Mindanao farmers wooed back to plant coconut

PCA stressed the importance of coconut farmers' organizations as "base support" for farmers. Some 232 out of 581 small farmers' groups have converted into more viable economic enterprises, like multi-purpose cooperatives.

But around 147,000 farmers in small coconut farmers' organizations in 2005 that received free farm inputs and technical support from PCA are no longer farming coconut.

Orillaneda blamed the dwindling number to the shift to other crops, which are projected as "more economically viable," as one of the major causes of the decline with an eight-percent drop in total land area planted to coconut this year.

But he cited a slight increase in copra production in the region despite the decline in the number of coconut farmers.

The country has remained one of the biggest coconut producers, he said, but Filipinos have lesser confidence in the potentials of the coconut. "There is lesser value placed on the coconut's potentials in the educational system and in day-to-day activities," he said.

Government policies also give more emphasis, Orillaneda said, on the "wonders" of other crops like oil palm, rubber, banana, mango and others. Orillaneda said there is also a lack of coconut advocates among policy makers to advance the interests of the industry. He said coconut farmers do not even have a party-list representative in Congress.

He said the public is losing interest in the value of the coconut tree. Thus, it is losing steam also among farmers and investors. He said many people could not see the connection between the coconut tree and its uses and benefits.

Other than shift to other crops and waning public support for coconut products, the DA identified major problems confronting the coconut industry, such as large scale cutting of coconut trees, shift to non-agricultural use, decline in coconut production due to low nut yield , poor copra quality due to inadequate processing methods and under-capacity in the oil milling and desiccated coconut sector.

DA also cited lack of processing infrastructure in the non-traditional coconut by-product sector such as coir fiber, multilayered copra trading resulting in reduced farmers' income, and inadequate market initiatives to expand traditional and promote non-traditional exports.

Low domestic utilization of coconut products was also cited among the problems of the coconut industry.

"But coconut is life. It provides more than its nut in the copra industry, but also other useful products that farmers could take advantage of," Orillaneda said.

He cited around 1,000 products developed from the coconut tree that are "very marketable." Orillaneda said PCA is ready to provide technical support to farmers' organizations so they could benefit from a product diversification program. "But we have to ensure sufficient supply," he said.

Orillaneda said an average family of five who grows coconut trees with other crops planted with it could earn at least P60,000 per hectare every year. He said this rate is higher than the money paid to farmers who rented out their land for banana plantations.

Local production shortage is affecting marketability of coconut products, Orillaneda said, with a demand for example of 100 million metric tons per year of coir fiber in China. He said local producers and processors should invest in the coconut industry to fuel growth to cope with the demand.

"That is why we are appealing for farmers to go back to coconut farming," he said.

Orillaneda said they have embarked on replanting to replace one million unproductive coconut trees with high-yielding varieties. He said PCA distributes seedlings to small coconut farmers’ organizations.

But PCA counts on the release of the controversial coco levy funds so it could go aggressively on the effort. Orillaneda cited a budget of around P104 million to complete the re-planting project.

The effort is carried mostly on a self help scheme where farmers' groups spend for cost of production, said Ma. Charito Singco, PCA development officer. PCA assists on sourcing of quality seedlings, identification of quality seed nuts for planting, and assistance in coconut agronomy from nursery to planting, fertilizer application, farm management, pest control, among others.

Mindanao produces 56 percent, or 8.1 million tons, of the total coconut output of the Philippines from 1.6 million hectares of land planted to coconut. Southeastern Mindanao is the top producer in the island with 2.5 million tons, followed by Zamboanga Peninsula with 1.2 million tons.