate, abundant water, absence of pest and diseases, and a meticulously dedicated agribusinessman each contributed to its initial success. Expansion was earlier than expected, having occurred in 1990 with the addition of 4 separate parcels of plantation land totalling 10 hectares in the same barangay. Also family owned, it has rambutan and kakawate fencing with black pepper. Sweet sampaloc and mahogany trees act as windbreak. The main crop is rambutan, durian and lanzones. The last two also serves as intercrop in some parts.

Grafting and inarching became the method of his choice due to its many advantages. In mass propagations, this proved fast, handy and effective. The sources of the planting materials are the mother plants of very good breed. While waiting for the harvest season, the farm is bustling with maintenance activities and most especially with making planting materials.

Renato Belen or “Mang Ato,” as he is popularly called, is an AB English graduate from the Laguna College. Prior to farming, he worked with the US government first as a Peace Corps volunteer for almost six years then at the US Embassy for two years. Learning the farming trade then came in the form of asking around; people who were into plant nursery and a friend working in the Bureau of Plant Industry. He also attended many related seminars. The rest is a product of “sariling sikap, diskarte, experience at madaming experiment.”

Integrated Farming. Also in 1987, he and his wife Eleanor initiated piggery operations. Eleanor, a BS Agriculture – Animal Science graduate from UP Los Baños took charge. No stranger to piggery operations, Eleanor has been farm manager of the 600-sow level Amante Farms (owned by her father Modesto and located very near the nursery) for several years, a position she holds until today. Their eldest son, Elmer, also a UPLB BS Agriculture – Animal Science graduate, assists her. He works in the city agricultural office while co-managing their piggery. “Our swine facility has a capacity of 100, but we now have only 68-sow level,” explained Elmer. He is involved in the animals’ care, medication and nutrition. He also assists when the sows give birth. About 60 fatteners are disposed monthly. Weanlings and breeders are also sold.

Poultry, managed by Elmer, is also present in the form of Kabir and Sasso chickens with 50 breeders. There are already layers. Incubation facilities for 1,000 eggs were already set up in anticipation of a bigger flock for the months to come.

Mang Ato is the “Big Boss” of their growing operations and personally takes care of the nursery. His wife takes care of the piggery, the plant arrangement and the finance aspect. All 6 of their children help out in whatever way they can.

Ato Belen flanked by sons Elmer and Brian

Fruit Trees-A-Plenty. Various kinds of fruit trees and planting materials dot the farm properties. Delectably sweet rambutan (Maharlika, Rongrien and R162 from Thailand) is the most plentiful followed by durian (mon thong and chanee) and lanzones (longkong and duku). Starting with only 20 rambutan ‘mother trees,’ there are now more than 3,000 – all fruiting. On the other hand, out of a total of 230 durian trees, 80 are already fruiting. Rambutan starts to fruit on the third year but commercial fruiting starts on the fifth. It lasts up to fifty years if taken cared of properly. Four thousand Sinta papaya trees (which lasts two and a half to three years before being replaced), are intercropped with rambutan, durian, lanzones and citrus.

Other fruit trees and planting materials available are mango (carabao, piko and Kent), magosteen, pomelo, sweet corn and jackfruit. “Meron din kaming lychees, red macopa, guapple, balimbing, kalamansi, atis, chico, kamias at banana but kaunti lang, used for experiments,” says Brian, Ato’s fourth child, a BS Agribusiness Management graduate from UPLB. Nine full-time helpers perform daily chores while casuals are hired during harvest time.

Cultural Management Practices. Mang Ato attributes his success partly to farm practices both learned and developed through fifteen years of nursery operations. He is more than willing to share these to anyone who is interested in farming or who wants to venture in the same route he has taken.

  • Soil sterilization in the orchard utilizing locally available materials
  • Soil bagging
  • Regular watering of grafted and inarched seedlings and growing trees in the absence of rain
  • Applying fertilizer technology – he developed, the “Slow Release of Fertilizers” or “Ato’s Dextrose System”
  • Application of hog manure as organic fertilizer
  • Scheduled pruning of rambutan trees
  • Cleaning and weeding of the area
  • Mulching using non-diseased, pruned tree parts
  • Applies multi-rootstock to longkong lanzones and rambutan trees
  • Duku lanzones were intercropped with rambutan in one parcel and durian in another as replacement for the next 10-20 years

Mang Ato and wife Eleanor beside one of 4,000 sinta papaya trees

Mang Ato specializes in the propagation of outstanding fruit trees, scions of grafted planting materials of High-Value varieties such as Sinta papaya, durian, black pepper and pomelo. In addition, the farm is very efficient, self-sustaining and eco-friendly. He uses a healthy combination of organic and inorganic fertilizers, prioritizing the former. A self-formulation made up of urea, complete fertilizer, muriate of potash plus micronutrients is used, tested and proven. This is then administered to the trees through a unique slow release, which he proudly calls “Ato’s Dextrose System.” Hog manure is never wasted for it is also extensively used as fertilizer; composting is always employed. Chemical fertilizers are only used when really needed. Like fertilizers, he also has his own concoction composed of rice wash and skimmed milk. Korean-style, this produces lactic acid and beneficial bacteria which can then be applied either basal or foliar. Oh yes, the family is not dependent on LPG – a biogas stove using methane and other gasses generated from manure does the job.

