A common lament nowadays is that young people don’t want to go into agriculture because there is no money in it. Daniel Jason “Kumafor” Maches and Ricky Lacbongan, both 24, from Barlig, Mountain Province are out to prove both sentiments wrong.
Maches and Lacbongan, both of the I-Lias tribe, started a coffee farm on their respective ancestral lands during the pandemic. What makes them different from many farmers is that they aren’t sitting idly by while waiting for their crops to grow (coffee trees can take from two to four years to mature, depending on the variety), but are using the time to raise more capital, increase their knowledge on the modern coffee industry, and liaise with potential customers.
Both are familiar with the crop. Maches’ father used to work for a nursery project with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. They planted Typica and Arabica, but not as a money making crop. “We didn’t give it much attention because we thought it’s just coffee,” Maches, an avid Agriculture magazine reader, says. “We didn’t see its marketability at that time. We didn’t know how in-demand it was.”
Matches currently works in the Department of Science and Technology’s main office in Manila while Lacbongan is studying criminology at Mountain Province State Polytechnic College in Bontoc.
The duo started the Barlig Rainforest Coffee Project in 2021 after a chance conversation with a coffee shop owner in Sagada inspired Maches to revive his family’s coffee farm in Barlig.
The crops are planted on close to three hectares on each of their land, which is mostly sloped rainforest, for a total of almost six hectares. Maches’ land was previously used to grow citrus crops. Now it contains close to 500 Arabica coffee plants, mostly Mundo Novo and Red Bourbon Arabica.
Lacbongan’s property is planted to 200 seedlings of Mundo Novo, Red Bourbon, and Yellow Bourbon varieties. Since Mundo Novo can take as fast as two years to start bearing fruit, they are expecting their first harvest in 2024, with the Red Bourbon expected to begin producing the year after.
The seeds were purchased from Jennifer Rimando of Ola Farm in Sagada. Rimando is the only certified coffee Q Grader in Mountain Province. Aside from mentoring the duo on coffee farming, Rimando also introduced them to Chit Juan of the Philippine Coffee Board, who is helping them meet potential clients.
Maches admits that finding the capital to start the farm can be difficult, especially since Lacbogan is still in university and Maches is the breadwinner of his family, but the two have managed. “Capital is really a challenge, but… we don’t want to make it a big deal. We’re working with what we have,” he says.
Part of Maches’ salary goes to travel and farm expenses (he tries to be there as often as he can) while Lacbongan has a part-time job hauling sand from a river for P20 a can. “He’s motivated because that P20 can buy two seedlings,” Maches says.
Mother Nature as a partner farmer
As Barlig Rainforest Coffee Project’s name suggests, the farm isn’t just about producing coffee. “We’re doing this because we’re also passionate to preserve our rainforest,” Maches says in Taglish. “We highlighted the rainforest as integral to that project because we wouldn’t want to introduce a livelihood that is detrimental to our forests, which is what we saw with the citrus industry. People had to totally clear forests to give way to citrus trees, slowly devastating our forest, so we’d like to introduce coffee as an alternative crop because it grows well under the rainforest canopy.”
He adds that he also hopes to attract civets, which he doesn’t intend to capture but hopes will enable him to produce civet coffee, which is made from the partially digested coffee cherries found in civet excrement and is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
“The coffee plants are naturally integrated with the forest,” Maches says.
The farm runs on permaculture practices. Organic matter such as leaves and fallen wild fruit are left on the ground or piled around the base of the coffee plants as a natural mulch to fertilize the soil. “The idea is that we are preserving the forest because it’s the forest that will be fertilizing the coffee and providing moisture so the soil doesn’t dry out,” he adds.
There are nearby creeks and small brooks, and it rains almost everyday during the ber months, so water isn’t a problem. “What’s nice is that because we have a forest, we have the natural elements continuously nourishing the coffee farm,” he continues. .
The land is partially cleared to make space for the coffee trees. Since it is sloped, the farm is built as terraces to prevent soil erosion. The coffee is currently intercropped with ginger, and there are plans to plant lemongrass as well, since both plants will help hold the soil in place. In Maches’ case, some of his father’s lemon trees still remain on the property, so he’s planted coffee around them. He says that the citrus farm used to be a source of contention between him and his dad, since the latter used conventional farming methods, but now that he’s running the farm, it’s his chance to switch to natural farming.
“Coffee is becoming endangered because of coffee rust. I think one reason for that is monocropping coffee,” Maches says. “That’s what we’re trying to go back to the basics: organic, ecological, harmonized with the natural environment. If it’s naturally growing, then those problems wouldn’t be our problem because many major agricultural pests and diseases are due to monocropping practices… We to create a farm that is sustainable. We want to protect our forests, our rivers, our biodiversity to protect the coffee.”
