GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 03 December) – General Santos City, the “Tuna Capital of the Philippines,” is proving to be a suitable site for grape production, with a woman leading the way in showcasing that it can be grown here all-year-round.
From just a 100-square meter lot about a decade ago, Maria Caballes, a Dabawenya, now grows fruit-bearing vines in at least two hectares that she acquired gradually over the years, with more areas for expansion.
The 41-year-old entrepreneur has turned a barren land on the hills of Purok Wal, Barangay Tambler – on a spot that offers a great view of the Sarangani Bay – into a model grape farm known as MBX Grapes Vineyard, now becoming part of the agri-tourism circuit in the city.
Caballes, who once worked in the shipbuilding sector of the tuna industry here, became passionate about grapes after a co-worker gave her berries that were harvested “from a grapevine believed to be at least 40 years old and with a trunk as big as a coconut tree.”
She started planting grapes on a 100-square meter lot in 2012. Seeing its potential, she acquired half a hectare of land in the same village about three years later and planted more grapes, which she calls Farm 1.
Later on, she also acquired the rights to a land measuring up to 15 hectares, known as Farm 2, where she has so far developed at least two hectares into a vineyard.
Caballes went full-blast into grape production only when the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head in 2020. With the government lockdowns imposed starting March that year to fight the virus, she and her family members virtually locked themselves up and with nothing much to do, developed Farm 2.
Since the place is typically hot during daytime, family members and their handful of farmhands would plant the grapes late afternoon until evening, or early the next morning, to escape the scorching heat of the sun.
About two years later, she is now reaping the fruits of her hard labor. Aside from becoming a farm tourism destination, MBX Grapes has been recognized by the Agricultural Training Institute as the only accredited learning site for grape production in Region 12 (Socsksargen).
“In our farm, visitors can get up close and really personal with our grape fruits. Our grapes are for picking. But if you don’t want to pick and pay, you can still take pictures with the grapes,” Caballes told MindNews.
In other grape-producing countries like Italy, which is famous for its wineries, tourists are not allowed to enter the vineyard due to biosafety protocols, but here visitors are very much welcome for the experience to really get close with the grapes, she said.
MBX Grapes charges P200 per adult and P100 for a child for the farm tour, but the fee includes a plateful, of course, of freshly picked grapes.
Since Caballes programmed the planting of the grapes, their harvest is now all-year-round, thanks to the 6,000 robust vines dotting their farms. Some of the grape varieties they grow include Everest, Baikonur, Catawba, Joy and Kober. Grapes can be harvested six months after planting. It needs direct sunlight and regular water feeding.
According to her, one hectare can be planted with 1,500 to 2,000 grape vines, with each plant yielding between three to 10 kilograms. If the selling price is 200 pesos per kilo, that would be from P900,000 to P3 million for 1,500 vines or from P1.2M to P4M for 2,000 vines – every harvest cycle.
Noting that grapes can be grown in southern Philippines, Caballes said the few grape growers on the island had organized the Mindanao Grape Growers club, with members from Regions 12 (Socsksargen), 11 (Davao) and 10 (Northern Mindanao).
In this city, MBX Grapes launched the Grapeful GenSan last year, an initiative where Caballes provides free grape saplings to indigenous communities in a bid to increase local production.
So far, 10,000 seedlings have been dispersed to interested landowners under the program, her way of returning the blessings coming her way.
MBX Grapes produces wines, vinegar and jams from its vineyard. The pick-and-pay grapes cost P600 per kilo. It sells saplings too for those who are interested in planting, the price depending on the size and variety of the seedling, ranging between P250 and P1,500.
But Caballes lamented that the local grape production is still barely enough for commercial wine production and for supply to the domestic market.
Caballes said MBX Grapes is encouraging more local farmers to cultivate the crop since there is a big market for it and she has proven that it can be successfully cultivated in the area.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, she has been spending most of her time in the vineyard, sometimes coming earlier or leaving later than her 12 employees who are all indigenous peoples.
Caballes, an industrial technology graduate, does not regret leaving her eight-to-five regular job and jumping into grape farming, a venture previously strange and unimaginable to her.
“I have found my dream retirement,” she said, gently touching a bunch of grapes like a prized treasure. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)