F&B World - - NEWS - Text by BEA MISA- CRISOS­TOMO Pho­tos by SONNY THAKUR Spe­cial thanks to the DE­PART­MENT OF AGRI­CUL­TURE

Bea Misa-Crisos­tomo braves the trek up the rocky moun­tain and the chal­lenges of run­ning a com­mu­nity-based agri­cul­ture

No mat­ter how many years you go through it (and most farm­ers and pro­ces­sors can at­test to this), cof­fee har­vest sea­son is al­ways a lit­tle bit nerve-rack­ing. You have night­mares about com­pli­ca­tions. You get phone calls about freak weather. Some things get stolen. As­sump­tions get thrown out the win­dow. Noth­ing goes as ex­pected, which is ex­actly what you come to ex­pect.

Go­ing up the moun­tain, I usu­ally ride the back of a ha­bal-ha­bal; on my shoul­ders I carry a bag of my stuff—a bit of fruit, some equip­ment, a wad of cash. The feel­ing is al­ways the same as the en­gine strug­gles and pulls, the air be­comes cooler and the ce­ment houses I see turn to bam­boo. I feel like false lay­ers of re­al­ity fall away.


I be­gan work­ing in this cof­fee com­mu­nity years ago af­ter I was con­tracted as a con­sul­tant by a pro­gres­sive com­modi­ties com­pany, Tao Com­mod­ity Trader, to ex­plore sus­tain­able ways of do­ing com­mu­ni­ty­based agri­cul­ture. My ap­petite for un­cer­tainty then was al­ready more than the av­er­age per­son’s—I didn’t ex­pect de­vel­op­ment to be lin­ear— but my learn­ings so far still leave me in awe at how lit­tle I knew and still know. So I be­gan, with an­other cof­fee-pro­cess­ing friend in tow. (In­ter­est­ing foot­note: most of the spe­cialty cof­fee pro­ces­sors I know on the ground from all over the coun­try are women. I don’t re­ally know why.)

The Baslay Farm­ers As­so­ci­a­tion com­mu­nally owns a dense, wild, com­pletely or­ganic cof­fee for­est (mostly ro­busta and liber­ica) that yields lus­cious red fruit not only for our cof­fee mill but for bats, birds, civet cats, in­sects, and a myr­iad species. They are also care­givers and for­est farm­ers to a grow­ing area of na­tive trees. Their forests yield such gems as kaong, abaca, pas­sion­fruit, say­ote, and many more. The com­mu­nity is com­posed of mostly for­mer kain­gin (slash-and-burn) farm­ers who be­came stew­ards of the for­est on the foothills of Mt. Tali­nis, which is a DENR-pro­tected area and a buf­fer zone for a nearby geo­ther­mal plant.

Cof­fee is a sea­sonal prod­uct for the com­mu­nity. Out­side of (and also dur­ing, ac­tu­ally) cof­fee sea­son, they make their living do­ing re­for­esta­tion, an­i­mal hus­bandry, honey har­vest­ing, and veg­etable farm­ing. Some of them keep day jobs as teach­ers, mar­ket ven­dors, and jan­i­tors.

Com­ing from the “out­side” world, or even the field of or­ganic agri­cul­ture, it’s easy to walk in with your as­sump­tions about yield per hectare, prun­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, max­i­miz­ing prof­itabil­ity and such. But you soon find out that very few of these ap­ply to the for­est.

As we’ve come to learn, the for­est is not only a bio­di­ver­sity shel­ter, but it also pro­vides ecosys­tem ser­vices to low­land com­mu­ni­ties and cities. History has also shown that the scourges of famine and drought have been cush­ioned by nearby forests, with their wild crops and fruits. We don’t re­al­ize it, but in many ways, a for­est is also in­sur­ance to those who live out­side it. And yet the peo­ple who are the stew­ards of these forests still strug­gle to eke out a living.


When we started buy­ing cof­fee cher­ries, we be­gan at the stan­dard cherry buy­ing price for ara­bica cof­fee, which is some­times dou­ble what ro­busta fetches. But even this was too low for the har­vesters, who some­times walk a few hours to har­vest rel­a­tively pal­try bunches of ripe cof­fee cher­ries from trees taller than them. The cher­ries ripen slowly under the for­est canopy, de­vel­op­ing sweet­ness and com­plex­ity that can’t be repli­cated in a plan­ta­tion. Har­vest­ing wild cof­fee (and only the red fruit) is se­ri­ously chal­leng­ing for a 33-year-old like me, and we can only hope to make har­vest­ing worth­while for the har­vesters who are al­most all older than I am, some twice my age. Af­ter a few years, we’ve made peace with the fact that we buy at some­what out­ra­geous prices, but you can’t put a price on a for­est. At the small scale we are at right now, the mar­gins in the cof­fee in­dus­try are healthy enough to ab­sorb the in­creases.

