GREAT things are happening in the agricultural scene in Ilocos Norte. For one, Piddig town is poised to become a major producer of organic coffee, both the premium Arabica and the lowland varieties.
The coffee project which is spearheaded by Mayor Eddie Guillen, 50, may be considered a most ambitious agricultural undertaking not only in the province but in the whole country.
Imagine, the vision is to grow organic Arabica coffee on 500 hectares in the upland area called Lammin where pine trees are growing like in Benguet, and 1,000 hectares to Robusta, Liberica and Elcelsa varieties in the lowland barangays of Calambeg, Maruaya, Gayamat, Dupitac and Estancia.
Can that succeed? You might ask. Well, although the idea was conceived three years ago, and the actual start of propagation was in early 2014, the prospects are bright. Some 500 farm families are currently involved in the project. And because of the unique nature of the scheme, it is a win-win situation not only for the farm families but also for the municipal government and the economy as a whole.
The seedlings that number about 1.5 million are already growing very well in three big nurseries. And did you know that the workers are already getting paid for their labor even if the coffee trees are not yet planted in the ground?
This is how the scheme works, according to Mayor Guillen. Each farmer is allotted two hectares to grow coffee. In the common nurseries (there are three) which are strong netted greenhouses, each farmer has to produce 1,600 seedlings under the guidance of a technician. Each ready-to-plant seedling is valued at P25. That means P40,000 for the 1,600 seedlings nurtured in a period of 9 months. From the first week of working, the farmer can already draw weekly from the P40,000 a take-home pay of P1,125.
At the time of our interview, the farmers were already clearing their areas. And they are also paid for their work at P2,000 per hectare. For digging the holes for planting this coming May, they are paid P4 per hole. And they have been taught to produce vermicompost for fertilizing the seedlings when they will be planted in the ground. They will be paid P5 for every kilo of vermicompost that they will supply per hole. That’s P8,000 worth of organic fertilizer.
Where does the money for paying the farmers come from? There’s a P70-million grant from the National Greening Program (NGP) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for the production of the seedlings, preparing the land and other expenses. But that’s ahead of the real story. How did the coffee project come about in the first place?
BIRTH OR THE IDEA – As part of the program of Gov. Imee Marcos, she brought the Ilocos Norte mayors to visit farm projects in Vietnam and Indonesia in 2011. It was during those trips that Mayor Guillen thought of growing coffee in his town. After all, there are unutilized public lands available in Piddig that are suitable for coffee production. For Arabica coffee production, Brgy. Lammin is perfect. Its climate is like that of Benguet where pine trees are growing well. Mayor Guillen also knew that there should be no problem marketing the coffee harvest. After all, at present, the Philippines imports about 80 percent of its coffee requirements. The thing is to produce quality coffee at a competitive price. And he thought of producing organic coffee that will fetch a higher price than the ordinary kind.
Right away, Mayor Guillen saw the prospects of coffee production as a means to give his constituents a sustainable source of income. But that did not come as easy as you might think. He had to convince Sec. Ramon Paje to undertake coffee planting in areas covered by DENR.
Mayor Guillen recalls that the DENR secretary did not see the logic of using coffee to reforest the underutilized hills and mountains. He did not consider coffee as a tree for reforestation. Under DENR’s National Greening Program, only forest trees are considered for planting. And after three years, the DENR leaves the area to the community for them to take care.
The mayor had to point out, however, that if forest trees are to be planted and in three years the DENR will withdraw from the area, the farmers will just cut the trees for fuel. But if coffee trees are planted, the farmers will not cut down the trees because they are their perennial source of income.
After a long period of discussions, the DENR secretary finally saw the wisdom of the project and in fact he had allocated P70 million released in three tranches to fund the production of seedlings, land preparation and related activities.
CONVERGENCE OF RESOURCES – After having convinced the DENR boss, it was easier to convince other agencies to support the project. Mayor Guillen approached the Department of Agriculture next. This time it is for the construction of farm-to-market roads. Sec. Proceso Alcala, for a start, readily gave P98 million in November 2013 for road construction. Then it was followed by a P100-million funding to be released in 2016 for additional farm-to-market roads. The Department of Tourism has also contributed its share for farm-to-market road. The reason is that someday the coffee plantation in the highland could become a favorite agri-ecotourism destination. The roads are now under construction.
BIG WATER RESERVOIR – The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is contributing P300 million not for roads but for a dam that will collect three million cubic meters of rainwater which will be used as source of irrigation for the coffee plantations in the lowland. It will also serve as part of water management that will prevent flooding in the lowland. Earlier, the DPWH through Sec. Rogelio Singson released P32 million for a small water impounding project (SWIP) in Piddig.
