Promising prospects in agriculture: Tree farming

“With new trends in farming being promoted as tree farming, the agriculture sector looks promising for Filipino farmers,” said a recent EDGE Davao editorial.

The reason for coming up such editorial was because of what Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol said. The former journalist-turned-farmer wrote in his blog that farmers could make more money by planting trees.

In Agusan del Sur, for instance, farmers who plant Falcata trees – a pulp and paper species which could also be used in making wooden palletes – are getting more than growing agricultural crops.

In five years, Falcata trees are considered fully grown. For a five-year-old tree, a farmer earns at least P2,000. Now, if he plants 500 trees in one hectare, he would automatically get a whooping P1 million. If he allows the trees to grow more in 10 years, he will be getting P12,000 per tree.

While the trees are still in their growing stage, farmers can plant agricultural crops like coffee, cacao or abaca.

The tree farming is the new program of the Department of Agriculture. It will be promoted in areas with denuded mountains “to ensure the protection of water sources for sustainable agriculture.”

“Tree farming, which is now officially an agricultural activity just like planting cacao, is now spreading like wild fire all over the country as farmers realize how much money they would make by planting trees,” Piñol said.

The program is in line with President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s vision of green and sustainable agriculture.

At one time, the president who hails from Mindanao said: “Our forests and watersheds must be protected if we dream of sustainable agriculture. Cut those trees and you will kill the future generation.”

Unknowingly, about 10,000 farmers in Mindanao are already a farming system called “conservation agriculture with trees” or CAT. According to its proponents, it does not only prevent soil erosion but also serve as an insurance against damages brought about by climate change.

CAT, a project by the World Agroforestry Center (WAC), was first piloted in Claveria, Misamis Oriental, It combines the planting of trees with food crops and agricultural landscapes (forages-plant eaten by animals as pasture) in upland areas. About 60% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares are considered uplands.

“The benefits of CAT are maintenance of vegetative soil cover year-round; sustained nutrient supply through nitrogen fixation and nutrient cycling; insect pests and weeds control; soil structure improvement and water retention; carbon storage above and below ground; organic matter formation in soil; and biodiversity conservation,” a press release said.

One example of CAT system is the growing of banana between rows of trees planted along the contour of sloping lands. Another is the planting of corn with cowpea intercropped with rubber and banana trees and forages.

“The combination of rubber trees, bananas and forages as contour hedgerows provide soil binding and anchorage that reduces – if not eliminate – soil erosion and landslides during extreme rainfall events,” the press release said.

“If one kind of crop gets damaged by a strong typhoon, then farmers practicing CAT will still have other crops to fall back on and sell,” explained the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), which is helping promote the system.

Farmers in Mindanao who adopt the CAT system said they are enjoying “many income streams and food sources.”

On why CAT is heavily promoted in Mindanao, the press release said: “Mindanao plays a pivotal role in Philippines’ food production with 40% total share and food export, a similarly significant 30%.

“Yet, these farmers, particularly those living in the uplands, are resource-poor and are extremely vulnerable to the impact of extreme weather changes brought by climate change,” it added.

An editorial in Business Mirror also offered this explanation: “Mindanao is generally regarded as the food basket of the Philippines, where many cash and high-value crops are grown. That’s because of its innate geographic advantages. For one, the region is not in the path of typhoons, unlike Luzon. Hilly areas in Mindanao are ideal for growing temperate vegetables, and contagious farmlands in the region are suitable for palm-oil plantations.”

Tree planting can help arrest soil erosion, touted to be the country’s silent crisis. Estimates from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources showed about 10,000 cubic meters of arable soil per hectare are eroded annually, such an amount equivalent to one meter layer of soil thickness removed per hectare per year.

Soil erosion will imperil the country’s food supply in the coming years, according to Harold R. Watson, the former director of Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC).

“Soil is made by God and put here for man to use, not for one generation but forever,” the 1985 recipient of Ramon Magsaysay award reminded. “It takes thousands of years to build one inch of topsoil but only one good strong rain to remove one inch from unprotected soil on the slopes of mountains.”

The planting of trees in the uplands of Mindanao as part of food production is a welcome news. Aside from arresting soil erosion, tree planting may also help in curbing deforestation and even reforest denuded areas.

As of 2010, only 6.84 million of hectares of forest cover remains or about 23% of the country’s total land area. Over the last 100 years, the country was losing about 150,000 hectares of forest cover each year, according to a 2005 study.

“Most of the country’s once rich forests are gone,” says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s study entitled, “Sustainable Forest Management.”

One good thing about planting trees is that they help offset further warming caused by climate change. In 1986, Gregg Marland of the US Department of Energy came up with a calculation for solving the greenhouse effect. In his calculation, he came up with this figure: worldwide, every man, woman, and child will have to plant yearly for ten years 100 trees each just to stop the build of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This has been supported by a recent study done by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The researchers found that about half of the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels is absorbed by plants.

“Our analysis of thousands of air samples shows that planting trees and other plants could have a powerful effect in combating the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” said Pieter P. Tans, co-author of the published study.