Af­ter buy­ing the cher­ries, we float them to get rid of de­fec­tive beans and then depulp them. All our la­bor comes from the farmer’s as­so­ci­a­tion, with all mem­bers get­ting to try their hand at it. The next day is spent man­u­ally wash­ing cof­fee, re­mov­ing the cas­cara or red skin in prepa­ra­tion for dry­ing. The sub­se­quent dry­ing, which we do in our dry­ing house or on top of por­ta­ble dry­ing tables, varies ac­cord­ing to rain­fall, hu­mid­ity, and tem­per­a­ture. But rain or shine, we need to ag­i­tate (or mix around to turn the beans over and aer­ate all parts) the cof­fee. Af­ter the cof­fee is dried to our pre­ferred mois­ture level, we mill the parch­ment off, sort for de­fects and size, and store the cof­fee to rest it. Al­though our post-har­vest setup can be con­sid­ered rudi­men­tary com­pared to more com­mer­cial mills, peo­ple and pre­pared­ness make the dif­fer­ence. You can’t think it out if you aren’t there— ev­ery­thing from pay­ments, con­tain­ers, and con­tin­gen­cies will vary from place to place.

This is the Last Mile. In re­cent par­lance, it means the ac­tual place of tech­nol­ogy ap­pli­ca­tion. In my mind, it is ground zero of where your food comes

We don’t re­al­ize it, but in many ways, a for­est is also in­sur­ance to those who live out­side it. And yet the peo­ple who are the stew­ards of these forests still strug­gle to eke out a living.

from, where ac­tual pro­cesses dif­fer from even those farm­ers de­scribe, where you re­ally have to ob­serve (over sea­sons) to un­der­stand. Lack of in­vest­ment, or aborted projects, abound in the Last Mile. Gov­ern­ment-do­nated ma­chines gather cob­webs (and house rats). Peo­ple are wary of buy­ers who say they will buy things or who make them plant new crops.

That is be­cause you ini­tially be­lieve that you know just what the area needs. And that by next year you’ll have a great op­er­a­tion go­ing. Un­til you re­al­ize that the gaps and chal­lenges are lu­di­crous—banks are far away; storms rav­age your crops and struc­tures; elec­tric­ity is spotty; peo­ple some­times don’t per­form; roads are here to­day and gone to­mor­row; and debts are in­evitable be­cause of the in­se­cure, cash-strapped na­ture of peo­ple’s lives. You can’t pos­si­bly ask for some­one to pay you back af­ter he spends your few thou­sand pe­sos for his daugh­ter who got in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent and needed im­me­di­ate care.


Af­ter years in the project and deal­ing with small pro­duc­ers for my re­tail busi­ness, I rec­om­mend that the gov­ern­ment sup­port the farm­ers with truly free ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren and re­li­able emer­gency health­care that won’t make them have to search for money and pawn their homes. This will prob­a­bly keep more peo­ple in agri­cul­ture, in gen­eral.

Also, we can make The Last Mile an area less risky to in­vest in. Co­op­er­ate with small en­trepreneurs (not just large cor­po­ra­tions, who can only ab­sorb a cer­tain num­ber of ar­eas) and prop them up too with sup­port, in­stead of treat­ing them just as mid­dle­men and end­buy­ers. Be­sides, they of­ten have the pas­sion and time to tweak pro­cess­ing, work through chal­lenges, and carve out mar­kets. The pro­cess­ing that hap­pens im­me­di­ately af­ter har­vest of­ten spells the dif­fer­ence be­tween an ex­cel­lent and a sub­stan­dard crop, so we need more peo­ple on the ground fig­ur­ing things out, in­vest­ing in pro­cesses, small ma­chines, and la­bor. Un­til then, it will re­main the do­main of crazy folks like us and ruth­less mid­dle­men.

As for the cof­fee, it’s de­li­cious, with a lot of pos­i­tive feed­back from graders, roast­ers, and con­sumers. The farm­ers now drink their own cof­fee in­stead of three-in-one. Our de­mand out­strips sup­ply, and the com­mu­nity seems more ready to be in­de­pen­dent in its op­er­a­tions every year. Har­vest pe­riod is al­ways a lit­tle over­whelm­ing, but it’s a small price to pay for bring­ing peo­ple a taste of the for­est in a cup.

Co­op­er­ate with small en­trepreneurs (not just large cor­po­ra­tions, who can only ab­sorb a cer­tain num­ber of ar­eas) and prop them

up too with sup­port, in­stead of treat­ing them just as mid­dle­men and

end-buy­ers. (Above) Af­ter har­vest, the cher­ries get placed in a bin for wash­ing and sort­ing.

(This page) Bea MisaCrisos­tomo with son Pablo (cen­ter) and the women of the Baslay Farm­ers As­so­ci­a­tion sort­ing out the beans; (Op­po­site page) Cher­ries ready for pick­ing

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