• Intercropping in coconut farms

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    DR. WILLIAM DAR

    I can consider this column the second part of the series on the Philippine coconut industry, although much of what will be discussed here is about increasing incomes of smallholder coconut farmers through intercropping.

    I discussed extensively in last week’s column the many solutions for the Philippine coconut industry, which I called a “sick man” that really needs the help of government and stakeholders.

    As it is now, most coconut farms in the Philippines have low productivity, averaging only 46 nuts per tree per year, which is way below India’s 250 nuts, Mexico’s 300 nuts and Brazil’s 400 nuts. This means that Filipino coconut farmers, or most of them, are really mired in poverty given very low yields from trees.

    Although we should aim for instilling good agricultural practices (GAP) in coconut farms and start planting hybrids developed by the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Coconut Authority (DA-PCA), we should find other “doable” measures to at least improve the incomes of small coconut farmers, like intercropping.

    According to Dr. Emil Q. Javier, chairman of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines, only 30 percent of the 3.2 million hectares of coconut lands in the country are intercropped.

    So that means, given the wide spacing between coconut trees, there is about 2.0 million more hectares of lands that can be planted to various crops. Or we can deduct about 10 percent from that from the actual spaces occupied by coconut trees, and we still have 1.8 million hectares of lands under coconut trees good for planting other crops.

    Intercropping, however, should not be limited to just one crop although that can be done. For example, why not plant smaller trees and other cash crops or annuals under coconut trees?

    Among the smaller trees that can be planted under coconut are lanzones, rambutan and papaya, or those measuring 4-6 meters in height. And then cash crops can be planted alongside those trees like pineapple, corn and mungbean.

    This type of intercropping is already practiced in many coconut farms in Laguna, which keeps farmers busy and earning all-year round. Raising of livestock in coconut farms can also be done alongside the growing of other fruit-bearing trees.

    Planting cacao and coffee under coconut trees could also be very profitable over the long run, because both crops can become productive up to 50 years like the coconut hybrids. Also, demand for cacao and coffee is increasing locally and worldwide.

    With intercropping, the income of coconut farmers can easily increase by 2-4 times or up to 400 percent.

    The overall objective of intercropping, however, is to increase the incomes of coconut farmers and not to displace their main source of livelihood, which is the coconut tree. So the next step after intercropping is to introduce value-adding to coconut farmers or cooperatives, which should lead to the establishment of cottage industries in the rural areas.

    Coconut has been fondly called the “Tree of Life” because a number of products can be produced from it ranging from coconut water to ingredients for detergents and explosives. But today, most coconut water is thrown away at the farm level when farmers extract the copra or meat from the nuts. Also, most of the coconut husks are also discarded when these can be processed into geotextiles that are in great demand abroad, but are largely supplied today by India and Sri Lanka.

    I heard that the Department of Science and Technology and the PCA-Zamboanga Research Center have developed a machine that converts discarded coconut husks into coconets and other crafts, which I must say must be commercialized actively to give coconut farmers another source of income.

    The husks also have raw materials that can even be made into charcoal so the indiscriminate cutting of trees in forests could be minimized or stopped. The process to produce charcoal from coconut husks also does not require expensive equipment and can be easily adopted by smallholder farmer communities and organizations.

    While there are more than a hundred solutions to help increase the income of coconut farmers from complementary measures like intercropping and value-adding from wastes like the coconut husk, we can never ignore the need to replant massively with hybrids that can give better yields.

    A change in the thinking or orientation among coconut farmers should also be made, because coconut has been regarded as a “bahala na” crop since time immemorial, or farmers never treated coconut as a plantation crop and just planted it randomly without a plan. This explains why very few coconut plantations have uniform spacing and trees with roughly the same height; most of these can be observed in smallholder coconut farms.

    Remember that decades back, cassava was also treated as a “bahala na” or orphan crop, until farmers were provided information on its potential and the availability of varieties that guaranteed better yields. Today, cassava is being adopted by more farmers primarily to supply industries that are into agribusiness.

    As I have stated in my column last week, the hybrids developed by the DA-PCA can yield up to 150 nuts per year and can become productive in 3-4 years from planting. Also, incorporating GAP in farms where hybrids are currently productive can result to yields of 300 nuts per tree per year.

    Massive replanting can be undertaken once intercropping is adopted by a critical mass of smallholder farmers, because it is only after 3-4 years that the hybrids start bearing nuts.

    I even believe that most if not all smallholder coconut farmers are hesitant or do not want to undertake massive replanting because that would mean earning nothing from their lands in the next 3-4 years.

    So I must overemphasize the urgency of introducing intercropping to smallholder coconut farmers even if there is still no massive replanting program in place. With millions of coconut farmers still trapped in perpetual poverty, I believe the government should not waste time in conceptualizing an intercropping program for smallholders that would pave the way for massive replanting in their farms in the near future.

    Such a program will definitely need support like credit and training provision to farmers and cooperatives, marketing support and continuous monitoring, among others. I believe that intercropping should be undertaken in more coconut farms if we do not want the Philippine coconut industry to die, because it is currently a “sick man” that really needs a lot of help.

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