Friday, September 17, 2010

Aren't We Farming Yet?

We planted coffee before we knew what we were really doing. It fit most of the criteria we had for a crop we wanted to focus on:
Long-term orchard type crop
Not too intensive to care for
Plants and land-preps for them relatively inexpensive
 A few other crops that are grown around here may have very good returns but also demand huge labor costs and other expensive inputs (fertilizers & pesticides) in a short period of just a 3 or 4 months.
 Actually those first 50 coffee plants were free volunteers that we got from a neighbor. As a newcomer to the tropics, these seemed like an exciting, exotic crop to me, which made them just a little bit more alluring to get involved with. Later on I discovered the local wholesale value for the finished, un-roasted beans, plus the amount of post-harvest work it takes to get them to that point, and the attraction began to fade. Plus, coffee plants take 3 years to begin to bear reasonable sized crops; they’re still far from fully mature. Marketing directly to coffee consumers in the U.S. rather than one of the corporate buyers here, like Nestle, is another business altogether, involving a great deal more volume than we’d have access to for a long time. Something on the order of shipping container loads of the stuff. So, our timid little planting of young coffee seedlings on some of our most marginal slope land hasn’t ever developed beyond that point; after 2 years I’m still waiting to see if we’ll get more than what’s needed for our own consumption.
What did happen soon after this was that we heard about a local grower of a commercially valuable type of banana who was doing well at inter-island export with his crops. We went right away to visit him. We told him we’d already ordered 50 young banana plants and wanted to get some more information from him on growing them if he was agreeable. After he learned that Edna manages her family’s 8 hectares (20 acres) now under cultivation, he turned serious and challenged us to instead, at the least, place a minimum order for 2000 seedlings, enough for one hectare (2.5 acres). Otherwise, he said, we were just playing around at growing these when we ought to be very serious about such a rewarding crop. And, he said, we wouldn’t have fun growing just 50; with the ante up to 2000, things are a good deal more fun. This was actually the plan he himself had followed, starting with a 1.5 hectare planting and then, 14 months later when they matured and gave their first crop, he used the considerable proceeds to expand out right away to fill the 8 additional hectares where we visited him. Now, 3 years after starting his plan, it was very obvious that he was doing quite well, and in the process of yet another, larger expansion at a different location.
So, we went home, feeling both giddy in our heads and sort of sick in our bellies, knowing this was an incredible financial challenge for us to consider. But we also knew that any other plan was not significantly moving us forward financially and that failing to make some sort of drastic change to the management of the farm from its present cropping, which is primarily field corn, was actually going backwards, slowing but surely sinking into a desperate mire of further poverty. 

Making money from growing field corn is the essence of the term oxymoron. The fertilizer companies, the seed companies, the corn buyers, and the banks that often finance all of this activity, they all make money. But the farmers that I observe around here usually operate at a net loss when it comes to this crop. And this is exactly the same scenario for farmers in the U.S. In fact, most of the very same multi-national corporations that American farmers do business with are here in the Philippines as well as most other South-East Asian countries for the same profitable game. Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, etc. all have offices and sales reps throughout the area. It’s sort of like they know a great way to make easy bucks season after season, so they just have to duplicate their operations wherever farmers are still out in the sun and soil struggling to make a living. 


  1. Hey Uncle, your approach to farming is definitely pragmatic! And heck, it's exciting to read about!

    I heard about Monsanto suing farmers for saving their own (soybean) seeds in the US, because the seeds were originally bought from Monsanto. Sounds ridiculous, huh? I can't believe this is actually happening. Saw that in the documentary "Food, Inc." a few months ago. Makes me nervous about all of that fine print when I think about doing business with other companies, that's for sure.

    I was very relieved when I read in the news in March that a federal judge had blocked the patenting of human genes. Unrelated, I know, but on the same course of companies putting patents on things that are completely inappropriate. Gene Patenting of food products is already being allowed, but if Human Gene Patenting was allowed, it would essentially block things like cancer research due to patent lawsuits.
    Okay, there's your niece's tangent for the day! haha :)
    Take care, Uncle Charles, much love from WA state!

  2. Rebecca, Monsanto isn't really to blame, they're just behaving, surviving and/or succeeding according to the standard corporate model. Have you seen a documentary called "The Corporation," based on the book "The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power" by Joel Bakan? The movie is a 2003 Canadian release which can be seen on YouTube. I recall one of those in the documentary, a corporate CEO or President, saying that what corporations often do in the pursuit of their profits will someday be illegal. Must see stuff, and I owe my knowledge of it to your favorite grandpa in Yuma!


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