Neil was incredibly patient was answering all the questions I had about coffee.
“Traditional crop production maximizes every square inch of soil available,” Neil began. “If you noticed the pineapples we passed, they’re grown right up to the roadsides. Right now, the productivity of pineapples is measured by unit of land (per hectare). That requires a lot of fertilizer, because the soil becomes stressed and depleted of nutrients; it gets crowded by too many crops.”
So when the folks at Hineleban decided to focus on cultivating premium coffee, they opted for a different model - to spread out the population of coffee trees. “The traditional design (for large-scale farms) is at 4,000 coffee trees per hectare. We reduced that by half, resulting in more nutrients available for plants, making them easier to maintain,” Neil explained. “That translates to a bigger yield (of coffee beans) per tree. The ‘unit’ of measure now becomes per tree, instead of per hectare.”
But how does measuring coffee beans per tree instead of per hectare affect the families who plant and harvest them, I asked?
“We buy coffee directly from our farmer-partners at significantly better prices than what market traders pay them,” answered Neil. “A trader buys green beans at about Php 4-6 per kilo; we buy them at Php 18 per kilo. That equals about 300% higher returns than selling to a trader.”
For family-run farms and small-scale coffee processors, partnering with the Hineleban Foundation is easily the better choice - and certainly enough reason to learn more about the organization’s farming methods.
“At Hineleban, the term we’ve coined for this is a ‘transformational business partnership’. It’s not a buyer-grower relationship, where if your crops fail, the buyer looks for another source of beans,” said Neil. “It’s a partnership based on transparency. Farmers know what’s going on; they know of the costs involved and why things happen. From field preparation down to harvest, our technicians are out there in the field, working with our partners side-by-side.”
“Here you can see our case study is coffee; we link Arabica farmers directly with the market. If quality of the beans consistently improve, then demand goes up along with the prices (we can command for it), which means we can give more back to the farmer.”
Neil told me about one of Hineleban’s farmer-partners they recently visited; among local communities they were “a regular IP family with seven kids, lots of land but without capital to develop it.” Since they started planting coffee, the family has acquired additional property and vehicles. “Their income wasn’t solely from coffee beans, but they say it’s been a big help,” he added.
“Our coffee project is designed to be supplemental - it’s the livelihood component of Hineleban’s holistic program,” Neil continued, “which provides each farmer beneficiary a quarter of a hectare to work with.”
Taking the revised planting system they’ve implemented on the farm (using legumes to enrich the soil and allowing a smaller concentration of trees per hectare), farmer beneficiaries have successfully replicated Hineleban’s coffee growing methods on their own plot of land. Based on cutting the traditional design for planting coffee trees in half, that means each family becomes responsible for 250 coffee trees instead of 500 - though still a lot, it’s an amount that’s seasonally manageable by a mom who stays at home, kids who spend half the day in school and a dad who also farms other crops in the field. “Kaya talaga nila (they can really do it),” Neil affirmed.
The (whole) program in action
“What we’ve seen after working with IP communities for three decades is this: their number one concern is having food on the table. The first thing (we address) when we visit our farmer-partners has to do with food security.”
“This is the showcase of our program,” Neil continued. “First we address the food security issue, because it’s essential to the bigger picture of preserving the forest.”
To understand how coffee factors into the broad strokes goal of saving Mindanao’s forests, Neil provided this, which has stuck with me since. “We acknowledge the fact that we can’t talk about reforestation when people are hungry. When families have no food on the table, they can’t absorb the concepts of why we need to protect the forest - of why we shouldn’t shoot the Philippine eagle that comes through your house looking for food.”
At a later point in my trip, I had a conversation with two Danish birdwatchers about the Philippine eagle while we hiked up the Kitanglad mountain range. When I told them I wrote about food in the Philippines, one of them quipped that I should write about how locals hunted the eagle. He hinted that “then, maybe, you know, it will stop.”
After thinking about this for months, I got where he came from. His tone conveyed not a trace of disrespect; I grasped his horror, as an ornithologist, of learning that the endangered species he revered was shot down for dinner.
That IP families felt the need to hunt the Philippine eagle because they were out of food - while living in a region where backyard crops can thrive - is indicative of the need to reintroduce native, low-cost and low-maintenance foods that the IP have subsisted on for generations. It’s indicative of a need to establish sustainable sources of income, ideally using the land locals have come to undervalue.
That conversation made me understand the importance of securing reliable, affordable access to food - of establishing true food security - like nothing else.
Removing the need to buy insecticide and fertilizer, “the incentive for the farmer is that he can produce goods at the lowest cost, specially if (the farm is) family-run,” said Neil. “Right now, more than 80% of the family’s income - if they have any - goes into food. If you’re able to cut that by half, you’d have more money that you could spend on other things, like medicine or education.”
