Ramping up coconut sugar output means less tuba for everyone

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Benjamin R. Lao, owner and manager of Lao Integrated Farms, Inc. — CACARILLO

IN THE FAR-FLUNG barangay of Eman in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, as in many remote parts of Mindanao, drinking tuba (fermented coconut sap) is a way of life.

But one farmer’s determination to add value to coconut has transformed the village.

“Drinking tuba used to be a favorite activity here but the number of villagers passing the time drinking tuba has decreased because the supply of tuba here is tightening,” Benjamin R. Lao, owner and manager of Lao Integrated Farms, Inc., told BusinessWorld in an interview.

Mr. Lao’s coconut story started in 1988 after he inherited a five-hectare plot some 10 kilometers away from Bansalan’s town center.

Many coconut trees are in the adjacent lots, which the residents used to tap for copra and tuba.

“But you have to wait four months to make copra again and if you just drink tuba to get drunk, it’s a waste of time,” he said.

Mr. Lao saw the potential in the new product and took on the challenge of encouraging the villagers to make more out of their resource.

Today, Lao Integrated Farms is one of the country’s biggest exporters of coconut syrup to the United States, and has added Australia, France, Canada and Japan to its market.

Instead of tuba, the coconut sap is now processed into syrup, which is then turned into coconut sugar, which has a low glycemic index and is recommended for people with diabetes.

Mr. Lao’s farm, with the initial five hectares now expanded to 85 hectares, produces 2,600 liters of coconut syrup and 1,000 kilos of coconut sugar on a daily basis.

His initial manpower pool of five employees and seven coconut tree climbers, locally called manangiti, has grown to 110 employees and 300 climbers.

These manangiti, he said, used to be the tuba-makers who now earn an average of P20,000 per month from their former income of P1,500 from making tuba.

“No amount of mechanization can replace the skills of the manangiti,” Mr. Lao said.

Lao Farms also touts its organic methods.

Mr. Lao said a negative experience with chemical sprays on the farm encouraged him to shift to organic agriculture.

The farm is recognized as a demonstration site where farmers can learn natural farming techniques such as the use of vermicast, a fertilizer produced by an earthworm known as the African Nightcrawler.

The coconut trees are also intercropped with commercially viable plants, which are also processed into Lao Farms’other products, under the tradename Donabelle, such as ginger tea, turmeric tea, lemongrass tea and moringa tea, all pre-sweetened with coconut sugar.

“We intercrop and we teach farmers for free because our advocacy is to encourage organic farming,” he said, noting that the farm receives up to 1,000 guests monthly.

Lao Farms has three organic certifications: ECOCERT, an inspection and certification body in France; NISARD Certification Services (NICERT); and Organic Certification Center of the Philippines (OCCP). The processing plant, meanwhile, is certified by the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point TUVSUD based in Germany.

The company has embarked on a 30-month P11-million expansion project that started in March, with help from the Peace and Equity Foundation for financing and the Department of Science and Technology for equipment.

The expansion covers villages outside Bansalan, but remains largely in Davao del Sur and a still-undetermined land area in Tampakan, South Cotabato.

Mr. Lao’s success is a model amid the many challenges faced by the coconut industry, according to Xycris M. Fuerzas, Technical Services and Extension Specialist of the Davao Region Coconut Industry Cluster, Inc. (DRCICI).

“There are many opportunities for those in the coconut industry, but the supply is getting weaker” due to the maturation of many coconut plantations, he said.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the number of hectares planted to coconut fell to 360,000 hectares at the end of 2016 from 370,000 hectares five years ago

Mr. Fuerzas attributes this to old coconut trees dying and not being replaced, plus zoning changes from agricultural to residential.

“When you replace the dead coconut trees it will take five to seven years to bear fruit, so farmers look for other crops that will bear fruit faster,” he said.

Mr. Fuerzas said one solution to keeping the coconut industry thriving is intercropping, as practiced in Lao Farms and promoted by DRCICI. — Carmencita A. Carillo

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