Exploring Philippine Foodways: Hineleban Coffee in Northern Mindanao (Part 1)

I first heard of Hineleban Coffee several years ago, when I came across this blog post about the “Sip and Reforest” campaign featured on the coffee beans’ packaging; for every bag purchased, the folks at Hineleban plant one coffee tree in your name, complete with GPS coordinates so you can track your tree’s yearly growth.

When I began planning for my trip to Mindanao, I knew I wanted to visit Bukidnon. Though I knew very little of the region, I knew I needed to visit this coffee farm nestled in the mountains, where small batches of beans were harvested from trees that were photographed and geo-tagged for people to visit anytime they wished on their phone. That’s a lot to get back for one bag of beans! I contacted the Hineleban Foundation to inquire about a farm tour and was put in touch with Neil Binayao, who oversees the coffee program run by the foundation.

Hineleban Coffee is produced from Arabica beans grown along the foothills of the Kitanglad Mountain Range, overlooking endless fields of pineapples in the town of Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon.

Pineapple fields in Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon

Though I only spent several hours at the Tuminugan Nature Sanctuary (where the coffee farm is located), I felt that everything I took away from the visit was enough to keep my fanaticism with Philippine foodways going, to open doors for discussion and further research on products grown in the Philippines.

I wanted to see what it took for a coffee plant to to produce beans. I wanted to feel the atmospheric conditions they grew in, to walk amongst rows of coffee trees, to witness the many steps it took for a single coffee berry to transform into the roasted bean I was familiar with. I remembered not to lose perspective of the incredible opportunity I had; with so many people genuinely interested in what goes into a cup, only few get to travel across continents to see it all first-hand.

Alongside learning the coffee bean’s story, I also wanted to learn about how coffee was grown in Bukidnon – about why Philippine coffee has not shared the success of its Southeast Asian neighbours, what growing conditions are like these days, and what the lives of farmers who plant coffee are like in rural areas of the Philippines.

The morning I met Neil his right arm was bandaged from the wrist to the elbows; from a bush fire on the other side of the mountain, he explained, that he and his crew fought to put out earlier that week. Neil identifies as IP – a term to designate the Indigenous People of this area, and what locals themselves prefer to be called. His grandfather was a municipal tribal chief, his parents linguists and missionaries. When I asked him to describe what his childhood was like, he talked about living in Luzon’s Ifugao province (also a mountainous region), going to school, and one piece of advice IP elders were known to give: “mag-aral kayo para makababa kayo ng bundok (study hard so you can come down from the mountain)’’.

Neil graciously answered all my questions, and I’ll try to summarize the key takeaway points from our conversation and tour of the farm in these next couple of posts!

To really get a grasp of everything we talked about, I found it necessary to sit and think about how important providing context to this story was – about how growing coffee encompasses establishing a sustainable livelihood for the people who plant and harvest the coffee beans, working to enact fair trade policies, improving infrastructure and distribution systems from the ground up to make everyone (from local government officials to end consumers) recognize the potential of sustainably grown Philippine coffee.

Bukidnon’s Arabica bean

“On our right you’ll see the varietal trial area for our coffee,” Neil gestured, as we stepped out of his jeep into the fields. “Arabica, for the best quality, should be grown in areas 1,000 metres and up above sea level. We’ve restricted new plantings to areas 1,200 metres and up; we figure it’s not worth the effort to expand in lower elevations because reports have shown it’s really only areas 1,200 and up that deliver the superior qualities we look for in good Arabica coffee.”

“Our beans’ origin is from Central America; the mother plant is from Costa Rica,” Neil continued. “It’s different from other Arabica beans you’ll find the country.” Compared to coffee from Benguet that I’ve previously sampled (ordered from the folks at Kalsada Coffee) which had a bolder, rounder flavour, I found Hineleban’s coffee to be considerably smoother and fruitier.

Noting a nearby cluster of low trees, I told Neil I was curious to find out how the idea of geo-tagging Hineleban’s coffee plants came about. He paused and said it was a matter of time. “With the third wave coffee movement, traceability really helps put a face to what you’re drinking,” he added. “There are really outstanding farmers, with really outstanding coffee here.”

How two legumes and a flowering shrub can improve upon “traditional” farming

As we walked around the farm, Neil explained how using leguminous plants as hedgerows and ground cover were excellent methods of restoring soil health – all naturally, without chemical fertilizer, to eschew what’s become the standard practice in farming.

The hedgerow, a plant called Flemingia, grew close to the ground and had bright green, oblong-ish leaves. “While its shoots are still green, we cut them and turn them into mulch,” Neil said. “At this stage there’s a lot of nitrogen in its stems and leaves. That nitrogen leaches back into the soil and acts as a fertilizer.”

The ground cover, a perennial herb called Arachis pintoi, formed a thick mat of dark green leaves that densely surrounded trees. “They suppress weeds and so cut down on our (overall) maintenance costs,” Neil said, “and they retain moisture in the soil, in addition to being fertilizer.”

In between rows of coffee trees, Neil pointed out a plant he called Calliandra, a short, flowering shrub whose roots sank deep into the ground, improving soil fertility by way of sending “fixed” nitrogen from the air into many layers of soil. Its root system also excels at stabilizing soil structures – holding everything together, especially useful in a topography under constant change.

To illustrate how these farming methods resulted in sustainable crop production, Neil described the Hineleban Foundation’s farmer-partner program in a little more detail.

Stay tuned for part 2!

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