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Benguet specialty coffee as a niche in ASEAN market
Ofelia C. Empian

WITH MARKET NICHE -- Once a backyard industry, coffee farming is now encouraged as a full blown industry by the government with the popularization of specialty coffee not only locally but also globally. Non-profit organizations are also starting to bank on local farmers, including those in Benguet, with farmer Cristy Carame (in photo) winning P100,000 recently for her excellent Arabica coffee produce during the cupping competition organized by the Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence in La Trinidad, Benguet.
-- Ofelia Empian


For Cristy Carame, coffee trees had always been in their one-hectare farm situated in a steep mountain slope area in Barangay Shilan, La Trinidad, Benguet, ever since she was young. The coffee trees act as windbreaker for the other crops they produce solely for family’s consumption.

But in February this year, Carame, out of 10 farmers from the valley, was declared as winner of P100,000 for her excellent Arabica coffee green beans she handpicked and sun dried.

Carame was awarded the “Bloom Crop of the Year” after she wowed the judges, composed of the country’s coffee shop owners and business moguls, with her coffee produce.

“I didn’t expect to win. What we are producing is an organic coffee ever since we are young,” Carame said.

In one cropping season, Carame’s farm produces 250 to 300 kilos of green beans out of the 1,000 trees planted in their farm.

She estimates her income as a coffee farmer to be around P30,000 per annum, getting only double the amount when she started selling her coffee beans in 2007 with P15,000 per year.

Coffee farming is considered a backyard industry for the 870 estimated coffee farmers in Benguet with most of them focused on high value crops as their primary source of livelihood while taking coffee farming on the side.

But the paradigm is slowly shifting with the entry of high-end markets connecting directly to coffee farmers in the Cordillera region, such as the Henry & Sons, one of the country’s leading coffee solutions companies, which is instrumental in creating the competition where Carame won.

Department of Trade and Industry-Cordillera Director Myrna Pablo has been highlighting the importance of coffee as a major industry for Cordillera farmers.

“We just have to capitalize on a product that other regions don’t have. I want to capitalize on the coffee as the one town-one product of CAR,” Pablo said.

She acknowledged the importance of specialty coffee as a niche industry where the region can develop as a product, at par not only within the country but as a potential export product as well. And this is especially true with the highland Arabica coffee.

Conglomeration of producers

With the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, the free flow of goods in its member-countries has become much easier. The country’s micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are being encouraged to penetrate the global markets.

But to achieve this, it would take a steady supply of these products to fill the market’s demand. Pablo said one of the means to fulfill the demands of the market is through conglomeration of farmers and producers.

“We have lots of fruits and nuts and processed foods but the problem is, it is in small quantities. The reason we are behind the market is because we do not have a consolidated effort. Big clients tend to go for producers that have a vast supply,” Pablo said.

She said one of the ways is through the membership of individual farmers and MSMEs into cooperatives.

“We have to build a supply base, strengthen the number of producers, and see where these products are located,” she said.

She said this is not only for export but also to meet the demand of the local market as well for coffee and other processed foods.

According to the 2016 records of the Cooperative Development Authority, there are about 500 cooperatives in the region with 343,380 members.

Benguet has the highest number of cooperatives in the Cordillera at 195 and with 86,201 members, mostly multipurpose cooperatives in nature and most members are farmers.

Two of the biggest cooperatives venturing into coffee production in the province are the Abiang Community Multipurpose Cooperative and Atok Arabica Coffee Growers Marketing Cooperative or Acogmac.

Re-establishing itself in 2010 after a few years of hiatus since it was established as Atok Coffee Growers Association in 1995, the Acogmac now has 252 members from its original 30 members.

Oliver Oliem, head of Acogmac, said the group supplies the needs of the market in Benguet and nearby provinces. Currently, the group is supplying Manila-based non-government organizations Philippine Coffee Alliance and the Philippine Coffee Board.

Atok’s Tourism Officer Cherry Sano said the products of Acogmac, particularly the Atokape ground and roasted coffee, have already reached the shelves of local groceries in Baguio and La Trinidad.

“Abiang and Acogmac complement each other. They help each other when the other needs more supply of coffee beans,” she said.

Sano added that customers from other places who inquire about their coffee produce in Atok are directly referred to both cooperatives.

Oliem related there are companies in the past whom they cut ties with for bargaining down their produce, which are primarily two types of green beans categorized as sorted premium and commercial. Premium beans are sold from P300 to P350 a kilo while the commercial or unsorted beans are sold from P180 to P200 a kilo.

“We can still demand for a higher price for our produce because we are confident of the quality of our beans,” Oliem said, adding that the retail market is another story. Seemingly, the local market is harder to please than consumers from outside the province.

“Some locals prefer buying from the market at a lower price,” Oliem said, even as he shared that some local customers question the pricing of their product while the large companies recognize the value of their coffee produce.

