Rare and tasty Vietnamese orange variety on the brink of extinction

A strain of succulent oranges indigenous to a central Vietnamese province is teetering on the verge of extinction, while local experts and residents are striving to preserve and promote it to the world.

The citrus fruit, called “Doai Commune” oranges, is indigenous to Nghi Loc District, located in the north-central province of Nghe An. The fruits, which typically weigh between 150 and 200 grams each, have a smooth, thin peel and luscious, fragrantly sweet flesh. According to archives kept in Nghi Dien Commune, which the oranges are native to, a French Catholic missionary brought the strain with him when he arrived in the locale around 150 years ago, and grew saplings on the plot where the bishop’s palace was built.To his surprise, the breed thrived well and quickly became popular. However, in recent years, the purebred oranges have faced imminent risk of dying out.

During harvest seasons, the fruits are not available on the local market, as clients make orders at the orchards for VND50,000-80,000 (US$2.3-3.6) apiece, and up to VND100,000 ($4.5) for each at certain times. Other types of oranges are typically priced between VND10,000 ($0.5) and VND20,000 ($0.9) apiece and usually go by the kilogram. Phan Cong Huong, a local grower, divulged that buyers usually insist that they see farm owners or hands picking the fruits from the trees to make sure no oranges of other breeds are mixed into their buys. Most buy the oranges as gifts for their relatives or friends, he added. A retired local official, Huong has devoted all his time to tending to the rare strain since his retirement.

He currently boasts two orchards with 250 purebred trees. With proper care, the trees can each yield 50 to 70 fruits, and sometimes even over 100, Huong added. His crops during last Tet (Lunar New Year), which began in mid-February this year, were worth over VND200 million ($9,011), and he pocketed almost half the amount in profit.

Fading out

According to Nguyen Duc Son, chair of the Nghi Dien Commune People’s Committee, most local households grew “Doai Commune” orange trees back in the 1960s and 1970s. The growing areas have now shrunk to just more than 30 hectares, with thoroughbred trees scattered in only a few orchards, Son noted. Nguyen Duy Hao, another farmer, owns around 70 pedigree trees, with half of them aged over 50 years. The seasoned farmer noted that only the “Doai Commune” oranges grown in Nghi Dien Commune boast premium quality, thanks to the local soil and water. Many have planted seeds or saplings elsewhere, but the fruits cannot compare with those grown in the commune. Hao added he and other farmers adopt manual approaches to keep insects away instead of using insecticides. “My orange crops have allowed all my seven children to pursue higher education, with my second daughter currently studying in the U.S.,” he said. However, purebred oranges face dying out, he noted. One of the reasons is the number of graft branches Hao and other farmers sell each year. He also pointed to infertile soil and inadequate irrigation and drainage systems which have caused fruit-laden orchards to become an increasingly rarer sight. “Without overall planning, my and others’ purebred orange trees would probably be gone,” he lamented. Meanwhile, Son – chair of the Nghi Dien Commune People’s Committee – put the dwindling growing areas down to residents’ living conditions. Many households which owned large growing areas have resorted to felling a large number of trees and dividing the plots among their children to build houses on.  Meanwhile, it takes an exhaustive, large-scale study of the precious orange variety and soil before local authorities can zone the growing areas, Son said. “We have sought help from many places but no one has conducted a thorough study on the variety so far. A few local farmers have entrusted the Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences with conserving the variety’s genes,” the official added. An official of the Nghi Loc District Agriculture Office confirmed toTuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that no scientific project on the research, conservation or development of the “Doai Commune” orange variety has been conducted so far. Furthermore, the orange is yet to be registered for trademark protection.

Bids to preserve the oranges

Increasingly concerned over the extinction risk, a number of farmers in Nghi Dien Commune have boldly invested in building farms and orchards so as both to earn profits and preserve the beloved orange variety. Nguyen Quoc Tuan, a Nghi Dien native who was working away from home, recently gave up his good job and set up the “Doai Commune” Orange Revival and Development Center in his hometown. His center and farm are now home to over 2,500 authentic orange trees, with many already yielding crops. Hoang Minh Ngoc, the center manager, told Tuoi Tre that the center also aims to promote the valuable variety to the world. With assistance from the Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences, they grew 12 hectares of oranges in 2009, which have produced two crops to date. Last year’s 10-metric-ton batch was worth over VND1 billion ($45,059), Ngoc added.