A new land to protect: Ex-military officer laid down arms to farm

After serving in the United States Military for over two decades, Mario Laureta finally laid down arms and returned to the Philippines to farm.

Retired US Air Force Master Sergeant Mario Laureta was born and raised in Uddiawan, Nueva Vizcaya. In 2010, Laureta decided to retire after 22 years in the force and return to his hometown, where he had already purchased two hectares of land years prior.

Retired Air Force Master Sergeant Mario Laureta monitoring airfield activity. (Mario Laureta)

The land he acquired used to be a pasture area for cows but had become barren. Laureta said the top soil had become thin. He left the land undisturbed for years for the soil to recover, and, thankfully, it did.

In 2011, Laureta was ready to begin a new chapter of his life as a farmer. Farming was something he looked forward to doing, as he was raised by parents who were farmers.

However, Laureta’s first attempt at planting was unfortunate. “In 2011, I planted around 2,000 coconut seeds but, unlucky (sic), the mortality rate was high due to animals and pests,” Laureta said. Afterwards, he decided to plant different fruit-bearing trees. “Between 2012 and 2015, I planted different fruit trees such as mango, santol, lanzones, rambutan, avocado, soursop (guyabano), pomelo, jackfruit, star apple, citrus and many more.”

But the star of Laureta’s farm is dragon fruit. Laureta has numerous dragon fruit varieties on his farm which have been abundant every harvest season. He had planned for the farm to simply cater to his family’s needs, however the oversupply every harvest season led him to start a business selling dragon fruits to his community.

The dragon fruit trees of the Laureta Dragon Fruit Farm. (Mario Laureta)

“The first harvest in 2021 yielded over 200 kilos, but I never converted it into cash,” Laureta said. “I gave [them] away as ayuda to people whom I thought needed [them] more for its super fruit capabilities.”

Laureta’s kindness during the country’s community quarantine had bore fruit, as the next harvest in 2022 had bore over 500 kilos of dragon fruit. “I sold it to the local customers and from other parts of the province, and as far as Laguna, Batangas, and Manila,” he said. “I made more than P39,000.”

Dragon fruits that are packed and ready to be delivered to different buyers in the province. (Mario Laureta)

Locals of Uddiawan happily buy his produce. He sells his dragon fruits at 90 pesos per kilo. His farm also produces plenty of bananas, which he sells for 15 pesos per kilo.

A field job

Laureta decided to name his farm after his family name, and it’s now known as the Laureta Dragon Fruit Farm.

Despite the name, his farm has other fruit trees such as mango, avocado, citrus, duhat, lanzones, rambutan, and more. He also has other plants such as peruvian cacti, ginger, gabi, okra, and pineapples which are intercropped with the dragon fruit trees.

Pineapples are intercropped with the dragon fruit trees. (Mario Laureta)

The farm is also an integrated farm. They currently have different kinds of livestock, such as pigs, goats, cows, chickens, ducks, and geese. They also have a communal water impound where they raise tilapia and catfish.

Laureta personally manages all aspects of the farm. Although the farm has a stay-in caretaker, he still makes sure to inspect and attend to all his crops. “I always go to the farm daily to inspect the plants, especially the dragon fruits, to make sure the new transplants will attach to the concrete post and that no pests or diseases attack the plants and trees,” he said.

He recalls the challenges he went through as they first planted the dragon fruits. It was during the peak of the community quarantine in 2020 that Laureta decided to prepare his farm for dragon fruits.

“It was very hard for me to hire workers due to the lockdowns and social distancing,” he said. “So I dug the holes for the post by myself, erected the post, and planted the cuttings with minimal help from our caretaker and family.”

Fortunately, two of his family members helped him. However, due to the rules of the quarantine, they had to work with face masks as they mixed cement and gravel to make concrete posts. “It [was] very hard working with restricted breathing and with observation of social distancing,” he said.

“But the most challenging part of this kind of farm is the budget,” Laureta said. “The materials for post and trellis including the plant cost me more than P500 minus labor because most of the time I was doing the hard work. With more than 1000 posts, I do not want to compute my expenses.”

“I enjoyed farming, that is the bottom line,” said Laureta.

Despite the challenges he faced, Laureta is undoubtedly happy with the results. Not only has he had abundant dragon fruit yields, but he also enjoys harvests from the different fruit trees and crops that his farm has.

Laureta posing with his harvest of dragon fruits. (Mario Laureta)

Now open for leisure

In 2023, Laureta made a big decision to open his farm for agri-tourism.

Laureta’s was happy with tending to his crops and feeding his family and community, however farm tourism had sparked his interest.

Prior to opening his farm to the public, Laureta studied other farms on how they built a successful agritourism site, and he attended seminars to learn the process and requirements needed for his venture.

When he finally decided on developing the farm, he became a beneficiary of Provincial Board Member Hon. Roland Carub’s project of creating ecotourism spots in the barangays of Nueva Vizcaya. Carub informed Laureta that he would sponsor the farm’s development to become a tourist site, and sent beneficiaries of another project called Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged / Displaced Workers (TUPAD) to help. Twenty-eight beneficiaries arrived at the Laureta Dragon Fruit Farm, and in ten days they have converted the farm from a simple farmland to a suitable agritourism site.

TUPAD beneficiaries who helped transform Laureta’s farmland into an agritourism site. (Mario Laureta)

After opening it to the public, a steady stream of people visited the new leisure site. “Our farm has visitors daily after we opened it to the public. Sometimes returning visitors come on the average twice a week,” he said.

As of now, Laureta’s farm offers different activities such as a pick-and-pay gimmick at their dragon fruit site, as well as camping and site tours. Visitors can also go boating at the water impounding site. “Some people or students from nearby high schools visit the farm almost daily after classes just to ride the boat and take photos,” said Laureta.

A visitor enjoying the experience of picking a dragon fruit from the vine. (Mario Laureta)

As his farm is located in a hilly place, plenty of their visitors come to enjoy the view at the hilltop. He plans to have a Nipa hut built on the hilltop as a viewpoint shed later in the year, and that also includes building stairs for a safe trip to the venue.

Visitors from Uddiawan National High School enjoying the view at the hilltop viewpoint. (Mario Laureta)

Visiting the farm is free of charge. “This is the best way I know to market and to attract more visitors and through their pictures and videos shared on social media, our farm will reach many,” he said. “We will be charging fees in the future after we accomplish the process and requirements, and are accredited by the Department of Tourism (DOT).”

Laureta’s life after retirement from the military brought new kinds of excitement and activity for him, but what he truly enjoys about farming is the relaxation it provides.

“I enjoy farming because [everything was grown by me, a] farmer,” he said. “I also enjoy fruits and food coming directly from the farm knowing that they are grown organic and safe from pesticides.”

“It’s also a rewarding feeling when I see people’s smiles when I give produce from my farm, knowing that I am helping and making them happy through God’s blessings,” said Laureta.

Photos courtesy of Mario Laureta