In recent years, organic farming has become a trend for healthier lifestyle. Unknowingly, it has been practiced in the Philippines since time immemorial but it was not until 2010 that the government formalized it by passing Republic Act No. 10068 or the Organic Act of 2010.
“Have a businessman’s mindset and always think of the future. Don’t be content with small things. Even if you’re a small barangay, you can dream big dreams”. –
Benjamin R. Lao, a multi-award organic farmer
Through the Act, the government has been mandated to “promote, propagate, develop further and implement the practice of organic agriculture in the Philippines that will cumulatively condition and enrich the fertility of the soil, increase farm productivity, reduce pollution and destruction of the environment, prevent the depletion of natural resources, further protect the health of farmers, consumers and the general public, and save on imported farm inputs.”
Most Filipino farmers are still wary of adopting the system yet, but the Act paved way for people to be aware on the benefits of chemical-free agricultural products especially among those who are healthy-conscious.
In the Davao Region, there are already farmers following the organic method of farming. In Bansalan, Davao del Sur, there’s Benjamin R. Lao from barangay Eman, who has completely transformed his farm into a haven of organic products.
The farmer-scientist, as the Department of Science and Technology calls him, has managed to produce coconut sugar and coconut syrup under the brand “Donnabelle,” a combination of her two daughters’ name. Both are alternative sweeteners which are known for their lower glycemic index (GI).
The Donnabelle products have only 35-54 GI per serving compared with most sugar products, which have 65 to 100 GI per serving. As such, both are good for people with diabetes.
Aside from having low GI, the coco sugar and coco syrup which Lao produces are rich in micronutrients like magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron and contains vitamin B1, B2, B3 and glutamic acid.
Today, the Lao Integrated Farms, Inc. (LIFI) is one of the country’s biggest exporters of coconut syrup to the United States. He also exports coco sugar and coco syrup to Japan and the Netherlands. He likewise ships coconut sap-based teriyaki sauce to Germany and Australia.
According to him, his companies have distributors for their products in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. “In Davao City, we display our products in various NCCC Supermarkets Stores and Choice Marts,” he says. “We also operate three bakeries around Davao del Sur where we also sell our various products.”
Aside from coconut-based products, Lao has also come up with other saleable foodstuffs like ice cream with goat’s milk, flavored with malunggay, turmeric, durian and soursop. He also produces some teas from his coco sugar, which are mixed with natural extracts from malunggay, turmeric, lemon grass and mangosteen.
Through the years, Lao has received several recognitions and awards for his innovations. To name a few: Most Outstanding Coconut Farmer in 2008, Productivity Olympics National Winner and Micro Entrepreneur of the Year Presidential Award in 2009, and Bank of the Philippine Islands Business Excellence Award in 2010.
In 2011, the Department of Agriculture named him as Agri-Achiever on Organic Farming during the Gawad Saka Awards. In 2017, the provincial government recognized him as one of the special awardees during the 50th Anniversary of Davao del Sur.
Lao indeed has come a long, long way. “My first love is farming,” he admits. After all, his parents were both farmers and he grew up in a surrounding where people were planting rice, corn, and several other crops.
The Lao family owns about 40 hectares of land. In 1998, his mother divided the land equally among the eight children. “I am the fifth but I was unanimously chosen to assign which portion of the land should be given to each sibling,” he says.
For some unknown reason, he selected the land that was so infertile that cogon grass would not even grow on it. (Aside from the five hectares he inherited from his parents, he also purchased several hectares just near his farm.)
To transform the barren land into an agricultural haven, Lao started reading agricultural magazines and other publications. He also attended trainings conducted by government agencies like Department of Agriculture, Philippine Coconut Authority, and Department of Science and Technology. “I have to learn all the basics,” he says.
Since the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) is just located in an adjacent barangay, Lao decided to visit the place. He attended some of the training the MBRLC carried out and tried to adopt the techniques in his own farm.
The first he developed was the hilly portion. “I had to protect the soil from erosion,” he says. He planted the area with various nitrogen-fixing hedgerows, which are good sources of fertilizer since these are legumes. Later on, he planted them all over his farm.
Since Lao wanted to practice the principle of organic farming, he thought of adding goats. Today, he uses the hedgerows as additional feed for his goats. “Legumes contain as high as 16% crude protein and therefore provides good nourishment for my goats,” he says.
Lao is a farmer who continues to improve his farm. Targeting overseas markets, he tried to find ways on how he can further improve his coconut products and not just copra. “In my research, I was able to find out about coconut sap products,” he says. “It took me eight months to study on how to make export-quality coconut syrup.”
About 80 percent of his products are now exported. Although he has to compete with other producers of the same products from other countries, he believes buyers still prefer his products because of quality, particularly in terms of taste. Another edge is that his products are certified by the United States Department of Agriculture.
As an advocate of organic farming, you won’t see his workers using chemical pesticides at the farm. “I had a tragic experience with chemical pesticides when I was still a teenager while cultivating rice in our farm located at the neighboring barangay,” he reveals.
Instead, he recommends using Eman, which stands for “epektibo, mura, at natural” (effective, cheap, and natural). “This is a concoction composed of fresh goats’ manure, kakawate, makabuhay, and hot pepper,” he says. “These are soaked together for 48 hours and after that the concoction is ready for application.”
According to him, Eman is effective in repelling plant pests and diseases. In addition, it is also a good course of foliar fertilizer. “We are committed to help preserve our environment. We want to teach Filipino farmers the right way of farming through natural method and that is by not using commercial fertilizer or pesticides,” he says.
To people who have been to his farm, they have described it as a haven. You don’t see only livestock, fruits, and crops but ornamentals as well. “It’s nice to see beautiful flowers underneath the trees,” he explains. “Also, the flowers serve as breeding areas for beneficial insects like spiders and dragonflies.”
Lao is a farmer who has proven that it’s a profitable venture to go into organic farming. “Some people think there’s no money in organic farming,” he points out. “But we have proven this notion wrong. Initially, we had only two employees. Today, we have grown: 106 regular employees and 12 on-call employees. In addition, a total of 132 farmers bring coconut toddy in our farm.”