Davao is known for two crops: durian and cacao. At Belviz Farms, both take center stage.
Belviz Farm is a family-owned farm in Calinan District, Davao City. It is currently run by husband and wife Emmanuel “Nel”and Mary Grace “Eyeth” Belviz, who met while studying agriculture in University of the Philippines, Los Banos (UPLB). Nel is in charge of farm operations while Eyeth, who hails from Quezon, is in charge of production and processing for Rosario’s Delicacies, the farm’s brand. Aside from their two main crops, they also produce jackfruit, mangosteen, and lanzones, as well as seasonal crops like sunflowers.
The farm, which currently spans around 30 hectares of both owned and leased land, was originally established by Nel’s father, acclaimed durian farmer Severino Belviz. The couple had been helping the senior Belviz run the farm since they got married in 2000, taking over after Nel’s dad passed away in 2016.
“Our biggest challenge is what in Bisaya is called ‘inato,’ which loosely translates to traditional farming where you produce, you find a middleman, and you sell,” Nel explained in Taglish. “When my wife and I took over, we saw gaps in the marketing, so we looked for ways to value-add products so that we can get a higher price on our harvest.”
Though the farm had been producing value-added products like frozen durian, durian candy, and durian jam since 2001, they increased their product line, adding unique items like jackfruit jam. They also revived their tablea production, which had halted in the 1980s, and ventured into bean-to-bar artisanal chocolates after Eyeth was accepted as a scholar to a cocoa and chocolate processing workshop in Ghent, Belgium. Their venture into artisanal chocolates coincided with the local bean-to-bar boom in 2015, when Filipinos were becoming more interested in local cacao.
It was also a dream come true for Nel, whose childhood dream was to make chocolate candy. Growing up, his dad had explained that the cacao they grew for tablea was the main ingredient of the imported chocolate bars he loved so much, but with added ingredients like milk and sugar. When young Nel failed to make a bar, he promised himself that he would learn to produce chocolate candies one day. “At least now we get to fulfill his childhood dream,” Eyeth said in Tagalog.
Cacao and durian are actually related, both belonging to the family Malvaceae, which also includes cotton and okra. The two used to be intercropped, until the Belvizes realized that they flourish better when planted separately, as the microclimate produced from the intercropping hinders the growth of both plants. “Cacao and durian, when consumed, also give people a happy feeling because they produce serotonin and tryptophan,” Nel added.
The farm grows 11 durian varieties but is planning to focus on Puyat and Duyaya varieties because these are what’s popular internationally. “The international market only knows Thailand durian, and Puyat is comparable to the Thai variety,” Nel said. “Puyat is highly-resistant to pests and diseases. It has a smaller canopy [than most varieties], [so] you can plant more per hectare. The taste is very good and it has a longer shelf life than other varieties… but you have to care for it or else you won’t have an abundant harvest.”
Though durian can be lucrative, it can also be intensive to cultivate. “You need at least the basic technical know-how,” Nel said. “It’s not a tree you can plant and forget. They need constant care until about three years old.”
The Puyat variety can be planted in 8×8 formation, for a total of about 158 trees a hectare. It is also possible to plant in 10×10 for a less intensive farm. The Belvizes advise planting nurse plants like bananas for the first three to five years as young durian trees flourish in the shade. The harvested bananas will also serve as a source of income while waiting for the durian trees to mature.
The durian trees will start flowering in about four years, though it’s suggested to wait until five or six years to begin harvesting to ensure good harvests. Around the fourth year, the banana trees can slowly be pared away to give the durian trees much-needed sun. “After six years, you can eliminate bananas and you can start harvesting from your durian,” Nel said.
If cared for properly, a healthy durian tree can produce fruits for up to 50 years, though the practice is to keep them up to 35-43 years to maintain a quality harvest. The farm also houses native varieties which are said to be around 135 years old. “As long as you fertilize properly, don’t overfruit your trees, practice fruit thinning, proper drainage, and proper care, I think your durian can last 50 years or more.”
The couple is currently focusing on durian because of the huge local demand and the growing interest in it internationally, with countries like Japan, US, China, and even Thailand looking to import. When asked if the Philippines can meet the global demand for durian, Nel was quick to say, “No, we need to plant more.”