But while their clients increase, local coffee growers could not supply the actual demand of the local markets. Proof to this is that high-end coffee shops, which cropped up in recent years in Baguio and nearby Benguet, get their supply of coffee beans from abroad.

Jollibee, for example, acquires their coffee beans from Vietnam at a lesser cost due to zero tariffs while Nestlé gets 75 percent of its Robusta coffee needs also from Vietnam even if they are already getting 25,000 metric tons of Robusta from the country, a big chunk out of the 33,000 metric tons produced nationwide.

But even with this, the region’s Arabica coffee, particularly those produced from Benguet and Mountain Province, are saleable in the global market owing it to its superior quality, according to Pablo.

“Many coffee experts have attested that our Arabica coffee is definitely one of the best if not the best,” Pablo said.

During the recent Kape Pilipino coffee cupping competition held in Cavite, 13 of 36 coffee producers from Cordillera made it to the top list, having garnered a high rating with their Arabica coffee produce.

Benguet State University placed second with a score of 84.93, a slight margin after a farmer’s group from Bukidnon that won the competition with a score of 85.75.

In the competition led by the Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. with various foreign coffee experts as judges, specialty coffee is coffee that scores higher than 80 points on a 100-point scale. The scoring is based on 10 attributes and defects of the coffee. The higher the score, the better price it commands in the specialty market.

“The fact that 13 farmers from our region topped the competition says something about the quality of our coffee beans,” Pablo said.

“The higher the rating, the higher the price. Kaya lahat ng farmers dapat alam nila ang rating nila so they can command a bigger price,” she added.

Philippine coffee in the global market

Michael Harris Lim, president of the Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence (FSCE) and chief executive officer of Henry & Sons, said they are hoping the Bloom Crop of the Year competition would inspire more local coffee farmers to get into coffee production.

He said the competition links coffee farmers and the country’s top coffee buyers and in the process developing La Trinidad’s potential in producing Arabica coffee, which can be a niche market.

FSCE was established in 2015, which bore out of their desire to partner with local farmers in aiding them to upgrade their quality in coffee production.

“When we help them, they are helping us, too. It’s a win-win solution,” Lim said.

During the cupping competition they sponsored last March, he was amazed at the quality of coffee beans, which Benguet farmers have produced using only the traditional way of preparing coffee beans.

“Imagine what they can do if they have the complete facilities to help them improve the quality of their production,” he said.

Lim said their goal in Henry & Sons is to make 90 percent of their company’s total coffee beans to come from local sources and only 10 percent from outside the country. Right at the moment, the situation is sadly the other way around, he said.

“We hope, someday, the Philippines would be known as a top exporter of coffee,” he said, adding that La Trinidad and other parts of Benguet can become a steady source of quality Arabica coffee.

This sentiment was echoed by coffee enthusiast and owner of Luna Café, film director Lino Cayetano.

He spent some time knowing the local farmers in La Trinidad, getting to know their stories – the struggles and joys that they go through in every planting, tending and harvesting of their coffee trees – which greatly enhanced his appreciation of the Arabica coffee.

“The Benguet coffee can be at par with international coffee, with the right quality and preparation, we can get there. This gives us so much pride,” Cayetano mused.

Lim said they plan to expand their projects in FSCE that would cover other Arabica coffee-producing towns of Benguet, with an elevation that is suitable for the optimal growth of Arabica coffee.

Oliem, on the other hand, said with the help of the Philippine Coffee Board and Coffee Alliance, they were able to improve the quality of their products.

He said the coffee beans their members supply are tagged so the buyers can know, what farm the beans came from.

In this way, farmers are more conscious of maintaining the quality of green beans they produce. The coffee beans vary from farm to farm due to the way each farmer handles and cares for their produce.

Through all this, Pablo said it is not only about the quality and quantity of the product that matters but also about the continuous education of the consumers in the kinds of products they should buy, especially in valuing our local products, as a way of supporting local farmers and entrepreneurs.

Also, Pablo hopes that one day, the whole region would soon be able to shift from being a producer of raw materials to maker of finished products.

With the help of various agencies like DTI, Department of Science and Technology, and Department of Agriculture, the DTI director said the different industries in the region, particularly the food processing industry, is being assisted. She also urges local MSMEs to make use of the various assistance programs they are offering.

“Our offices are always open to assist our farmers and MSMEs whether they are starting or wanting to improve their industries,” she said.

With a renewed vigor in her coffee production, Carame has used the prize money she won in the competition to improve her farm. She has bought farm implements to build a greenhouse to grow seedlings and a coffee pulper machine for her green beans.

She said Henry & Sons had assured to buy her green beans at P300 a kilo, a far cry from the P160 per kilo that is being bought by a local coffee provider in Baguio.

“I am encouraged to continue improving with my coffee farming. I hope this would raise my family’s income,” Carame said.

The support Carame is now getting enables her to believe, along with thousands of coffee farmers in the Cordilllera, that perhaps coffee production could indeed be more than just a sideline or the coffee plant, merely a windbreaker in their farms.

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