|Threatened: The Spain-originated orange is especially sweet and fragrant when grown on the soil of Nghi Dien Commune. However, farmers and experts are struggling to preserve the fruit, and it is said to be on the verge of extinction in the country. — Photo baonghean.vn
by Quang Long
Nghe An Province is known for a specially sweet and fragrant orange called Xa Doai that has been described as "the best variety in the region".
The tree that bears the fruit only yields the best quality of orange if grown on the soil of Nghi Loc District's Nghi Dien Commune.
No one can tell exactly when the first orange tree was planted in the commune, but it must have been hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, this variety of orange is in danger of extinction, in spite of the efforts of local authorities and residents. How to preserve this precious variety of orange remains an open question for the province.
A failed project
Ten years ago, the province invited a professor from Ha Noi to implement a VND2-billion (US$95,000) project to revive and increase the number of Xa Doai orange trees. It was a big investment at the time, recalled Doan Tri Tue, head of the provincial agriculture and rural department's cultivating section.
Though a number of seminars were held to discuss the preparation for the project, the trial planting turned out to be fruitless.
Tue cited two reasons for the failure: first, the professor was merely an agriculture expert but not a specialist in the growing of oranges; second, the pilot planting area was not in Nghi Dien but rather, in Nghi An Commune, also in Nghi Loc District.
Tue explained that the project managers made a big mistake in choosing Nghi An Commune, which was unfit for the cultivation of the special orange because it was too dry during the sunny season and usually flooded during the rainy season.
Based on the agriculture officer's experience, Xa Doai orange trees can only develop well on hilly and fertile land located near limestone mountains.
Tue added that in Nghi Dien Commune, if you dig to a depth of one metre, you would find numerous oyster shells, and only on this kind of soil would the orange trees bear their Xa Doai trademark sweet and fragrant fruit.
Tue admitted that he tried persuading the authorities to stop the project on numerous occasions because the land used for it was unsuited for special orange cultivation, but he failed to change their minds.
Tue did not give up easily. He met the professor in person to warn him of the impending failure. Tue's actions were ignored, the project was implemented and his prediction turned out to be correct.
A rare fruit
To buy Xa Doai oranges, one must make an advance payment with growers in Nghi Dien Commune when the trees start blossoming and come back for the fruits when they have ripened.
Each Xa Doai orange is worth VND60,000 ($2.8), roughly equivalent to one kilogram of other varieties of good quality, at VND50,000 to VND60,000.
According to Nguyen Duy Hao, who owns a 5ha orange garden in Nghi Dien Commune, the colour of the fruit is like that of honey and its special sweet flavour gives connoisseurs an unforgettable impression.
Hao revealed that to enjoy the flavour of the orange, one should peel it by hand instead of cutting it with a knife and divide its pulp into segments. This will release the fragrance and aroma of the fruit and add to the tastiness of the experience.
The price of each Xa Doai orange is high because the annual yield is low and unstable.
Hao explained that the oranges were cultivated in household gardens and not on farms, so gardeners were hesitant to use pesticides against worms, which were rampant.
Also, orange growers face other natural challenges: a lack of water during the dry season and floods during the wet season.
Yet, the more difficult it was to nurture the trees, the more precious and expensive the oranges became, said Hao.
Looking proudly at his lush orchard filled with fruit, Hao could not hide his worries as he remarked: "The orchard is nearly 40 years old, and I am afraid that my trees will deteriorate in the near future."
Other growers in the commune share Hao's concerns.
Maintaining the orange trees is a good source of livelihood in a poor region, but it has yet to develop to the point where it could lead to prosperity.
Based on Hao's estimates, an owner of 100 orange trees that bear 100 oranges each will reap VND50 million ($2,300) per year.
In an attempt to preserve the special agricultural product of his hometown, Hao has devoted his time and resources to expanding areas for growing the oranges, but he is facing a dilemma. While he has yet to learn how to prevent the trees from deteriorating, he is compelled to sell the best fruit trees to make ends met.
Every year, at the onset of Tet, the Lunar New Year Festival, Hao chooses the most beautiful and productive trees for sale as ornamental trees because that would give him much more money than selling the fruits alone.
While residents are skeptical about the preservation of the trees, a Hanoian named Nguyen Quoc Tuan invested in a 12ha area with more than 4,000 orange trees and named it the centre for salvaging Xa Doai oranges.
Tuan vowed to pursue the preservation of the Xa Doai orange gene as he admitted the possibility of extinction. He began work on the garden in 2009, and now the trees each provide an average yield of 100 fruits.
To ensure that the garden grows well, Tuan hired numerous workers to take care of the trees. In addition, he has asked the staff of the provincial department for plant protection to regularly check on the trees' health and make timely prescriptions for the elimination of worms.
It is too early to tell if Tuan's work will succeed, but his model farm gives new hope for the future of the special orange.
According to Tuan, all projects for preserving the orange which were launched by the provincial department of agriculture and rural development, as well as the department of science, technology and the environment, have failed.
The main reasons for the failures were unsuitable land and the absence of effective water drainage systems.
So the future of the orange lies in the hands of gardeners, and if they fail, the fruit's special flavour and fragrance could end up becoming a mere memory. — VNS