Ecija farmers grow gherkins for Unilever

By Zac B. Sarian

More than 300 smallholder farmers in Nueva Ecija are reaping the benefits of a new project of a multinational company to source its requirements of some 1,200 tons of immature cucumber fruits for its food dressings business.

The multinational firm is Unilever which manufactures Lady’s Choice products like sandwich spreads and other dressings. The farmer beneficiaries, on the other hand, are farmers from Bongabon and Rizal towns in Nueva Ecija who are currently harvesting their crop on about 80 hectares in the two towns. Aside from the farmers, fruit pickers are also benefiting from the project. Every other day, they harvest the immature fruits which are best suited for processing into gherkins needed for making food dressings.

Supervising the implementation of the project is Sunrich Manufacturing Corporation, a long time partner in similar projects involving tamarind and taro (gabi) production for the multinational company’s “sinigang” mix products.

Sunrich is responsible for financing the inputs like seeds needed by the farmers who plant a hectare or even less. They plant the Puccini variety distributed in the Philippines by Allied Botanical Corporation. One hectare requires 30 packs of seeds costing P19,650. The amount will be deducted from the farmer’s harvest.

Sunrich does not only see to it that the crop is grown using good agricultural practices, it is also responsible for processing the harvest into pickles that are ready for use by Unilever in its various food dressings.Sunrich has world class manufacturing plants in Laguna and in Tarlac. To make sure for efficient implementation of the project, farm leaders designated by Sunrich are closely working with the farmers, coordinating their activities.

It is a win-win situation for the three players in the program – the farmers, Sunrich and Unilever. The cucumber project provides an additional source of income for the farmers after harvesting their onion crop. Planting the cucumber crop is from early to mid-March.  Practically no additional fertilizer is needed because of the residual fertility of the soil after harvesting the onion. As early as 25 to 30 days after seeding, the first harvest can be done and will continue for a total of 10 or more harvests. The Puccini variety is parthenocarpic, meaning it will produce fruit even without male flowers for pollination. It is a high-yielding variety with a very short gestation period.

It is also a win-win situation for Sunrich because it is another source of revenue. And for Unilever, it is assured of enough supply of high-quality materials for its food dressings.

The 1,200 tons targeted for production this year is just the start. It is possible that in the succeeding seasons, bigger volumes would be required for possible export of the finished products.

During the media tour of the cucumber farm in Rizal town, officials of Unilever, Sunrich, farm leaders and farmers were on hand to answer questions from the journalists. These included Rondell Torres, Unilever’s senior manager for sustainable business, May Samia, sales manager of Sunrich, Gladys Vargas, quality assurance official of Sunrich, Ramon Palomo, a farmer leader, and others.

Unilever has been working closely with its supply chain network that includes farmers and plantation owners, processors, refiners and traders of raw materials. Aside from cucumber, Unilever has sourced locally other crops that include mango, strawberry, pineapple and jackfruit for its ice cream category, and tamarind, turmeric, taro, pepper, onions and tomato for its food business. Todate, Unilever has engaged over 1,700 smallholder farmers in its chain and is looking forward to reaching more lives through its sustainable agriculture agenda.