By WINFRIED SCHEEWE

If you have the opportunity to attend famers’ meetings, the picture is almost everywhere quite similar. The majority of the participants, women and men, are not young. Usually, the average age matches well with the statistical average age of farmers of 57 to 59 years. This leads us to the question: where are the young ones? Whatever happened to the youth in the villages?

Photo by Nipanan Lifestyle on Unsplash

Typically, for one reason or another, rural youth are persuaded that the greener pastures are elsewhere, not in the farms of their parents or neighbors. This is a worldwide phenomenon and coconut farming areas in the Philippines are no exception. To be more precise, “coconut farmers are the poorest agri people” (MB, October 25, 2020). Thus, it is understandable that young people are discouraged from working in their parents’ farms. Instead, families, if they can manage, invest in education in the hope that their children will be able to find well-paid work elsewhere.

Too long, the rural youth have not received the attention they deserve. In this regard, it is laudable that the Department of Agriculture conducted a first-ever youth agri summit last May, recognizing that “the Filipino youth is a key driver to ensure the attainment of a food-secure and resilient Philippine agriculture”. Let’s hope these efforts will include coconut areas which cover about 25 percent of the agricultural land.

The situation of the coconut sector, which provides income to 3.5 million famers and their families, is indeed deplorable. Due to an increased competition with the palm oil sector, prices for copra and whole nuts have been extremely low for a longer period and undermined the economic viability. This is aggravated by the declining yield of aging palms. Besides, severe weather events such as droughts and typhoons increasingly threaten coconut production.

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the livelihood of many families in the coconut sector. This is a period of immense uncertainty, yet also an era of new opportunities.

Like their parents, the vast majority of the young people are frequently unaware of the unique potential coconut farms actually offer. As the roots of coconut palms utilize in most farms only about 12 percent of the area, there is ample space for the cultivation of other crops. Regrettably, so far, the out-migration has undermined the capacity of families to rehabilitate and to improve the productivity of coconut farms through better management. Luckily, inefficiently managed coconut farms are ecologically stable and offer an advantageous starting point for change.

There is sufficient knowledge and experience on how to enhance productivity and industrious, dedicated coconut farmers show the way how to make coconut farms more productive and economically viable. (Search on YouTube for ‘gawad saka coconut farmer’ and you will find that what one or the other awarded farmer does might be also doable in your farm.)

Some of these successful farmers have added one crop such as cacao, coffee, or cardava, or fruit trees, for example lanzones and mangosteen [to make more use of the land]. Others have established highly diversified farms by combining coconut palms with several kinds of fruit trees and sometimes nitrogen-fixing trees. Various vegetables for household and local consumption and many other annual crops are suited [for growing on-site] as well. Coconut farms offer countless options to improve food security and employment.

When planting sizable areas, besides the agroecological suitability, the market becomes a decisive factor for the selection of intercrops. A ‘Market Study’ commissioned by the German development agency GIZ in 2018 in Region XII provides details on the costs and returns of potential intercrops. Details certainly differ from region to region; however, the striking conclusion for Region XII is that for crops such as cacao, cardava and other bananas, calamansi, coffee, and several fruits, demand surpasses supply.

During the recent decades, it has become clear that monocropping of coconut (which still is the dominant way of management) is no longer a viable option. Due to its architecture, coconut palms simply cannot optimize the use of the land. They need enough space to fully develop their potential. On the other hand, the coconut palm needs and can accommodate other plants around or under its canopy. When comparing coconut with other plantation crops, at first glance, this may appear to be a disadvantage, but in fact it is an advantage. As the palms provide some shade, they are very well suited for the incorporation of other crops, including tree crops.

In many diversified coconut farms, the owner earns much more from the intercrops than from the coconuts. When suitable crops are integrated and proper distances are observed, competition is avoided. Commonly, the intensive cultivation of the farms also results in higher coconut yields.

We may consider densely planted diversified farms as ‘ecological marvels,’ as the internationally renowned Professor for Agroforestry P. K. Ramachandran Nair depicts in his paper, “Managed Multi-strata Tree + Crop Systems.”

Additional crops provide a buffer against losses due to low copra prices and the effects of droughts as well. At the same time, by integrating additional crops, farm diversification significantly helps to bind atmospheric carbon. Thus, it helps to mitigate the increasing atmospheric carbon levels, the main cause of climate change. Coconut farms can become part of a climate solution.

If done correctly, additional crops also contribute to improving microclimate and soil fertility, which helps farms to better withstand droughts. Yet, in many farms the realization of those benefits goes along with the need to replant the aging palms. Hence, long-term farm improvement plans have to consider this as well.

Despite challenges, there are ample opportunities for young people. While in the past agricultural intensification was driven by additional (external) inputs, the better utilization of land under coconut palms—we may call it ecological intensification—requires actionable knowledge as the foremost input. There are no specific trainings designed for young people in the coconut sector, however, there are two curricula available for the coconut sector which help young people as well to acquire essential entrepreneurial knowledge and to learn about sustainable practices and options to diversify coconut farms and livelihoods.

The training module titled “Coconut Farming as a Business” prepared by GIZ in cooperation with the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) makes farmers aware of the often-neglected money matters and aims to equip the participants with basic entrepreneurial skills. Knowledge of business-related matters will enable the farming families to make informed decisions on the future of their farms.

The second training curriculum titled “Climate Resilient Coconut Farm Management” developed recently by the Responsible Land Governance Mindanao Project of GIZ in cooperation with the Gingoog Bay Alliance (GBA) addresses the need for timely information on various aspects of coconut farm management and improvements in view of climate change. Together, these two curricula provide useful insights on various economic, entrepreneurial, ecological and agricultural aspects of coconut farming.

If accompanied by additional measures such as cross-farm visits, linkages to credit and market, these trainings may inspire out-of-school youth to explore possible options and engage in farming. There may be unrecognized livelihood opportunities right in their family’s farm or in the farm of a neighbor willing to enter into a lease agreement to create a win-win situation. Local initiatives may help potential young farmers.