With volcanic soil, cool climate and high elevation of more than 1,200 meters above sea level, the foothills of Mount Apo are the right place to grow coffee. This was what the residents of Balutakay had been doing in the past.
“Coffee farming here is as old as our ancestors,” Ariel Dubria told “Uhay,” the quarterly publication of the Davao regional office of the Department of Agriculture. “But for a time, we cut our coffee trees and shifted to vegetable production due to very low buying price.”
Among those vegetable crops planted in the area were cabbages, carrots and green onions. “We later found out that vegetable production is more capital intensive as we have to use chemicals to get rid of pests,” Dubria said.
But despite this finding, they continued planting vegetables. It took them about two decades before they realized that there was really money in coffee. In some of their studies, they found out that they can overcome the problem of low buying price by producing quality coffee beans.
The price will even go higher if they produce specialty coffee. “Coffee connoisseurs classified specialty coffee based on the origin where they are produced,” wrote Noel T. Provido, the publication’s editor-in-chief. “According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), specialty coffee is usually grown in ideal climates with special characteristics and composition of the soil where the coffee trees thrive giving it distinct flavor and aroma.”
Ted Lingle, a coffee guru, shared this bit of information: “From a range of 0 to 100, specialty coffee must have a score of at least 80. The closer to 100 a coffee sample gets, the more likely it will command higher price and increased demand from specialty roasters.”
Being grown in the country’s highest peak, the coffee produces in Balutakay, particularly sitio Pluto, got a score of 83 from the Coffee Quality Institute and SCAA. “Their coffee’s distinct flavor, aroma and taste made it to be certified as specialty coffee which command better paying price compared to beans for instant coffee,” Provido wrote.
Even before the certification, coffee farmers in Balutakay worked together to come up quality coffee beans. “Quality adds value to your coffee,” said Dubria, who is a member of the Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association (BACOFA). “You have to handle coffee with care because it’s a fragile commodity. Proper picking, drying and storing must be observed to produce quality coffee.”
Coffee farmers now face a brighter future. But they have to sustain the production of quality coffee beans. “We must maintain the quality of our coffee to keep our buyers otherwise they will leave us and we will go back to cutting our coffee trees again,” Dubria said.
Another good thing about growing coffee is that it is environment-friendly. “Growing coffee in mountainous areas such as Balutakay is also good for greening the environment,” observed Melani Provido, the regional coordinator of High Value Crops Development Program of the agriculture department.
Coffee comes from an evergreen tree, which was first discovered in Ethiopia, where its red, cherry-like berries (generally containing 2 seeds per berry) was used for wine and food before A.D. 1000. Its beans are first grounded and roasted and made into a drink during the 15th century in the Arabian Peninsula. Coffee later spread throughout Europe since the 17th century.
The introduction of coffee in the Philippines could be traced back to the arrival of Spanish traders in the early 1500s. By 1880, the Philippines was the fourth largest exporter of coffee beans. When the coffee rust hit Brazil, Africa, and Java (Indonesia), it became the only source of coffee beans around the world.
These days, more and more Filipinos are drinking coffee. “Today, it can safely be assumed that someone, somewhere, is savoring a cup, a mug, or any of coffee’s delicious concoctions, hot or cold, almost every hour of the day from sunrise to sundown,” wrote Antonio R. Reyes in an article which appeared in “Philippine Panorama.”
Senator Cynthia A. Villar reported that consumption of coffee in the Philippines has grown considerably: from 75,000 metric tons in 2002 to 170,000 metric tons today. Thus, she urged Filipino farmers to plant coffee in their farms.
According to Villar, local farmers can only supply around 35,000 metric tons – that’s 20% of the country’s annual coffee requirement. She based her observation from a data released by the Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. (PCBI).
“If we can only increase production in our coffee farms, it would help make our country less dependent on imported coffee,” says Roy C. Alimoane, the director of Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc. based in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur. He adds that a coffee plant takes three years to grow. Once it matures, it bears cherries for about 50 years.
Mindanao reportedly produces 65% of the country’s annual coffee production. However, its total production is not even enough to meet the increasing domestic demand alone. And this is good news for coffee farmers in the island.
A couple of years ago, EDGE Davao reported that the Davao region could become top coffee grower again. “The region has a potential to regain its position as an important source of coffee as it used to be 30 years ago,” a PCBI official was quoted as saying.
In the early 1980s, Davao region was the major producer of coffee in the country “because of the presence of many coffee planters and producers.” It was when the international organization for coffee collapsed and the price dropped considerably that farmers resorted to planting to other high-value crops.
The peace and order situation in the region was also partly blamed. “The insurgency problem also left big coffee plantations abandoned, leaving coffee produce to the hands of rebels,” the news report added.
Not to mention is the agrarian reform of the government. “Many coffee plantation owners were left with no other choice but to give portions of their lands to agrarian beneficiaries,” the news report pointed out.
As result, coffee production in the country went down. So down that it has to import from other coffee-producing countries. “Philippines is a net importer of coffee,” the PCBI official said. “More than 54% of our coffee is imported from Brazil and Vietnam. Majority of our imports are instant coffees.”
According to Villar, the Philippine coffee production has been decreasing by 3.9% per year over the last past decade, based on the International Coffee Organization and the Philippine Statistics Authority.
The Philippines must do something about it since most Filipinos are now drinking the coffee. Filipino farmers are urged to plant coffee in their farms. After all, the Philippines has an advantage in coffee production, according to Villar. It is only one of the few countries where the four commercial varieties – Arabica, Liberica, Excelsa and Robusta – can be grown.
“The Philippines is one of the few countries that produces the four varieties of commercially-viable coffee,” said the National Coffee Development Board. “Climatic and soil conditions in the Philippines – from the lowland to mountain regions – make the country suitable for all four varieties.”
In Compostela Valley, the provincial government is positioning its agricultural sector to regain its former record as a major coffee producer. It has embarked a P3.2-million project – with financial assistance from the national government through the Department of Agriculture – to plant 200 hectares to coffee.
Among the coffee grown in the country, the most important variety is Arabica, which accounts for 72% of world production. “Arabica is an early bearer,” Alimoane says. “Two years after transplanting, it produces cherries. Generally, a full-grown and well-managed one-hectare farm can yield 1,000 kilos of green beans.”
This variety is what grown in Balutakay. “The 1,000 hectares of Arabica planted within 1,2000 meters above sea level is a valuable source for fine Arabica coffee both for production of green coffee beans and processing of specialty coffee,” Provido reported.
Meanwhile, Villar urged coffee farmers to learn not only the basics of coffee growing but also the knowledge in agribusiness.
“Increasing production and farm productivity alone cannot move farmers from poverty,” she pointed out. “We must teach small farmers capacity-building strategies and approaches to level up their knowledge and know-how to help them operate their small farms as agribusinesses to have alternative source of income.”