The areas not planted to durian are used to grow cacao. They also source wet beans from nearby farmers and cooperatives, opting to process them themselves. “We ferment them ourselves so we can ensure their quality,” Nel said. “Flavor consistency is an important factor for good chocolate, and it starts in the fermentation process.”
Working in tandem with Belviz Farms is Rosario’s Delicacies, its value-adding arm, which Eyeth manages. “We didn’t have a background in marketing and trends when we started,” Eyeth shared. “We started developing products because there was a need to use farm surplus. The benchmarking came after.”
Their first customers were folks studying farming in the farm, which is an Agriculture Training Institute (ATI) learning site. “We saw that there was a market, and from there, we created products like frozen durian, durian Jam, and durian candy.”
“We weren’t thinking about profit at first,” Nel added. “Fresh durian has a very short shelf life, so we needed to find a way to extend their selling time. That was why we ventured into processing.”
They were able to expand the availability of their products through the help of several government agencies. “They invited us to trade fairs, local bazaars, even international trade fairs,” Eyeth said, adding that though travel expense was a challenge, the government agencies tried to augment it by giving them free booth space. “The experience exposed us to different kinds of products and marketing. We learned how to deal with buyers and how to develop and improve our products.”
Their clientele began to expand by word of mouth. “Actually, our government is very supportive of SMEs and farmers. We just have to (avail of it).”
The couple stressed the importance of value-added products in adding to a farm’s revenue. They equally stress that value-adding and marketing requires a different approach and mindset, and ideally, a separate team altogether. This is exactly why Nel manages Belviz Farms and Eyeth manages Rosarios’ Delicacies: they’re both managing different businesses.
Eyeth addressed the unintentionally dismissive response many of the public have towards farmers who complain about having surplus harvests with, “just turn it into something else:” “A lot of people misinterpret value-adding as a way for a farm to make money, when it should be that the farm is already making money before going into value-adding.”
Another thing to consider when going into production is to expand beyond one’s farm by working with supplies from other farmers and processors. “We work with other farmers and processors,” Nel says. “We don’t think of them as competitors but as collaborators. That’s how we increase our market.”
Working with other small farmers allows SMEs like Belviz Farms, Rosarios’ Delicacies, and their collaborators to compete with bigger industry players. “We should work as an industry, from farming to processing to working with suppliers and networking with logistics and government agencies,” eyeth says. “We need to group together to achieve economies of scale.”
An example of this was during the first lock down in 2020, Davao durian farmers had no customers because tourism had been halted. The group coordinated with the DA’s High Value Crops (department), who helped find clients outside Davao. “The cost of logistics were high, so everyone helped each other,” Nel said. “We were able to get a lower price working together than if we had done it alone.”
“We have to be resilient,” Eyeth added. “Resilience is an important characteristic of a farmer.”
The power of marketing
The couple credits treating both farm and value-adding as businesses as part of the formula to their success after taking over. “Marketing is important,” Eyeth said. “If you don’t know your target audience, you’ll lose interest in farming… You need proper marketing, networking, and coordination with your target market.”
A recognizable brand and consistently high quality products are important as well, since the brand is the first thing customers see and of course, good products are what will keep them coming back.
It’s also important, especially for SMEs (Small and Mid-sized Enterprises), to constantly be on their toes. This is why it will shock customers to find out that the Belvizes don’t consider themselves “successful” yet. “For us, success is a journey, not a destination,” Eyeth explained. “It’s how you survive. You consider yourself successful because you’ve weathered a challenge… you’ve innovated, you’ve helped other farmers, and you’ve helped build your industry. For us, it’s… part of being a successful farmer.
Nel and Eyeth Belviz are very happy in their chosen profession. “I love planning. There’s a cycle… If you plan (properly), when the durian flowers bloom, your farm will look like a winter wonderland because even the ground will look white because of all the falling petals. For me, that’s one of the most magical times in durian farming because from there, you can estimate if you’ll have a good harvest that year.”
“Farming is a good investment because farming is life,” Eyeth said. “No matter what happens, you won’t starve if you have a farm.”
Nel added, “There’s a saying that goes, ‘You will need a doctor once, twice, or ten times in your lifetime, but you will need a farmer every day.’”
The couple hope that more people, especially the youth, will consider a career in agriculture. “For those who want to farm or are already farming, please keep doing so because farming is forever,” Eyeth said. “You’ll be able to sustain not just your family, but also your community.”