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Opinion

My journey to the soil

POINT OF VIEW - Ricky Lacbongan - The Philippine Star

I spend grueling days working on my coffee farm deep in the remote mountains of the Cordillera region. Many times, I would hear friends and relatives taunt me for what I’m doing. And of course, there are constant natural elements I have to contend with. Add to that financial constraints that I have to do all things by myself in most cases.

Such difficulties got to me that many times, I thought of giving up. It felt as if I was getting nowhere. But when I was given the chance to join WOFEX 2022 as a volunteer, I was inspired to continue with my project.

WOFEX has opened up opportunities and connected me with different mainstream sectors involved in the Philippine coffee chain.

I was invited by the Philippine Coffee Board Inc. (PCBI) to represent the IPs in WOFEX. I’m glad they recognize IP’s potential in contributing to the socio-economic welfare of communities through sustainable coffee.

As an IP myself, I felt excited; it’s a rare opportunity for me to have a glimpse of what’s happening in the country’s coffee industry. But more importantly, I’d have the chance to listen to the insights of different visitors in the WOFEX. I hope to have a better idea of the possibilities of coffee farming that would compel me to continue the revival of the industry in my community.

Coffee is a vanishing crop in my village since many locals plant other crops. There are still remaining old trees of Typica Arabica but these are being abandoned or cut down despite the fact that this is considered by many connoisseurs as the most aromatic and flavorful variety.

So, with the eagerness and excitement to learn new things and connect with people, I took the long road to Manila, accompanied by my best friend Daniel Maches, who has his own farm called Barlig Rainforest Coffee.

The PCBI’s booth featured the four major types of coffee – Arabica, Robusta, Liberica and Excelsa, coming from different provinces such as Cavite, Benguet, Bukidnon and Mountain Province. They also showcased seedlings and sample ground coffee and green beans for the visitors to see, touch and smell.

The PCBI booth showed me that many people are eager to learn about how coffee is produced and processed. I realized that many coffee drinkers are not aware of the hard work involved, especially in the production in which farmers are involved.

Some community members have practically given up on the coffee sector. They have been planting coffee for many years but such did not bring them economic favor. Many interventions had been introduced in the past but these failed.

Starting the coffee farm for me has been very difficult. For one thing, I lacked financial capacity. I also had to face criticisms from my relatives, who said that I’m wasting time and effort. There are many days that I get wet planting because of the torrential rains and suffer from multiple wounds and daily insect bites. Then, there’s the constant threat of falling branches.

Apparently, these experiences are typical challenges faced by many coffee farmers nationwide and even beyond.

At the exhibit, I realized there are vast and emerging opportunities in coffee, such as an increasing number of buyers who want to directly connect with farmers. This was one of the “AHA!” moments for me.

I was able to meet and interact with baristas, coffee shop owners, roasters and different business persons, with many of them wanting to personally visit farms to experience the life of a farmer.

I became more confident as a farmer and with my various interactions, I gained a huge dose of inspiration to continue with my coffee project. It revitalized my passion to learn and grow.

Before, I was a college student working as a security guard to provide for my daily needs and schooling expenses. Moreover, I would take every chance to go home to work on construction and hauling of sand and other materials to earn extra money.

To be honest, I was not enjoying college life and I was not clear about what career to pursue, though I had a leaning to business. But I was demotivated because of my family situation and the financial problems. I would indulge in games to escape boredom and anxieties. Eventually, I had to stop schooling due to financial constraints.

It was my introduction to coffee that ignited a sense of direction in me. It all started when I had the chance to visit coffee farms in Sagada and interacted with farmers such as Jennifer Rimando of Ola Farms.

Together with my coffee buddy, I started my coffee farm this year and so far, I have planted at least 350 Arabica seedlings. I follow the ecological approach in farming, taking into consideration the importance of protecting the rainforest. I recognize that the rainforest can help provide sustainable water supply and extra layers of fertilizers to coffee plants, thus improving quality. My area also thrives with a native fruit species called enagtu-agtuy, which is similar to blackberry.

My goal in my coffee project is to inspire my fellow youths to engage in the sector and of course, to show people that one can succeed financially through coffee farming. At the same time, through this project, I hope to show that we can establish a coffee farm with minimal changes to the forest.

It’s a gargantuan task but with passion and commitment, it’s all worth the pain and sweat. Yes, coffee is a possibility.

*      *      *

Ricky Lacbongan is the founder of Barlig Grandia Coffee Farm in Mountain Province, on the slopes of Mt. Lamacan, an ecological hotspot.

CORDILLERA

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