John and Jacky Marshall of the Rare Fruit Council of Australia recently organised a three-week Exotic fruit and seed collecting tour to Singapore, Thailand, Burma and Malaysia.

Thirty members of the Rare Fruit Council made the trip. An indication of just how well-known the Council is, found people from Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin and one man who travelled from Mexico, joining the tour in Singapore. They met up with mainly North Queenslanders to eat their way through some of the finest exotic fruit in the world: durian, mangosteen, rambutan, longan, to name a few. For many it was the first chance they had to sample these fruits, and to decide which they preferred.

Our first stop was Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. There we paid a visit to the Chiang Mai University and were treated to a slide show on various propagation methods used to grow mango and lychee; it was interesting for our group to see grafting techniques and commercial fruit growing.

The next stop was a 400-acre fruit orchard at Lampoon in Chiang Mai where the Sitthisung family have owned the orchard for generations. Apart from a very large mango orchard (1,600 trees) and a 600-tree longan orchard, they also had 200 lychee, 50 tamarind, 200 pomelo, 50 sapodilla, 30 mangosteen and 600 macadamia nut trees.

The farm employs 30 permanent workers and 20 casuals. Labour costs are so minimal in Asia that it becomes economically viable to employ such a large work force - something that an Australian fruit grower couldn't even think of.

Fruit fly is very prevalent in Asia and causes severe problems in commercial orchards. Spraying pesticides is one way of keeping the fruit fly problem down, but this is only partially effective. Farm workers spend hours wrapping each individual fruit in hessian or newspaper. This is a more effective way of controlling the fruit fly, but also very labour intensive. The farm is presently 'top working' their mango orchard - grafting better known varieties of mango onto 10- to 15-year-old trees.

For most of the touring fruit buffs, the fruit markets in Chiang Mai provided them with their first taste of the Durian called "the king of fruits" by the Asian population. "A smell like hell but it tastes like heaven". The durian gives off a strong odour which prevents it being sold in restaurants or supermarkets. It is a true experience for one's taste buds, as one member of the tour commented that his taste buds were "falling over each other".

Asians love the durian and have placed it number one on the most popular fruit list. Durian is often given as a gift on special occasions - like a young man courting his sweetheart. To enhance his position with her family he only has to present a top quality durian to her father.

Durian originates from the jungles of Borneo, where early English explorers have written that they have seen wild tigers fighting each other for the durian after it falls from the trees. Dark green in colour, it resembles a medieval mace with its spiky exterior. Consumption of the durian fruit must not be accompanied by alcohol as the durian heats up the body system in a similar way alcohol does. Combine the both together and you could overheat the body.

Within half an hour of eating durian one can feel a warm sensation over one's body. Hot flushes can occur followed by a feeling of euphoria. Some say it acts as a body stimulant. One thing is for sure: it's a sensation not easily forgotten. Each year when the Malaysian durian orchards come into flower, Chinese businessmen journey from Singapore to these orchards and offer a cash advance on the farmer's durian crop. He is paid on how many flowers appear on the trees. If the rain comes and washes half the flowers away, the farmer still gets his full price. Usually only a small loss is actually counted on the blossoms, and most orchards produce plenty of top-quality fruit. The businessmen then take the durians back to Singapore and sell the fruit, making big profits.

The durian is a complete meal: it has large amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins.

From Thailand, our party visited ancient Burma west of Thailand. It was monsoon time there, so it rained considerably. Burma has no large commercial fruit-growing farms, but we saw evidence of small growers with durian and pomelo. Mandalay in the north is the home of the Mandalay mango. Many of our party brought seed back from it. Burmese durian had a very distinctive taste, not as hot as its Thai relation.

We did a tour of Rangoon, the capital of Burma. It is a city of 2.5 million people, a living legacy of British Architecture. The centre of Rangoon is the home of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda which rises like a beacon to a height of 326 feet, surrounded by smaller shrines. This giant structure was built some 2,500 years ago to enshrine eight hairs of Buddha's head. The Pagoda is covered with 90 million dollars worth of gold and is capped with a bud of diamonds and other precious stones. It stands as the Spiritual Centre to the Buddhists of Burma - 90% of the population are Buddhists.

From Burma, our party flew back to Bangkok where we visited another exotic fruit research farm and watched a demonstration on various methods employed in Thailand to graft durian and mango.

We were also very fortunate to visit a durian plantation. Only a two-and-half-acre property, but it had 200 durian trees which were twenty years old. The owner, Payung Krichag, said his yield per tree was thirty to forty fruit because his farm was situated in heavy clay-type soil. In sandy soil, up to eighty to one hundred fruit can be realised.

On our return to Singapore, we visited the demonstration farm of the Primary Production Department. Our tour leader, John Marshall, presented the officer in charge, Mr. Lee Chong, with a white sapote and a Pink's Mammoth custard apple. Both were grafted species. The main purpose of the farm is to supply seedlings and grafted trees to the public. They have a very large area and employ several staff.

We travelled by bus from Singapore up the Malay Peninsula visiting private orchards and nurseries and tasting some interesting varieties of rambutans, bananas and pineapples.

In the township of Malacca we were invited to a prison farm made up of young boys. On the 150 acres they had an extensive exotic fruit orchard, consisting of rambutans, durians, chempedek, duku langsat, and papaya. The boys developed farming skills under supervision; a very worthwhile way of rehabilitating the boys. Many, on leaving the farm, went to work for fruit farmers and developed their skills even further. Fifteen-year-old Cary Marshall presented a boomerang to the Superintendent of the farm, Mr. Noor Mohamed.

Our last stop was Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia and once again we all descended on the local fruit markets, devouring as much fruit as possible and collecting the seed.

We paid a visit to the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) where we received some literature on propagating many kinds of exotic fruits. We also visited the Research farm and developed our grafting knowledge even further. John Marshall presented the farm with a tropical lychee, a white sapote and a Pink's Mammoth custard apple.

The Asian tour was invaluable to most of the people in the group, in terms of: grafting and propagation knowledge, collecting of many varieties of fruit seed and tasting the many types of fruit available in Asia.

In conclusion, invaluable experience was learned in the commercial fruit-growing area. We had many opportunities to see what types of fruit were selling best in the market places in the various countries we visited. We also saw the kind of prices being paid. Couple these two facts together and it makes it easier to find what fruit will be the best seller commercially, and judging by the acceptance of the fruit in Asia to the Asian taste buds, then one can only assume that the same fruit will be commercially viable in Australia one day.

We now know that North Queensland has more varieties of tropical fruit growing here than anywhere else in the world. We are also leaders in the propagation field and are very knowledgeable about grafting techniques. In short the tropical fruit industry will be a very large force in the coming years and an exciting mouth-watering experience as well for all Australians.

Russell Francis
(Photo Journalist, Cairns.)

DATE: January 1996

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