Not easy, but not boring, either
Starting a farm on a very limited budget can be difficult, but it’s rarely boring. The first time the duo were to bring their seedlings down from Sagada was during a lockdown, so they couldn’t find transportation. So they took about 50 seedlings each and hiked all the way to their village carrying their precious cargo by hand. Halfway through the trip, they began to notice that some of the seedlings were beginning to wilt, so they worried if they would end up losing money even before they had a chance to plant their first tree. Thankfully, 99% of the seedlings survived. “We were carrying the baby coffee that will start the model of the future,” Maches says.
Logistics is also a problem. The roads in the area aren’t paved, so getting to and from both farms will be a challenge in the long run, especially when harvesting begins in earnest. Of course, time is also a challenge since Maches is based in Manila. He hopes to be able to spend more time on the farm after he’s finished sending his siblings to school.
A challenge Maches foresees is helping the local community link farming to forest conservation. “Most in our area are impacted by commercialization. It’s not really bad, but they also have to understand it should not be all about money or profit because what about sustainability? I think there should be more awareness-building. So part of what we are really doing is to show a model that it’s possible to conserve our forests while having a profitable farm.”
Another challenge is that there are some road projects in the area that don’t exactly line up with conservation and sustainability values, something that Maches worried might lead to environmental loss. All of these, plus the need to make money, are some of the pressures that ride on the success of the farm. “We hope that the pilot farm succeeds so we can get it recognized by the ATI (Agriculture Training Institute),” Maches says. “Once that happens, we can have capacity building with the community members and show them that hey, it’s possible, you can replicate this on your land.”
The duo believe that they have a high chance of succeeding because of the current demand for coffee worldwide. “It’s known as black gold,” Lacbongan says.
“We’ve heard from coffee farmers, read magazines, documentaries, and we’ve computed that at, let’s say P500 per kilo, if we can harvest 1000 tons, that’s P500,000! Whoa! That’s not bad for a year!” Maches adds. “We believe that coffee is a profitable product because I read somewhere that the demand is growing. I’ve come to learn that in the Philippines, the demand for coffee is very very high, but we can only provide 10%, so most of our coffee is imported. I said, that’s sad, so let’s take part of this noble advocacy where we want to contribute for national development by taking local actions.”
Finding a market before the first harvest
If the reader is wondering why this publication is featuring a farm that hasn’t even had its first harvest, it’s because even though the farm has just started, its founders are doing their very best to set it up for success. This includes networking with key industry players and liaising with potential customers who share their philosophy of quality, sustainability, and conservation.
Though coffee can be a seller’s market, it’s still important to find actual buyers to sell to. This is what the duo have been doing while waiting for their first harvest. “ we were planting coffee, we were also establishing networks with potential buyers or people who can help us market or connect with buyers who are also advocating sustainability, organic farming, rainforest preservation,” Maches says. “We also plan to pursue specialty coffee because we want to focus on quality instead of quantity. We wouldn’t want to risk because of quantity, there will be massive modification or clearing .”
They plan to process the beans themselves. There are also plans to create their own brand to help focus on their advocacy, have their farm accredited by the Agricultural Training Institute, link with the Department of Tourism as an agritourism site, and if they can save enough capital, also put up a coffee shop that will serve Igorot desserts alongside rainforest-grown coffee. “It's hard, but I think if we establish good networks, it’s manageable,” Maches says.
Maches and Lacbongan are very excited to be in this endeavor. “What I love most about farming is the fact that more than being able to provide for myself for my family, I’m able to contribute to bigger causes. Forest conservation, the promotion of our cultural integrity as indigenous people, and being able to support the local economy,” Maches says. “I think I would like to highlight our cultural integrity as members of the I-Lias tribe. We have this inherent value to care for the forest because the forest is life, and that is also an inspiration for this project.”
“It’s nice to have your own business where you can hold your first harvest,” Lacbongan says. The duo hopes that should their endeavor meet with success, that it will encourage young people to consider farming as a career, as well show their community that conservation not only goes hand in hand with farming, but can actually increase profits.
“I believe there really is money in farming because it’s what provided for our schooling,” Maches, whose father supplemented his P5000 a month government income with profits from their citrus farm. “Thing is you also have to do it right, not only for yourself, but also for the bigger community and for the environment.”
The duo add that passion is just as important as business sense in starting a farm, particularly since it involves a high tolerance for uncertainty. For Maches, becoming a farmer is tied to his ideals. “Farming is really my passion. The good thing is I can farming with my passion for the environment, supporting the local economy, community-based development, sustainable farming, environmental protection,” he says. “I also chose coffee because I realize that it’s a good crop for this advocacy and it worked in a lot of places like Costa Rica, they use coffee to restore forests and enhance biodiversity. There’s also the practical side. I’m sort of the breadwinner of the family so I’m doing my best to generate sustainable income but at the same time, it’s wired with what I love to do for the greater good.”
Lacbongan’s reason is simpler, but just as important: “I just want to drink coffee.”
Photos courtesy of Daniel Maches