Concentrating on coconut
Concentrating on coconut may yield the best return on investment (ROI), both in economic and social terms, for our agriculture transformation.
Insights are added here to the current Coconut Industry Roadmap. One of the resources for these inputs is Ramon Rivera (0917-7223049). He headed the operations of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) in Region 4 and Mimaropa, and is now PCA deputy administrator for Research and Development. He combines his extensive hands-on field experience with the technology expertise our coconut farmers sorely need today.
Our 3.5 million coconut farmers harvesting 3.6 million hectares in 69 out of 82 provinces continue to be the poorest sector in our country. In many areas, their poverty levels reach 60 percent to 70 percent. This can be improved if attention is given to six considerations.
- Important coconut technologies from PCA often do not reach the coconut farmers. When the extension workers were devolved from the Department of Agriculture to the local government units (LGUs), several mayors did not use them optimally. This is because agriculture was not a priority for them. For these mayors to be motivated to change their mindset, they must see concrete benefits felt by their constituents, which is an important factor in the next election round.
- The current business model of empowering coconut farmers on an individual basis will generally not work. It requires economies of scale through a plantation-type set-up. Bernardo Villegas, professor emeritus at University of Asia and the Pacific, describes one such successful example: The model followed by Lionheart Farms comes closest to the nucleus estate model made popular by the Malaysians in the production of palm oil. Small farms are consolidated into bigger units to attain economies of scale in farming and in the other stages producing the high value products such as coconut milk, premium coconut oil, fresh coconut water, organic shredded coconut, coconut sugar, coco jam, virgin coconut oil and desiccated coconut.
- To implement this model where small farmers still keep their land but benefit from economies of scale and the resulting effective technology transfer, the LGUs, with PCA support, must take the lead. Mayor Fernando Mesa of Alabat, Quezon province, demonstrated how this was done. Inspired by Oscar Santos, a visionary for coconut farmer development, he grouped the farmers into clusters, and saw their incomes significantly rise. This was observed and appreciated by the voting constituency. Results like this are necessary to mobilize LGU leadership and support.
- With the P130 billion (P75 billion in cash) coco levy fund finally available to support coconut farmers, this transformation effort must begin with moving coconuts using the traditional variety to hybrid, which constitute a dismal 5 percent of our trees. The coco levy focuses on hybrid, which produces three times the yield (135 coconuts per tree versus 46) in one-third of the time (two years versus six). However, much research must go to innovation on the high value products from the tree, which yield even higher returns. This kind of innovative research is specially important as we face tough global competition from other countries coconut products.
- In addition, we must start with the lands that have adequate irrigation and the appropriate fertilized soil. For other appropriate areas, the National Irrigation Authority should provide irrigation to coconut lands, considering that in many instances, this has higher ROI than rice lands. For fertilization, training is sufficient for farmers to produce their own organic fertilizer. This will result in better prices and higher farmer incomes because of the organic component.
- Since two-thirds of our coconut farms have so much idle land because of nothing planted between the trees, intercropping for more income is an imperative. PCA must focus on the coconut farmers, not just the coconuts. However, an agribusiness approach must be used from effective production to targeted marketing.
If the above six considerations are addressed with concrete plans and the corresponding budgets from the huge coconut levy fund, our agriculture transformation may well be on its way.