Visiting farms and meeting interesting agri people is rewarding. Just like our short tour of fruit farms in Davao City on September 5 to 7. In a forum attended by leading stakeholders in the fruit industry, we were able to appreciate the challenges and the opportunities confronting agri-entrepreneurs in Mindanao.

The forum was held at the Jack’s Ridge owned by a longtime friend, Miloy Mercado of Golden Pomelo fame. When we asked him what the status of the pomelo business is, he answered that it is under ICU. We thought he was kidding because the day before, we visited one of his farms where harvesting was going on. We witnessed the beautiful fruits that were being labeled by female workers. Miloy’s farm operations manager told us that in that 24-hectare farm, they are averaging 22 tons of fruits per hectare.

The big problem, according to Miloy, is that chemical inputs have become very expensive. Fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, and weedkillers are 30-40% more expensive in the Philippines than in Malaysia. The prices of inputs are high because they are controlled by multinational companies, according to him.

As a strategy to become more competitive, Miloy said he phased out about 30% of his 200 hectares found in different locations. The not so productive farms had to go. He just maximized production in the productive farms. Well, in farming one has to be smart in cutting production costs.

Cacao sector

Several young agripreneurs involved in cacao production, processing and marketing were at the forum at Jack’s Ridge. They provided valuable insights on the challenges and opportunities in the local cacao industry. Luis Cena of Filipinas Oro de Cacao served as
spokesperson of the group. He pointed out that the Philippines is not listed among the world’s cacao producing countries because of our low national production. One comforting development is that our fermented cacao beans make the highest quality chocolates. Proof is the several first prizes garnered by five chocolate products entered in a competition in Paris by Jose Saguban of Davao City, according to Cena. A total of 55 countries competed in the event. As of last June, chocolates from the Philippines have garnered a total of 28 awards.

Unfortunately, only about 6% of cacao beans produced in the Philippines are fermented, Cena said. The rest which are called bulk cacao are unfermented. Cena stressed that the government should undertake development of postharvest technologies, including fermentation. Fermented cacao commands a much higher price than unfermented ones. He said that unfermented tablea commands only P300 to P900 per kilo. On the other hand, tablea of fermented beans can fetch as much as P3,000 to P5,000 per kilo, according to Cena.

He noted, however, that a government agency has been promoting the use of a fermenting box made of stainless steel. That’s unfortunate because wood fermenting box produces better quality beans. There’s something in the wood that contributes to the quality of the fermented beans, Cena said.

Many cacao growers in the Philippines are small scale. To help them, maybe the government should put up so-called shared processing facilities not only for fermentation, but also for other processes like grinding, roasting, packaging, and others.

Cena also cited the need to plant more and more cacao to meet the requirements of local and foreign markets. He said that local consumption requires 40,000 metric tons while local production of beans amounts to only 13,000 to 15,000 metric tons annually. Foreign demand is huge. Cena said that Russia needs five tons of bulk (unfermented) beans every week, while Japan wants 10 tons a month. The US, on the other hand, needs 40 tons of tablea without sugar a month.