Cacao-planting mania spreads in Bicol

July 28, 2015 5:40 am 

By Danny O. Calleja

LEGAZPI CITY, July 23 (PNA) –- The enthusiasm in cacao growing is spreading like a wildfire in Bicol.

The "fire" was started about two years ago by the regional office of the Department of Agriculture (DA) based in Pili, Camarines Sur with a campaign towards grooming cacao beans as another sunshine industry of the region — next to abaca, pili nut and coconut — by way of promoting this high-value crop’s significance both in terms of economic and health gains.

The massive promotion efforts were supported with interventions falling under DA’s application of Republic Act 7900 or the High-Value Crops Development Act of 1995, which allots funds for providing production assistance, technology transfer, marketing and processing that now steer farmers towards generating more income.

In DA's High-Value Commercial Crops Program (HVCDP) formulated and now ongoing implementation in line with this Act, assistance to producers concerning crop insurance, credit, post-harvest facilities, good seeds and planting materials and fiscal incentives are also provided.

For Camarines Sur province, it showcased as a model the 600 fruit-bearing cacao trees intercropped with calamansi (lemon) on the 10-hectare farm established four years ago by barangay chairman Lorenzon Cueto of Cayaoyao, Tigaon town within the village.

Out of Cueto’s produce, women in the village, including those belonging to Agta-Tabangon tribal families, were trained by the DA in the commercial production of cacao-inspired food commodities which led to their present engagement in the manufacture of chakoy with tablea filling, choco crinkles, cupcakes, and churros, among other delicacies, which have already captured a niche in the local market.

Tigaon and its neighboring town of Goa, also of Camarines Sur, where cacao production is the focus of HVCDP in the province, two groups with separate missions — Tigaon Cacao Growers Association, handling the production, and Kababaihang Magkakakaw (women in cacao) ng Goa, which handles the processing — are now busy in the propagation of the industry.

This DA undertakings caught the attention of the COOP NATCCO party-list which, through its congressional representative Anthony Bravo, organized last year the Cacao Farmers Association of Sorsogon (CFAS) under the umbrella of the South Luzon Federation of Cooperatives (SLFC) for a large-scale cacao production program arranged with Kennemer Foods International Inc. (KFI).

The CFAS is a huge group of local farmers enlisted as cooperators of the cacao contractgrowing program for the province; the SLFC is the umbrella organization of all rural-based cooperatives in Bicol and the Southern Tagalog regions; while KFI, whose specialization is the trade and export of cocoa, is a foreign-invested agri-business with corporate and contract-farming operations throughout the Philippines.

The initial phase of the program saw the establishment late last year of a two-hectare nursery in Barangay Macabog, Sorsogon City for the massive propagation of cacao seedlings intended for distribution to the cooperators.

Last week, a total of 170,000 seedlings out of the about one million propagated in the nursery were distributed to 138 recipients representing the first batch of cooperators for intercropping with coconut in some 370 hectares farms in the province.

In October, the program will release the second batch of seedlings totaling 300,000 pieces to the next group of beneficiaries who agreed to follow the stringent farming procedure carrying a revised concept in order to achieve high cacao beans turnout in the future, according to Vladimir Frivaldo, the program coordinator.

After saturating Sorsogon, the next batches of seedlings would be made available to contract-growing cooperators in all the other five provinces of Bicol up to the Southern Tagalog Region covered by the SLFC.

This way, the merging of these two regions into the cacao contract-growing program would make the combined area the biggest source of the product that commands a good price and is extremely in demand worldwide, Frivaldo said.

The Macabog nursery, which is considered the largest in Bicol, is initially producing seedlings for the about 5,000 CPAS members to jumpstart the wide-scale production of the high-value bean in the region.

Under the contract-growing operation, farmers and cooperatives are provided with planting materials, technology, training and a guaranteed buy-back of harvest linked to world prices.

The program is also implemented in partnership with the DA and Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) which provide technologies in cacao intercropping with coconut and pili, a system that would give a farmer additional income estimated at Php60,000 per hectare by producing quality-grade fermented dry cacao beans at about 500 trees per hectare, Frivaldo said.

DA said Bicol’s climatic conditions and soil characteristics support cocoa growing and the agency is taking advantage of these in increasing interest in production among local farmers by way of training them on latest technology and informing them on the local and international demand for cocoa products whose world prices have been constantly favorable.

Widely called as the “foods for the gods”, cacao bean is a major agricultural commodity traded worldwide with the reported health benefits of dark chocolate as the main driver in current market growth.

"The tropical weather and volcanic soil in Bicol is suitable for cacao farming but, unfortunately, this important high-value commercial crop has not been given due importance by our farmers in the past," Abelardo Bragas, DA regional executive director based in Pili, Camarines Sur, said.

Anyway, he said, his agency has already been able to develop warm acceptance of the smallholder cacao production approach among farmers who have renewed their interest and willingness to collaborate for the promotion of sustainable cacao production.

Apart from these, he said, the DA is identifying more suitable areas in Bicol for cacao production, and maximizing the presence of markets that could be organized into workable production-market system.

Among the recently identified production area is Calabanga, Camarines Sur where the DA over the week distributed 5,000 seedlings to 11 farmers who are members of a cooperative and who have undergone technology training on cacao intercropping with coconut called diversified farming.

Elena de los Santos, DA assistant director for operation and extension, on Thursday said that her office, along with the PCA, is developing model farms across the region to serve as show window of coconut-cacao intercropping.

She also announced that cacao-processing centers will eventually be established in strategic areas from where farm families could derive added value and income from their farm enterprises. (PNA)

LAP/FGS/DOC/CBD/

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