One thing lacking in the diet of most children from IP families is a lack of protein, he added. “In the early stages of development especially, this leads to stunted growth and delayed mental development; one reason IPs are stereotyped as mahina (or weak) is because it goes back to their diet and is directly related. Kung nasa klase sila na walang laman sa tiyan (if they’re in school on an empty stomach), how can they absorb what’s being taught?”
This component of Hineleban’s program - to cut outright food costs by encouraging families to grow their own food - is referred to as kauyagan, a word whose closest meaning in the local IP dialect means “livelihood”.
“The food security model (we’ve developed for our program) calls for about 3,300 hectares - a residential lot in the mountains,” he chuckled. “We plant this area with indigenous crops - traditional, low maintenance food sources that you don’t need insecticide or fertilizer for, intended for family consumption.”
“The average IP family has at least 2-4 hectares of land, if they haven’t sold all of it,” said Neil. “In terms of land, mayaman talaga ang mga IP (the IP are rich). They just don’t have the capital and resources to develop that land.”
“Once the livelihood component is established, we move onto planting agro-industrial crops,” Neil continued, “and focus on values formation, to lead to reforestation.”
What I derived from my conversation with Neil was this: everything needed to make this succeed was built on a universal value of trust, which teach us of how to care for our families and strengthen interpersonal relationships. “I keep going back to it because that’s key; without it, you’re an outsider. You can’t tell people how to do things,” he said. With positive relationships in place, for IP communities in particular, Neil affirmed that “they’re more open and receptive” to working with people whom they trust will help improve their livelihood.
“We provide opportunities for additional income with growing coffee, and work with farmer-partners on values formation; we’re not just giving out money, but building better educational opportunities for kids in IP communities, providing health classes and resources for financial literacy. All of this leads to reforestation - analogous to ‘rainforestation’ - as our overall goal.”
The garden of “kauyagan” (livelihood)
We passed rows of sweet potatoes, which I identified upon seeing vividly green talbos ng kamote (sweet potato leaves) - a Tagalog culinary term I’ve come to love. Braised, the greens have a similar firmness to Swiss chard and a taste that’s purely vegetal. Sweet potato leaves are used as a main ingredient in Filipino salads, the general term for which is “ensalada”; ensaladang talbos ng kamote is a salad of steamed sweet potato leaves, fresh tomatoes and thinly sliced shallots and garlic, lightly tossed with vinegar and fish sauce.
In the gardens we passed, Neil pointed out an edible fern called pako, a roughly thumb-sized fiddlehead fern that Filipinos love to eat with chopped salted eggs and tomatoes in ensaladang pako (fiddlehead salad). We came across patches of taro, called gabi in Tagalog, a widely grown root crop whose leaves are particularly suited to stewing with coconut milk; I later learned the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO) has declared taro a vital crop for establishing food security in rural areas.
There were greens called alugbati(Malabar spinach) that seemingly grew everywhere. Though referred to as a spinach, they belong to an entirely different plant family, and shoot upward towards the sun on soft-stemmed vines supported by a low trellis. Its heart-shaped leaves (mucilaginous when raw) break down especially well in stews and soups such as utan - a vegetable medley of eggplants, okra, alugbati, malunggay (moringa), patola (loofah) and yard-long beans, seasoned with ginger, tomatoes, scallions and salt. I don’t distinctly recall eating alugbati much in the Philippines, as it wasn’t a commodity vegetable in supermarkets (where my family mostly shopped) - though I imagine they are relatively easy to find in rural markets.
Then there was adlai - a grain closely related to millet which Neil called “mostly forgotten”. According to a Department of Agriculture brochure, adlai is an indigenous crop from Africa that made its way to Southeast Asia (during which time period, at this time is unknown). Adlai is “mainly eaten as a staple food substitute for rice and corn,” the brochure states, and can “also be processed into flour for bread making and in wine and beer production.”
“It’s a cereal with a low glycemic index that’s also high in protein,” Neil said. “We’re encouraging our IP farmers to plant them. With increased demand, especially in Manila, we’re hoping more people will propagate them.” Adlai is “highly drought-tolerant and very low maintenance”, he added.
I've never had adlai, and regret that I didn't think of asking whether I could purchase some that day. Locally, adlai grains are steamed and prepared the same way as white rice - though hulled grains can also be ground into flour to produce a variety of baked goods.
In the process of establishing food security, “you really need to have a seed bank of these heirloom varieties,” Neil said. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a Philippine version of the Seed Savers Exchange for that very reason?
All these are great crops to grow, but “what farmers lack is a reliable access to the market,” he continued. There’s a need to oversee “quality control, consistency in (production) volume and process management,” which are measures the Hineleban Foundation can help their farmer-partners better understand and quantify, drawing on what their parent company Unifrutti currently has in place for its large-scale pineapple and banana plantations.