By Patricia Bianca S. Taculao
Sericulture, also known as silk farming, has a long and colorful history. It is said to have begun in China around 4,000 years ago. The process involves rearing silkworms and harvesting the fibers they produce.
In the Philippines, an extension center located in Bago City, Negros Occidental practices sericulture through a project established by The Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement-International (OISCA), an organization committed to promoting international cooperation.
Ranelo Altire, a sericulture technician from the OISCA-Bago Training Center, oversees the sericulture farm in the area and is in charge of training farmers on everything – from silkworm rearing to harvesting silk fibers.
Silkworms are the larval form of the domesticated silk moth (Bombyx mori). They produce long, thin fibers, known as silk, to create cocoons.
He explained that in sericulture, the farmers have to pay close attention to their silkworms from start to finish because the larvae can be fragile and the farmers have no means of a cure should their charges get sick.
Altire has been working in the extension center for 19 years and has both knowledge and experience in his arsenal when it comes to sericulture.
For farmers interested in being part of the OISCA Negros Sericulture Project, Altire warns them about the process they’re about to go through.
Before farmers can avail of silkworms from the training center, their first step requires them to set up a rearing house complete with cocooning frames where silkworms can reproduce when they mature.
“Rearing houses and cocooning frames may be expensive, so the center helps farmers acquire the proper facilities by lending a certain amount of money that the farmers can pay back once they’ve gained income from the silkworms,” the sericulture technician said.
The silkworm variety used by the center is a crossbreed from two types imported from Japan and China. After acquiring the foreign varieties, the technicians at the center reared them under Philippine conditions to acclimatize the type for a higher production rate in the future.
Another initial step to begin silkworm farming is planting mulberry (Morus) trees throughout the area. The center provides mulberry seeds to the farmers since the trees serve as a source of nutrition for the silkworms during their lifespan.
“We require farmers to plant mulberry trees in the area near their rearing house since mulberries are the only thing that silkworms eat. The trees should also be planted 1 km away from the sea to keep it from becoming salty, thus affecting the quality of silk that the worms produce,” Altire said.
He added that the surroundings of the rearing house should also be clean, well-maintained, and secured to keep the silkworms safe from diseases as well as predators such as frogs and lizards.
Once the farmers complied with the requirements of the center, they can begin caring for silkworms under the supervision of Altire and other members of the OISCA-Bago Training Center.
From their nursing, or egg stage, it takes 21 days before silkworms form cocoons. On an average, the center and its partner farmers harvest 500 kilos of cocoons per month that they process to create silk threads.
“After allowing the worms 6 days to form cocoons, we harvest the cocoons, then take them to the factory where our workers sort the shells according to quality before they are unraveled to be turned into silk thread,” Altire said.
Their larval stage is when silkworms are most vigorous in producing silk fibers. Altire said that the silkworms need to be fed continuously to ensure the quality and production of silk.
Giving farmers and weavers a new livelihood OISCA Negros Sericulture Project was established in 1999 with the help of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to help the locals of Negros find a means to earn money after the price of sugar plummeted during the 1980s.
Under the project, sericulture extension centers were established all over Negros Island; this included the municipalities of Mabinay, Canlaon, San Carlos, and Bago.
The centers are managed by extension workers who received one year of intensive sericulture training in Japan. The extension workers then guided farmers to acquire the necessary skills, knowledge, and techniques in sericulture.
After harvesting, factory workers have to pay close attention to the quality of the cocoons before they can sort them accordingly. They have to consider aspects such as cleanliness, size, and shell fiber.
The average size of a good quality silkworm cocoon commonly weighs around 1.6 to 2 grams.
Cocoons can be sorted into three classes: Class AA which represents top quality silk that can be sold for P250/kilo. Next is Class A wherein a kilo of silk can be sold for P240.
Silk fibers that don’t fall under the mentioned categories can still be sold at P230 to P200/kilo, also depending on the quality.
Harvested silk fibers are then turned into silk threads to be sold as is to various parts of the country or transformed into clothes or handicrafts by the center’s weavers.
OISCA-Bago Training Center also employs locals as weavers to create various kinds of handicrafts and clothing materials such as barongs, filipinianas, bags, and more.
“Silk itself is fine and delicate when used for making clothes. When mixed with other materials such as cotton, piña fibers, etc., it enhances the final product by making it softer, shinier, and even more durable,” he said.
Apart from producing silk-related items, the OISCA-Bago Training Center also creates by-products such as soaps made with the cocoons-said to have exfoliating benefits-and other handicrafts crafted from discarded silkworm cocoons.
The training center also features a showroom where the weavers’ finest works are put on display for visitors to view.
Sunflowers also bloom at the the training center
In order to boost tourism in the area, the center also has a sunflower farm frequented by locals and tourists alike. The flowers, however, are not just there to create a pretty sight; the farmers also harvest parts of the sunflowers as ingredients for their products.
“From its seeds, we produce sunflower oil which we then use as a base ingredient for our beauty products such as lotions and soaps,” Altire said.
According to Altire, this also serves as a means of livelihood for the locals since they get to keep whatever profit they earn.
He also said that OISCA is planning to expand to other locations in the country to give other communities livelihood opportunities.
Altire and many of the Negrense are thankful for the uncommon source of income that has provided for their needs throughout the years. (Photos courtesy of oisca-international.org)