Former wet market vendor turned seedling farmer helps communities make money from coffee farming

Published August 10, 2022, 10:00 AM

by Yvette Tan

Before Jocelyn Mamar became a farmer, she was a highly successful palengke (wet market) entrepreneur. 

Jocelyn Mamar is the owner of John and Marga Nursery Farm, which has farms in Davao del Sur, Cavite, and Bacolod.

While the farms grow coconut, mango, coffee, bananas, durian, mangosteen, “and anything else we can plant,” Mamar quips in Tagalog, John and Marga’s main crop is coffee, specifically coffee seedlings. 

Jocelyn Mamar in one of her coffee farms. (Chit Juan)

Palengke queen

The farm was established in 2007, when Mamar was given the opportunity to purchase 10 hectares of farmland in Davao. The other two properties were acquired in 2013 and 2014. Before she became a farmer, Mamar spent 17 years selling rice, vegetables, and dry goods in the Libertad Pasay Market.

Mamar has always been resourceful. Growing up in Davao, she would make extra money by selling snacks. Before she became a market vendor, she was a sales associate for a national company, a job she held while completing her MBA and running a side business. Her husband noticed her entrepreneurial streak and encouraged her to strike out on her own. Before she knew it, she was handling several market stalls. He was, and continues to be, very supportive of her venture into farming. Their two kids are supportive as well.

Trial and error

Mamar planted a variety of vegetables and raised quails. She sold the harvests, including quail eggs and meat, in the market, with all of the proceeds going to her employees’ salaries. When she acquired the Cavite farm in 2014, it was already planted to coffee. That was when her coffee journey began. “I studied everything, until we became a coffee nursery,” Mamar said in Tagalog. 

Starting from scratch, she consulted with coffee farmers, observed how other farms operated, and attended classes. “I saw how a friend’s life improved through their fruit seedling business, so I said I’d focus on coffee [seedlings.]”

Mamar’s farm became Technical Education And Skills Development Authority (TESDA) and Agriculture Training Institute (ATI) learning centers and was supplying seedlings to private clients, as well as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for their farm livelihood program aimed at 4P recipients in some provinces. “They have 30 members in an association who’ll plant and harvest the coffee and we buy everything,” she said. “We mainly supply Robusta and Arabica seedlings, though there’s a growing demand for Exelsa from Japanese clients, and for Liberica because it’s popular in Cavite.”

The beans are bought either green or roasted, and are sold depending on the request of the client, which can range from whole beans to powdered coffee. 

Her background as a market vendor is a great advantage in her current endeavor as a farm business owner. She tailors orders according to budget, and includes everything the farmer will need aside from seedlings, such as inputs and a bolo in the package. An aspiring farmer can start cultivating coffee with as little as P5000 in capital. This comes with a lecture on coffee farm management and some aftercare troubleshooting. Seedlings average P50 each.

Her farming advice isn’t limited to coffee. Not only will she teach communities how and where to plant crops like onions, kangkong, and malunggay for personal consumption, she also gives tips on thinking like a business person, starting with “Don’t give your harvests away just because people ask. They have to buy it from you.”

Mamar’s business, which has also become her advocacy, has allowed her to travel the Philippines. She especially likes to seek out far-flung areas, and has many stories about the challenges she and her companions have met and overcome on the road. Still, she persists in teaching communities about coffee cultivation as a source of income. “There’s money in coffee. It starts from planting. You can sell seedlings. You can harvest [cherries]. You can [process beans],” she said.

Jocelyn Mamar poses with one of the women she’s trained to cultivate and process coffee. (Chit Juan)

Teaching proper processing

She also emphasizes that consistent quality is important if one wants to sell their products at a good price. “I tell them that if they can produce good quality coffee, the buyer will come back,” she says, citing three examples of what she teaches:

Pick red. “We teach them to pick red [cherries],” she said, explaining that in many places, Robusta sells for as low as P5 a kilo, but will be of inferior quality because the cherries are a mix of green and red ones, owing to being stripped from the tree in one go instead of individually picked at peak ripeness. 

Raised air drying. The cherries are traditionally laid on the ground to dry, which is unsanitary, so Mamar also teaches elevated air drying to ensure that the beans are clean and won’t taste like grass. 

Arrange according to quality. Mamar also teaches how the beans should be separated and sold according to quality. Regular coffee—the kind that people drink purely to caffeinate— averages around P60 per kilo in the provinces, and can go higher depending on the quality. 

Mamar lists the selling points of the crop: first, the trees only have to be planted once, and if properly cared for, can live long enough to be inherited by the next generation. Second, there’s a huge market for it because almost everybody drinks coffee, and if the beans produced are of a high enough quality, it can even attract international buyers. “It never goes out of style,” she says, and the communities she’s consulted for concur.

She also joined bazaars, where she met Pacita “Chit” Juan, president of the Philippine Coffee Board, who introduced her to other coffee allies, as well as to the Slow Food Movement. Mamar is currently integrating the Slow Food principles of sustainability into her lectures and practices such as intercropping and using natural fertilizers.

Jocelyn Mamar with her supportive husband, Jo. (Chit Juan)

Challenges and triumphs

Farming can be challenging, especially in the beginning. The first thing Mamar looks for in a potential coffee farm is a steady water source. Most of the time, there is none and the crops will have to be rain-fed, whereupon she instructs them to build a small catchment area for storing water by digging a hole and lining it with tarp. She also teaches them how to use plastic water bottles as a makeshift drip irrigation system. “Sometimes they want to plant but have no [water] resources, so they lose interest,” Mamar says. “I tell them that there are ways around this.”

An invisible but just as damaging challenge is mindset. Some people simply don’t want to do the work, even if the seedlings and inputs are provided for free by the government. Mamar cites an example: a Libertad, Misamis Occidental farmers association was given 500 seedlings by the Department of Agriculture (DA). Many of the 30 members weren’t interested, so an enterprising member bought their share of seedlings. The sellers were happy because they had instant cash. After a few years, the seedlings turned into fruit-bearing shrubs, and the person who bought them began harvesting the coffee cherries. “The people who sold their share of seedlings ended up working for that coffee farm,” Mamar says. “Instead of owning their own farms, they get paid P200 a day as laborers.”

On the flip side, when a community sees the long term potential of coffee farming, their enthusiasm can be catching. Mamar talks about her favorite community composed of women in Misamis whose husbands were mostly carpenters or construction workers in Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. They’re always so eager to farm that they’ve requested that she bring them seedlings instead of pasalubong when she visits. “They bring their kids with them when they harvest so they can learn as well,” Mamar says. “Now they have a better income than what they would have gotten as laundrywomen, and they have more time for their homes and families.”

Mamar estimates that she’s helped facilitate the planting of about 30 hectares of coffee around the country, with each association allocated anywhere from 500sqm to two hectares by their local governments. With pandemic protocols easing, Mamar hopes to be able to visit all of them again, this time to help them incorporate Slow Food principles into their coffee cultivation. “I want them to be self-reliant, so they don’t need to keep asking for funds,” she says.

What Mamar enjoys most about her hectic work life is her ability to make a difference in the lives of others. “Nobody lives forever, so I want to be able to leave a legacy,” she says. “I want to know I’ve helped improve their lives.”

Through running a seedling farm and helping communities set up their own coffee farms and post-processing operations, Mamar fulfills a vital role in the coffee production chain, that of a propagator, helping farmers take advantage of the continuously growing demand for coffee locally and worldwide.

Photos courtesy of Chit Juan

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