DSWD, TOO – The Department of Social Welfare and Development has also thrown its support. The families that are beneficiaries of the 4Ps program (those below the poverty line) are being supported with an allocation of P3.5 million last year. The beneficiaries numbering 700 families were given P5,000 each as starting capital for vermicompost production. Two thousand pesos was for the purchase of earthworm while the P3,000 was for vermi-beds. The organic fertilizer produced is purchased by the Piddig Farmers Cooperative for the coffee project as well as for other crops.
DOLE ALSO – Families that are not covered by the 4Ps program are being taken care of by the Department of Labor and Employment. The agency has allocated P1 million for non-4Ps beneficiaries who work on the coffee project. They could be doing clearing fields, planting kakawate that will serve as nurse trees of coffee in the lowland, and the like.
PROGRAM IMPLEMENTATION – Activities prior to plantation establishment include organizing the project beneficiaries, coffee technology trainings, organic fertilizer production, brushing and clearing, hole digging and planting nurse trees like kakawate and narra.
Next is the establishment of on-farm road and irrigation system. The project area requires about 100 kilometers of roads vital for the transport of seedlings and movement of workers for clearing, lay-outing, holing and planting. The roads also serve as firelines and for transport of the produce to market.
There is also provision for plantation maintenance and protection. The nursery development is funded under the National Greening Program of the DENR. Cost of coffee planting will be co-shared by the DENR and Piddig municipal government. On-farm roads is funded by the DA roads program. Coffee processing facility will be provided by the Department of Trade and Industry. Agri-tourism center will be provided by the Department of Tourism. Farmers’ training center will be shouldered by the Agricultural Training Institute while crop insurance will be shouldered by the Department of Agrarian Reform.
PROJECT ORGANIZATION – A memorandum of Agreement (MOA) has been entered into between the Benguet State University and LGU Piddig for Arabica seedlings. Project technical assistants and consultants will be provided by the Cavite State University for the low elevation coffee (Robusta, Excelsa and Liberica).
The 1,130 hectares lowland area will be divided into blocks of 300 hectares with 150 farmers and each block served by a coffee farm technician. There will be six blocks in all: 4 in the lowland area, and 2 in the highland area.
ECONOMIC ANALYSIS – The coffee project is estimated to produce 2,000 tons of coffee at full development valued at more than P175 million a year. This could save the Philippines some US$4 million that would otherwise be used to import coffee.
About 2,000-full-time jobs (two per family) are expected to be created, generating total household incomes of at least P100 million a year at full development. The multiplier effect will be around P400 million a year to the Ilocos Norte economy.
PIDDIG FARMERS’ COOPERATIVE – The Piddig Farmers’ Cooperative will play an important role in managing and marketing the coffee growers’ production. When harvest time comes in 27 months after seedling stage, the beans will be sold through the cooperative. Ninety percent of the sales will be retained by the farmer while the co-op will get 5 percent as management fee. The other 5 percent will go to the coffers of the municipality as royalty.
Mayor Guillen sees no major problem in marketing the coffee beans. For one, the Arabica beans that will be harvested has been contracted by the Rocky Mountain Arabica Company of Canada. On the other hand, the lowland varieties could be marketed locally without much problem.
One advantage of the cooperative, according to Mayor Guillen, is that it can obtain soft loan from the LandBank using the Agricultural Guaranty Fund Pool (AGFP) as collateral. He explained that under the Agri-Agra Law (RA 1000), banks are obliged to lend 25% of their loan portfolio to agricultural projects. Those who fail to comply with the law have to pay a penalty equivalent to 0.5 percent of their non-compliance or under-compliance which is computed on a quarterly basis. The penalties have grown to a big amount and is sitting in some government lending institutions like the LandBank. Now, cooperatives can borrow from the LandBank with AGFP guaranteeing 85 percent of the loan.
NON-COFFEE INITIATIVE – Mayor Guillen also pays attention to other products in his town. Through his initiative, he was able to get a grant of P16 million from the Department of Agriculture for a modern rice mill. The rice mill is not only valuable for efficient quality milling. It is also valued for the rice hull byproduct.
Rice hull is now used as fuel for tobacco flue-curing barns in place of wood. Rice hull used in flue-curing is not only valuable for the energy generated. The carbonized rice hull can be combined with organic fertilizer to improve the fertility of farms.
The use of rice hull for fuel also helps save the forest. It is estimated that to flue-cure tobacco leaves from one hectare, 25 cubic meters of fuel wood is required.
There you are. Better times are in store for the farmers of Piddig, thanks to their super active mayor.