Vietnam farmer puts green-skinned pomelos on the map12/08/2015 - 08:13
A farmer in southern Vietnam has dedicated over a decade to marketing green-skinned grapefruit and turning it from a less popular fruit into one of the country’s most sought-after exports.
Fifteen years ago, green-skinned pomelos, which boast pinkish, pleasantly sweet-tasting flesh, could hardly sell even in the local market.
In recent years, the fruit has grown to be the best-selling specialty of Ben Tre Province in the Mekong Delta.
Production fails to keep up with burgeoning demand in both local and export markets.
One of the people credited with catapulting the fruit to such popularity is Dam Van Hung, the owner of the Huong Mien Tay business in the province’s Mo Cay Bac District.
Hung, 51, was named one of the best farmers last year by the Vietnam Farmer’s Union.
After being discharged from the army in 1989, he earned his living as a mechanic, but quit the job some years later.
Hung then switched to trading in king orange – a thick-skinned variety of orange – and opened his small business: Huong Mien Tay.
When he came to local farmers’ orchards to buy oranges in bulk, Hung saw green-skinned pomelos filling the ground but no one really cared about them.
Back then farmers generally had only some pomelo trees in their orchards and would mainly pick the fruit to display around their homes, he recalled.
“I tried the fruit and it tasted pretty good. Many of my fellow fruit traders also complimented on its sweet taste. It crossed my mind that I had to build a market for the fruit, as king oranges were facing dampened sales due to overwhelming supplies then,” Hung added.
He first bought his green-skinned pomelos in 1999 and soon purchased all local farmers’ pomelos at low prices.
The pomelos piled up on his business premises but he could not sell any single one.
Hung also attempted to consign a number of such pomelos to fruit traders in Ho Chi Minh City, and they were all returned.
To cut shipping costs, he asked traders there to just discard the fruits or give them to their clients as free samples.
Undaunted by his failure in the city, he turned to consign his green-skinned pomelos to traders in Hanoi.
He had around one tonne of pomelos shipped to the capital city for several months, but still could not sell any single one.
“Hanoians are long used to the pomelo varieties grown in the northern region and had no idea whatsoever of green-skinned pomelos then. Several other traders advised me to give up or I would run out of money,” Hung recounted.
The man refused to give up, however, and personally traveled to Hanoi to market the fruit and learn about the market there.
Hung took his pomelos to Long Bien Market – a large wholesale market in the capital – crying his ware out by peeling them off and revealing the pinkish, tempting segments.
His persistence finally paid off, as after a week crying his fruits at the top of his lungs, some dozens of locals agreed to try the samples.
Hung gifted them each some pomelos to take home.
Sensing upbeat signs, he dispatched more of his fruits to Hanoi, most of which were given to locals for free.
“Success only came after my two or three more tries at personally marketing the pomelos in Hanoi. People there gradually grow fond of green-skinned pomelos and even prefer them to the varieties grown in northern provinces thanks to their exceptional quality and mildly sweet taste,” Hung revealed.
In 2007, a German fruit dealer came to Hanoi and learned of the high consumption of green-skinned pomelos.
The person then signed an agreement with Hung’s Huong Mien Tay business, which exported only one 20-tonne container of the fruit each month due to limited supplies.
The first export batch was well embraced in Germany and soon followed by many subsequent shipments.
Hung asked Ben Tre authorities to expand the area of growing green-skinned pomelos to cater to burgeoning demand, while persuading local farmers to switch to the profitable variety.
Prices soared from a mere VND2,000-3,000 per kilogram initially to VND8,000 per kilogram in the year 2000, with a U.S. dollar equivalent to VND13,000 back then.
According to Dao Van Minh, vice head of Phu Thanh Cooperative, his cooperative currently enjoys a membership of 94 farmers who adopt VietGAP on 50 hectares.
VietGAP, or Vietnamese Good Agricultural Practices, is a set of principles for sustainable and safe agricultural production approved by the Vietnamese government.
The fruit’s price soared to VND35,000 ($1.6) per kilogram in 2014 from VND22,000 and VND29,000 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Minh added.
Green-skinned pomelos now fetch $2-3 each on the export markets.
Many farmers have thus replaced longans and oranges with pomelos in their orchards.
Dao Van Bay, a farmer in Ben Tre’s Chau Thanh District, said he has chopped down his 8,000 m² area of longan trees and grown green-skinned pomelos instead for its high profitability and less meticulous care requirement.
His pomelos, which he said are the province’s current top profit maker, earn him over VND500 million ($23,092) a year.
After Hung’s first export batch to Germany, businesses in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, among others soon followed suit and placed large orders with his business.
Hung, however, had to turn down the offers due to limited supplies.
The years between 2008 and 2010 saw European businesses’ rush for Ben Tre green-skinned pomelos, causing prices to rocket.
The province later zoned material areas and launched cooperatives which apply VietGAP and GlobalGAP standards to their exports.
GlobalGAP is the international equivalent of VietGAP.
Ben Tre is currently home to 27 cooperatives which grow the fruits on areas totaling roughly 300 hectares.
Hung’s Huong Mien Tay business has signed contracts to buy their produce.
The businessman also opened his hi-end processing and packaging plant and a 1,400-tonne freezing warehouse in 2011 to cope with the European market’s fastidious quality requirements.
Hung’s business now purchases roughly 30 tonnes of green-skinned pomelos from farmers in Ben Tre and neighboring provinces each day.
“Recently scores of businesses in Australia and Europe have expressed wishes to sign contracts with my business on a steady basis to import over 100 tonnes of pomelos per month, but I turned them all down due to limited areas of growing the fruit trees in accordance with VietGAP and GlobalGAP,” he revealed.
Hung has requested the provincial People’s Committee and Southern Fruit Research Institute to expand the growing areas that meet the quality standards.
“The growing areas are on the sharp increase, but if we fail to adopt the standards, it would be really difficult to sell our pomelos in some years’ time, as today’s consumers, particularly those in the export markets, are increasingly fastidious regarding fruit quality and food safety,” Hung explained.
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