Monday, April 21, 2014

Cacao Sense: The story of Dingayan Cacao Farm

Little did I know that cacao is also grown in several farms up north of the Philippines. I found out of such farm that has already been existing the last six years in Lasam, Cagayan through the presentation made by Mr. Wiley Dingayan, the owner and farm manager of Dingayan Cacao Farm (DCF) at the Philippine Chocolate Festival held last 15 February 2014 at SM Masinag. I inquired if I could  visit the farm someday and Mr. Wiley was polite enough to accede to my request.

So when I went back to Ilocos for the graduation of my niece, I made arrangement to visit the farm. The story below was related to me both  by Engr. Fred and Mr. Willey of DCF during our exchange when I visited their farm in Lasam, Cagayan.

DCF Inspiration

It was a Pastor of United Methodist Church, Pastor Joey Nitura, who suggested that we plant cacao. He informed us that Mr. Arthur Cruz (a Methodist church member at Gattaran) had already planted 3,000 cacao trees that came from Davao, in his farm in Brgy. Minanga, Lasam Cagayan.  We got interested, so we paid him a visit and read some of his brochures and books about cacao. We invited Mang Arthur to visit the property we planned to plant cacao and he told us it was okay to grow cacao there.

What inspired us to persevere in the farm is the recognized demand and need of cacao supply both in the local and global market that is not being met with the current Philippine cacao production. Although, it is not an easy task, it is our aspiration and mission here in Lasam to increase cacao production. 

We started planting cacao in our lot in Nicolas Agatep, Lasam Cagayan. The cost then of the 50 seedlings we bought was PhP25.00/seedling. During that time, we had zero knowledge of actual cacao growing and encountered problems in its maintenance. Then, there was drought, not one of our cacao plants survived. 

So, before we tried planting again. We made several researches and then decided to do massive planting, we created a nursery, then, we purchased 1,000 seedlings from Mang Arthur. 

We were then using iron bar and spade for digging, but it was very slow.  So, we invented a new hole digger, which made digging faster and easier. That innovation has become one of the most useful tool we now have in our farm. Since the farm is now bigger we recruited people to help us maintain the farm. When the property adjacent to our farm was sold to us, it was a sign for us to go massive cacao planting. We were quite choosy with the people who work for us.  We only selected people who are dedicated, and true enough they still remained with us. 

Cacao sense is common sense 

Most of our practices are based on common sense, keen observations and experiences gained throughout the years of our operations. In the farm, we have existing shade trees, like madre de kakaw and the big grasses served also as shade. Since our seedlings were being transported from another place we made sure that the seedlings recovered first, before they get re-planted. We even dug deeper and wider holes using our invented hole digger for planting the trees. 

Our approach to pest is more of an integrated pest management. Most of the time we use organic inputs, but as a balance, we also use chemical pesticides, herbicides, and weedicides, especially, at that time when the cacao seedlings were still growing. Through time we have learned the life cycle of insects. We also learned when and where to spray, and where these insects hide during day time. 

We had a very bad experience on grafted cacao trees.  Of the 100 field grafted cacao seedlings, only one survived. So we stopped grafting and let the cacao seedlings grow naturally. Besides, the life span of un-grafted seedlings is longer than the grafted ones. 

We are also particular at record keeping. We have assigned one of our workers in monitoring and filling data of the farm journal we devised. It contains information as to their daily, weekly and monthly tasks. That way, we can keep track of their output and can also know the status of the cacao trees. At first, we even kept data of the weight of the harvested pods including its thickness; weight of beans, before and after mucilage is removed; the weight of beans before and after fermentation; and weight loss before and after drying the beans. 

Harvest Target

Our target harvest is at least 2800 pods/week from the 5000 trees that are now flowering. If we can attain that this year, we can already sustain our operations and fund our next expansion. Last year, we were already harvesting more or less 1200 pods weekly, but due to typhoon “vinta”, we are down to 80-100 pods a week. The trees have just recovered, and they are flowering and fruiting right now, by June or July we are optimistic that we will be back to 1200 pods/week harvest or more. We have instructed the farmers to prioritize the flowering trees and then focus on what intervention to do next with the non-flowering trees.

Looking back, during our first few harvests, we were able to harvest 50 pods, our biggest that time, and we were so happy that we invited some friends to come over our house and eat the cacao mucilage, and that’s when we formed the, what we called, "molmol club".  We did that for a few months, it was good way to introduce cacao to our town folks.

Post Harvest

Our process from harvesting to drying has improved through the years. As we learned the nuances of the operation, we try to adjust, modify and innovate according to our needs, but without sacrificing the quality of our beans. Our aim is to produce clean and high quality beans. So, we always keep that in mind every time we make changes.

The first step after harvest is to break the pods to get the cacao beans. The usual practice was to use a wooden pallet to break the pod or bolo. We found this very tedious and very slow, so we made a portable pod breaker to make the process faster and it is what we are using now. And since it is portable, it is easier to clean and we can bring the pod breaker anywhere in the farm.

The second step is fermentation. The beans are placed in a container and are fermented for 6-7days. Even our containers have changed. The one we are using now makes it very convenient to get the juice for wine, vinegar and fertilizer making. 

The third step is to wash and sort the beans. At first, we were only using a pail and a strainer, but as the volume of harvest increased, so is the time do the task. So we designed a device where we can easily wash the beans, and at the same time, sort out the small-sized beans, as well as the empty beans. And this saved us so much time. Another reason for this idea, is that when small beans and empty beans are NOT separated from the bigger beans, the beans takes longer to dry, and they are more prone to have molds. So, we opted to separate them before drying.

The fourth step is drying, we used to dry cacao beans in a bilao (native baskets). And we had to use old mosquito nets to shield the cacao beans from being infested by flies. We are very particular with cleanliness, so as much as possible; we don’t want insects and flies on our beans. So, in 2012, when our harvest increased, we decided to create a portable solar dryer, it’s another innovation for our farm. And, as the harvest grew we constructed more solar dryers for drying the beans. 

We are also planning to invest on a mechanical dryer useful especially during the rainy season. With a mechanical dryer we can control the drying of cacao beans as compared to the conventional drying we are using now. Also, we are considering a “pugon” (oven) type of drying like they do when drying Virginia tobacco. 

Even our cacao grinder for making tablea is also a product of innovation. We based it on existing equipments we have seen, like that of a peanut grinder that make peanut butter.

Government support for Cacao Entrepreneur

It is high time for the government to give support not only to cooperatives, but also to individual cacao entrepreneurs. And the support should come in the form of cash. This way it gives entrepreneurs the freedom to choose a suitable equipment for his/her farm.

Another thing that we would like for the government to do is to establish a ceiling price for cacao, just like rice and corn, so that more farmers will be encouraged to plant cacao.

Tsokolate drink tradition with cacao farmers

Every morning before the workers go to the farm they come to our house for a chocolate drink.  I personally make and serve them their energy drink. It is one of our farm’s regular activity that we have institutionalized. During our chocolate drinking session we exchange, update and discuss what’s to be done for the day. It is good for the workers to have a taste of the fruit of their labor. 

Our workers take care of our farm, so we also care for their welfare and well being. That is why, aside from their daily wage, we also give them daily meal and transportation allowance. And we also provide scholarships to the children of our workers. We planned to give them more benefits once we generate enough income to sustain our operations and have funds for those additional benefits. 

Dingayan Cacao Farm (DCF)
Owner: Willette “Wiley” Medrano-Dingayan
Add: #127 Centro 01, Lasam, Cagayan 3524

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