Tuesday, January 19, 2016

(FEATURE) Sorsogon cacao farmers raring to be part of solution to world production woes
By Danny O. Calleja

BARCELONA, Sorsogon, Jan. 18 (PNA) – Vladimir Frivaldo negotiates during the weekend a dirt road on a 100cc scooter to upland farms here where he will see for himself the progress of cacao plantations started by village farmers six months ago.

He has in his leather shoulder bag a copy of a story lifted from the online publication of The Wall Street Journal that provides latest details on the current supply and demand situation of cocoa in the world market, which gives the chocolate industry a vexing problem.

It says “demand for chocolate is stronger than ever, especially now that more consumers in China and India are buying bars and bonbons long considered an unaffordable luxury. But cocoa production is down, including a steep slide last year in Ghana, the second-largest cocoa-growing country. Cocoa prices have jumped nearly 40 percent since the start of 2012.”

He will impart the "good news" among cacao growing cooperators in villages to keep them inspired by the good income opportunity awaiting them once they start reaping two or three years from now the fruits of their plants that, from three-month old seedlings, have already grown to young healthy trees.

While the news expresses that “the production problems worry the industry so much that 10 of the largest chocolate producers and cocoa processors,” prompting them into putting up an industry-wide total of billion into a cocoa sustainability program through 2022,

Frivaldo said such problems “keep our own cacao production program in high spirit driven by the demand.”

The expressive Frivaldo is a former Sorsogon provincial legislative board member who decided to leave politics in favor of agricultural cooperativism which he defines as a way into liberating the marginalized sector, especially farmers and workers, by putting them in the mainstream of development and social transformation.

Cooperatives are jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprises rooted in the values of self-help, self-responsibility, equality, equity, democracy, and solidarity, said Frivaldo, who now works as project coordinator of a massive cacao beans production program started in the province last year by the COOP-NATCCO party list.

The program, which that intends to make not only Sorsogon province but also the entire Bicol Region as the country’s leading source of this high-value crop, is ongoing with the support of the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA).

On the part of the PCA, the program marks the implementation of the first- ever huge coconut-cacao intercropping program in the country supported by the agency and entered into as a public-private partnership venture among the DA, COOP-NATCCO, South Luzon Federation of Cooperatives (SLFC), Cacao Farmers Association of Sorsogon (CFAS) and Kennemer Foods International (KFI).

The CFAS is a 5,000-strong group of local farmers enlisted as cooperators of the contract growing program for the province while SLFC is the umbrella organization of all rural-based cooperatives in Bicol and the Southern Tagalog regions.

The KFI, which according to the arrangement, will be the buyer of the produce, on the other hand, is a foreign-invested agri-business with corporate and contract-farming operations throughout the Philippines whose specialization is the trade and export of cocoa.

“We have already distributed to hundreds of farmers-cooperators in the province more than half a million seedlings now planted and growing well within about 1,200 hectares mostly intercropped with coconuts, Frivaldo said.

The seedlings come from the program’s two-hectare cacao nursery—the biggest so far in Bicol established earlier last year by COOP-NATCCO and CFAS in Barangay Macabog of Sorsogon City, the provincial capital.

The cooperative continuously produces seedlings in the nursery and, at the same time, distributing those due for transplanting to farmers who are made to undergo orientation seminars on land preparation, proper planting procedure and care of the plants.

“Our policy is no land preparation, no release. This establishes more dedication on the part of the farmers to avoid the low success rate experienced by past government green program owing to limited preparations and less commitment from participants who only came to plant then abandon later,” he said.

The cooperative will first complete the distribution of over one million seedlings to its members afterwards it will start supplying contract growing cooperators in all the other five provinces of the region up to the Southern Tagalog Region covered by the SLFC.

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

The world’s cacao or cocoa production is heavily concentrated, with over 50 percent of the supply coming from just two key producing nations -- Ivory Coast and Ghana -- from where most of the world’s biggest chocolate competitors like Nestlé, Mars, Hershey, Cargill, Heinz and Ferrero get the bulk of their supplies.

In a national scene, cacao production in the Philippines produced an estimated 5,000 metric tons (MT) of beans in 2007 and could possibly reach 100,000 MT in 2020, provided that good and quality beans are produced.

Frivaldo said the continuing demand for good quality fermented cacao beans is an opportunity for Bicolano farmers to snatch some of the global demand.

“We in this venture seek to revitalize the cacao industry of the country with Sorsogon and Bicol playing a vital role, given the region’s climatic appropriateness for the same crop and its huge area whose soil characteristics support cocoa growing,” he said.

The tropical weather and volcanic soil in the region is suitable for cacao farming but, unfortunately, this important high-value commercial crop has not been given due importance by Bicolano farmers in the past, hence, the COOP NATCCO initiative.

With the help of the DA and PCA, interest in cacao production among Bicolano farmers is already increasing owing to some latest technology training and information on the local and international demand for cocoa products whose world prices have been constantly favorable.

Through the contract growing scheme that intends to enlist some 30,000 farmers as cooperators in Bicol alone, Frivaldo said, cacao would come as another sunshine industry of the region, next to abaca, coconut and pili.

Under this scheme, farmers are guaranteed additional income estimated at Php60,000 per hectare per year by producing quality-grade fermented dry cacao beans from at least 500 trees per hectare. (PNA) FPV/FGS/DOC/CBD