Field dispatches: Is the Philippine coffee capital ready for revival?
On the sidelines of USAID Green Invest Asia’s Regional Coffee Forum in August 2019, we hosted a field visit to two coffee farms in Cavite, on the outskirts of Manila, in collaboration with the Philippine Coffee Board. It was a chance for forum participants from other parts of Southeast Asia to visit what was once known as the Philippine coffee capital, a perfect place to gather context for the current state of coffee in the country.
Sitting 650 meters above sea level, Cavite farmers produce almost exclusively Robusta coffee (95 percent), with a bit of Liberica (locally known as “barako”) and Excelsa. The area has the highest average coffee yield nationwide at about 600-700 kg per hectare. Though well below past average yields of 1,000 kg per hectare and a far cry from coffee giant Vietnam’s average 2,700 kg, it is, nonetheless, twice as much as the national average of roughly 300 kg.
Golf over coffee
Being so close to Manila, Cavite has been heavily targeted by real estate developers which, combined with years of low coffee prices, has lured many farmers into selling their land and the next generation to leave farming for more stable income. explained Alejandro Mojica, Philippine Coffee Board Director. “From 14,000 hectares [of coffee farmland] in 1997, we were left with 7,000 hectares by 2001. Cavite has 11 international-level golf courses, all built on previous coffee farms, and only following considerable government efforts we are now at 8,000 hectares cultivated with coffee,” said Mojica.
The Philippines imports four-fifths of the coffee it consumes, which cost the country an estimated $4.5 billion from 1990-2017, according to Dave D’Haeze, Southeast Asia’s manager for the Hans Neumann Stiftung Foundation, which works with smallholder coffee farmers.
To lessen dependency on coffee imports and promote domestically grown coffee, multiple government agencies are invested in reviving the coffee sector nationwide. In Cavite, the government funded training on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), including how to intercrop to increase revenues, and provided fertilizers. Mojica said planting only coffee is not enough to support a household.
Investing in coffee
Randy Mendoza, age 62, the first coffee farmer we visited in Amadeo, Cavite, is a third-generation coffee farmer who inherited one hectare from his parents and acquired one on his own after becoming a full-time producer post-retirement. Faced with low coffee prices, 20 percent of his farm is a dense orchard of jackfruit, rambutan, avocado, kalamansi (limes), pepper, and more, which surround Robusta coffee trees. Crop diversity means there is always fruit to harvest – and Mendoza’s income is not tied to coffee sales alone.
We then visited a 4-hectare coffee farm in nearby Amedeo that Florentino Martinez, age 76, owns and manages together with his sister Teodora. Both have farmed their whole lives and started growing coffee when prices were higher, which allowed the siblings to build a house, buy additional land, and improve the farm.
About 75 percent of their farm is planted with coffee and the remaining 25 percent is planted with cacao, chayote, soursop, jackfruit, and avocado. The Department of Agriculture supported the Martinez farm with free inputs and training. Improving quality and availability of planting material is one of the strategies highlighted in the Industry Roadmap issued by the Philippine Government, together with enhancing farm efficiency and investments, improving competitiveness and coffee standards, and facilitating access to long-term capital, among the others. Traders from Manila to whom the family sells also provide technical and financial assistance through farm inputs and cash advances to cover socio-economic needs – including weddings, plus school and hospital fees.
When asked about their most pressing challenge, both producers pointed to erratic weather patterns wreaking havoc on their farms. As coffee farms in Cavite are rainfed, farmers are not prepared to cope with longer dry seasons. Frequent typhoons are also a major problem, as trees get uprooted by the strong ones. The Philippines is hit, on average, with 20 tropical cyclones annually, with those making landfall becoming more intense and deadly in recent years.
Having met these challenges, the producers remain committed and proud to belong to Cavite’s active coffee community, and encourage younger residents to consider full-time farming.
But looking over their own fields, there is one worry they have yet to address: Who will take over their family farms? “Perhaps one of my sons, once he retires from his job”, says Mr. Mendoza. “I hope one of my daughters will come back from the city and lead the farm”, says Mr. Martinez. With ever-growing domestic demand together with a push towards higher quality coffee and a renewed appreciation for locally-grown products, they hope prices will increase – making farming a more attractive option for their children.
By Caterina Meloni
USAID Green Invest Asia Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor, author of “Women in Coffee: The Role of Women-led Businesses in Southeast Asia’s Coffee Value Chains”