The oil palm industry in the Philippines might as well be considered a sleeping giant. This we realized after attending the 7th National Palmoil Congress held recently in Kidapawan City in North Cotabato. The event was attended by about 500 planters and prospective growers. So many people are now keenly interested in planting this plantation crop for a number of good reasons.
One good reason is that oil palm produces much more oil than coconut. A hectare of oil palm can produce 2,500 to 4,500 kilos of oil per hectare per year compared to 600 to 1,000 kilos in the case of coconut. It means that one hectare of oil palm can produce the same amount as four hectares of coconut.
Another good reason is that the oil palm has a much shorter gestation period. The plant starts fruiting in just two years after planting and the first harvest can be made on the 30th month. That’s about four to five years earlier than in coconut. And once harvesting has started, it will continue for many years. Harvesting is usually done every 15 days. This means there is a continuous cash flow for the farmer year-round.
The oil palm is not attractive to pilferers because unlike coconut and other fruits like mango, pummelo and durian, the oil palm fruits could not be eaten. It would be hard for the thief to sell the fruits because he has to sell the same to an oil mill. And the oil mill usually has to find out the source of the fruits.
According to Dr. Pablito P. Pamplona, a fruit and oil palm expert, oil palm is also environment friendly. There is less pesticide spray compared to banana, mango and other high-value crops.
Compared to other crops like sugarcane, harvesting oil palm is easier and less expensive. Postharvest handling is also simpler. Oil palm is also less affected by climate change, says Dr. Pamplona.
There are a lot of available land suitable for growing oil palm, although these areas are found mostly in Mindanao, Palawan and Bohol. According to an inventory made by the Palmoil Industry Development Council, there are about one million hectares waiting to be planted to oil palm.
So far, as of June 2011, oil palm plantings in the Philippines total only 54,748 hectares. Many of the plants are still small and not yet productive. The area in the Philippines is minuscule compared to the plantings in the three major growers in the ASEAN – namely Indonesia with 7,500,000 hectares, Malaysia with 4,850,000 hectares and Thailand with 625,000 hectares.
The Philippines has been importing staggering amounts of palm oil each year. Last year, for instance, we imported 205,000 metric tons of palm oil worth US$225,500 or P6.68 billion. That’s equivalent to the production from 51,250 hectares.
If we could produce enough of our own palm oil, we would not be spending our precious dollars in support of the Indonesian, Thai or Malaysian oil palm farmers. This could provide more employment to Filipino workers. Also important, if we can produce more palm oil than we need, we could export to countries like China and India where vegetable oil consumption is fast increasing.
While palm oil is largely used for cooking, it has many other uses. The oil is used in making soap, margarine, ice cream, cosmetics, paints, grease and other chemicals. Another important use is as biodiesel.
Many prospective oil palm growers are interested in growing the crop because they have seen how much money the current growers are making, whether they are big planters or small growers. One who considers herself as small planter is Aida Embalzado-Blanco, a balikbayan who spent 18 years in the US and Canada before going back to Kidapawan for good to become an oil palm farmer.
First she planted 20 hectares,10 hectares of which are now productive. Lately she has expanded to another 20 hectares after realizing the potential of this crop. From the 10 hectares she is now harvesting 60 to 80 tons of fresh fruit bunch a month. She has been selling her harvest at P6.90 per kilo so she is grossing a significant amount each month.
Other people in the industry who are making money these days are the nursery people who are growing the seedlings. Since there is a lot of interest in planting oil palm, there is a big demand for seedlings. One company that has 150,000 thousand seedlings is Kenram Industrial and Development Inc. Another is Triple P Farms and Nursery which has a stock of 50,000 seedlings during our visit.
The seeds for planting are hybrids so they are imported from either New Guinea, Thailand or Costa Rica. Landed cost of each seed is about a dollar. After nine months, 80 percent of the seedlings are usually marketable while the rest are usually culled. The price ranges from P160 to P225 per seedling.
At the Palmoil Congress, John Glendon, president of Univanich Palm Oil Company, said that the once notorious province of Krabi in southern Thailand has been transformed into a tourist destination, thanks to oil palm. With the people’s income from oil palm, the province has become prosperous and peaceful.