Word-of-Mouth. The first five years proved to be challenging, based on the fact that the farm is still unknown and yet to create the aspired market. Mang Ato recalled, “Kahit market-led, syempre noong mga panahong iyon, di pa kami kilala – mahirap mag-market.” Majority of sales then came from the city and adjacent municipalities.

Fortunately, the husband and wife team’s combined efforts paid off. Sales increased followed by repeat sales brought about by referrals. For example, an area was planted. Once results were good, neighbours would ask the plants’ source. Then they buy from the farm and the cycle repeats with different people. Last year, Congressman Danton Bueser (third district, Laguna) gave away 3,000 kilos of rambutan to colleagues in the Lower House resulting to several purchases from various congressmen.

Clients now come from all over. “…ngayon, nationwide na,” he quipped. Aside from Southern Luzon-based clients, there are those from as far north as Baguio, Abra; Palawan, Marinduque and Bicol. Many were referred by the Department of Agriculture. The accreditation of the Bureau of Plant Industry was an additional help because of the assurance of high quality standards and breeds of planting materials which produced more buyers. Orders also came from parts of Visayas and Mindanao. He also provides consultancy and free advice to anyone who is interested. “Sa ganitong paraan, lumalawak ang aking market,” he humbly reasoned.

Workers sorting out then boxing newly-harvested rambutan

A Myriad of Buyers. Fifteen years in the business enabled him to build a credible reputation. People with different backgrounds have already become clients. These include prominent politicians (Sens. Revilla and Angara), governors and mayors, showbiz personalities (Gloria Diaz and Ina Raymundo), former Cabinet members as well as balikbayans. The long roster also includes active and retired military and police generals (Gen. Guillermo Ruiz, Gen. Edgardo Abenina, Gen. Ricaredo Sarmiento), judges, big businessmen (the owners of Pancake House, Victor Reyes of Viva Shipping), and clients residing at Forbes Park.

“Plant Now, Pay Later.” Most payments including walk-in customers are paid in cash. Government purchases come in the form of post-dated cheques supported by purchase order. However, Ato Belen’s Farm also sells in another manner. For friends or people known to him but lacks capital, plants are loaned even without downpayment. He confidently mentioned that many have already benefited from the scheme. Said he, “Yung isa kong natulungan, four years bago namunga ang mga tinanim namin. Ang kinita sa first harvest ang pinambayad niya. So for the fifth year, kanya na lahat ng puno.”

Media and the Internet. Aside from market exposure courtesy of the DA and BPI, Mang Ato was also featured in the print and TV media. He had already appeared in Gerry Geronimo’s widely popular Ating Alamin together with several articles by Zac Sarian at the Manila Bulletin’s Panorama and Agriculture Magazine. Information about the farm is also posted on both Geronimo and Sarian’s websites. He is a member of Sarian’s Agri-Aqua Network International (AANI) Foundation. Proudly declared his son Brian, “We have already sold some plants via the Internet. Kahit di namin nakita o nakausap man lang yung mga buyers.” Their very own website is under construction.

A Bounty of Awards. As a result of his hardwork and dedication, numerous awards have been bestowed upon him. Among them are the “Public Service Achiever – Best Farmer Award” from the Philippine Councilors League and DA Regional Agricultural and Fisheries Council in 1990; the DA Regional Award for “PINAKA-PAPAYA,” Regional Outstanding Achievers in Agriculture 1990; and Outstanding Farmer – Smallholder Category for HVCC,” provincial level, Gawad Saka from the DA 2000-2001.

More Work To Do. Now 53 and still full of vigor, Renato Belen has no plans of slowing down. “Balak ko pa talagang mag-expand, basta may available capital. Plantation for more High-Value crops naman.” With Ato’s dogged enthusiasm and flair for sticking to high quality standards, his new dream will most certainly come to fruition.” ■

“Sweet Fruits of Hardwork”

Written By: Bryan L. Fernandez

Source: Marid Agribusiness Digest (Vol. 13 No. 5)

Entrepinoy Section (Pages 26-30)

October 2002