Region’s special star apples go global   |  

Sitting back to enjoy a ripened piece of the fruit, many people wonder why this special variety of star apple bears the name Lo Ren, Vietnamese for “forge”. Expecting a story as juicy and flavourful as the fruit itself, few are satisfied with the simple explanation that the first such fruit tree was planted near a forge, or that the first person to cultivate the tree and pick its fruit was a blacksmith.

According to the Chau Thanh District Gardeners Association in the southern province of Tien Giang, the person who first cultivated the star apples was Le Van Ky, a local gardener. In 1932, Ky sowed star apple seeds near a forge in Long Hung Commune. The tree grew quickly and bore very sweet fruit. The gardener began to breed the fruit tree, giving the seeds to neighbouring communes, including Vinh Kim, Song Thuan and Kim Son. Because the first star apple tree was planted by a forge, it bears the name Lo Ren.

“No one knows why the fruit matches this area’s soil so perfectly, but it’s undeniable that the trees grow faster and give more fruit here than in any other region,” said 77-year-old Truong Hong Son, a farmer in Chau Thanh District.

In the 1950s almost every household in the area had lush star apple gardens, with a total cultivating area of about 2,000ha. During this time people in HCM City (then Sai Gon) liked the fruit so much that it was considered a luxury good. High demand led to wealthy lives for the growers. It was said that after a crop, growers used to either come to the jeweller’s to buy gold, build new houses or purchase more land. That’s why the fruit was also called the “fruit of the rich”: only the rich could afford the fruit, and all the fruit growers were rich.

92-year-old Hai Phung’s remembers how harvesting star apples was like a festival for local people. Men used to climb into the trees while women waited on the ground to catch the fruit; both of them working along the rows as rhythmically as if they were dancing.

In the 1980s, however, farmers were encouraged to cultivate rice instead of star apples. As a result, the fruit area was narrowed to 160ha. The fruit trees became old and stunted and were easily attacked by insects.

The star apple was not revitalised until 1999, when scientists at the Institute for Southern Fruit Studies realised the value of the fruit and co-operated with local farmers to restore this regional treasure.

“This is a unique, high-end fruit that cannot grow well in any other region except Tien Giang Province,” said the head of the institute, Dr Nguyen Minh Chau.

Scientists instructed farmers in growing new varieties and applying advanced techniques in order to produce fruits that were great-tasting and attractively shaped.

In 2005, the Lo Ren star apple received a trademark by the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Intellectual Property Department. During this time, Dr Trac Khuong Lai of the fruit research institute launched a cultivation programme to help farmers produce high-quality, high-yield and clean fruit that would be eligible to enter the European market.

“To sell the fruit to EU market we have to try hard to obey hundreds of criteria,” said Duong Anh Hao, a fruit grower in Song Thuan Commune.

“We have to ensure a clean environment for both the trees and growers. The most important thing is the ‘diary’ we keep for each tree, so that whenever we suffer a problem we look back over the diary to find the reason.

” When the fruits’ diameter reaches 5cm they must be covered with a bag to protect them from insect infestations.

During harvests, growers must keep the fruit clean and store them properly.

Doan Van My in Long Hung Commune shares his views:

“At first I thought meeting international standards was a difficult task, but now that I’ve become used to it I never miss a step.”

“Simply put, farmers have to ensure that their fruit is safe for consumers, for themselves and the environment, and that is has a clear origin.” Pampered produce: Lo Ren star fruit must be covered to protect it from insects. This is one of many Globalgap criteria.

To ensure uniform weight, quality and size, growers have to kill 50 per cent of the fruit on the trees, keeping about 300 fruit on each tree on average.

In 2006, Vinh Kim Commune established its Lo Ren Star Apple Co-operative. According to Le Van Son, the co-operative’s deputy director, local farmers were determined to bring the fruit to the country’s major markets in Ha Noi and HCM City as well as to reach foreign markets.

Recently, New Zealand’s SGS Company granted a Globalgap certificate to Vinh Kim Commune’s Lo Ren Star Apple Co-operative.

There are currently 19 households growing fruit that meets Globalgap standards, on an area of 7.9ha. The Globalgap standard is primarily designed to reassure consumers about how food is produced on the farm by minimising the detrimental environmental impacts of farming operations, reducing the use of chemical inputs and ensuring a responsible approach to worker health and safety as well as animal welfare.

Son affirms that only the fruit produced according to Globalgap standards are exported.

“Upon harvesting the fruit, farmers have to record how many fruit were cut on which day, from which tree, Son explained.

“When packing them for export, co-operative members are also required to note clearly which fruit are from which household so they can trace the fruit back in case a problem occurs.

Each week the co-operative exports about 7 tonnes of fruit to Russia, and demand keeps rising. Customers asking for higher and higher volumes put us on the hot spot. To meet the increasing demand we will have to multiply the households applying Globalgap standard.”

The Lo Ren star apple can be found growing in 13 communes of Chau Thanh District on a total area of 2,300ha. The province’s agriculture authority plans to increase the area to 5,000ha in 2015. — VNS