The U.S. has opened the door for Vietnam's dragon fruits to enter its market, but local producers, especially those in Binh Thuan Province - the country's key dragon fruit growing area, will find it hard to increase exports in the short term.
Binh Thuan has about 10,000 hectares under dragon fruit farming, with last year's output amounting to 141,000 tons, 25,000 tons of it exported for a total value of US$15 million.
Vice chairman of the Binh Thuan Dragon Fruit Association Nguyen Thuan told the Daily that there are about 30 dragon fruit exporters in Binh Thuan now. However, after three inspections of planting, packaging and preserving processes in the province, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials have recognized only two exporters - Ham Minh Co-operative and Hoang Hau Co.
This has revealed the fact that Binh Thuan's farmers fail to stick to any farming standards, so while the annual yield of the fruit is high, the proportion of fruit undamaged by flies remains low.
Director of the province's Agriculture and Rural Development Department Nguyen Ngoc Hai said farmers are now learning how to plant the fruit in compliance with VietGAP (Vietnamese Good Agricultural Practices) standards, and how to protect their produce from flies.
VietGAP provides procedures and principles for farmers to produce, harvest and preserve their produce freshly and safely. It also helps raise the quality of the fruit, and protect farmers' and consumers' health and the environment.
VietGAP is based on international standard systems like Asean GAP, EurepGAP GlobalGAP and Freshcare.
However, while VietGAP is proved to be effective to large-scale farming, like in a fruit co-operative or enterprise, the planting of dragon fruit in Binh Thuan is still on a small scale. VietGAP and requires farmers to do some specific processes, including analyzing land samples, tracking sources of seeds, guaranteeing product quality, building facilities to store the fruit and transporting the products.
It will take time to fully apply VietGAP to dragon fruit planting and production in Binh Thuan, and the way to meet international standards will be even longer.
EurepGAP is harder to obtain than VietGAP because it strictly requires a closed planting process, from soil preparation, seed selection and fertilizing to harvesting, packaging and preserving the fruit.
Following the standards, after harvest, the fruit will be cleaned, dried, and sprayed to eliminate germs and bacteria, and packaged before being moved to cold storage facilities and then to containers. This closed process helps keep the fruit away from flies and check the source of the fruit to know where it comes from if necessary.
The Ham Minh Dragon Fruit Cooperative asked the brand building organization United States Agency for International Development in 2005 for assistance to apply the standards, and got a certificate in October 2006.
The cooperative exported, about 80 tons in 2007 but achieved the 300-ton milestone in the first half of this year. Hoang Hau Co. exported 6,500 tons, 26% of the province's dragon fruit export in 2007, thanks to the application in 2005 of EurepGAP to its 300 hectares of dragon fruit.
Kieu Nga Dragon Fruit Co. has 30 hectares under dragon fruit farming that can meet the standards and expects to get a certificate by 2009.
Chairman of Ham Minh Co-operative Nguyen Thuan told the Daily that the U.S. asked the process from harvesting to packaging must be completely uninterrupted in a closed cold line. After being harvested, the fruit must be transported to a closed packing room, then sent to a preservation workshop linked to a packing room whose automated door can prevent insects from entering.
All export fruit must be cleaned and labeled with bar codes to show its origin before it is shipped to the U.S.
Ham Minh and Hoang Hau dragon fruit has a competitive edge over others as they are stored in cold storage facilities.
Now farmers in Binh Thuan have the opportunity to boost exports if they apply new standards in planting and production.
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