By Marilou Guieb | Correspondent
COFFEE has thrived for centuries in the Cordillera region. Stories go that some centuries-old coffee trees, particularly Arabica varieties, were planted as forced labor imposed by the Spanish authorities a long time ago when they ruled the country.
But whatever the story is, coffee, indeed, has come a long way from being a backyard commodity consumed ordinarily as the morning brew of the natives to a specialty coffee trying to make its way to both domestic and international markets.
For a few years now, the Cordillera region has been trying to make a headway onto making the highland-grown coffee into a viable economic venture for which the region can be known. And while it might be easily identified as a project that must be undertaken by the Department of Agriculture (DA), now distributing as many seedlings to interested farmers, its measure of success is owed to an interagency endeavor, including a university and some farmers’ cooperatives.
The Department of Science and Technology has come up with equipment to facilitate the processing of coffee beans. A major leap to establishing a niche for coffee was done by the Department of Trade and Industry Regional Director Myrna Pablo, who has gone touring the coffee-producing towns; assisting them with packaging and marketing in trade fairs; establishing a coffee quality control facility at the Benguet State University coffee-plantation area; and eventually pushing for coffee to become the One Town, One Product of the region as a whole.
Now, the Department of Tourism has jumped onto the bandwagon, proposing a coffee pavilion to be established, strongly supported by the local government unit of La Trinidad by also planning on holding a coffee festival as one of the town’s attractions.
But if anything can attest to the potential of the region’s coffee to make it big in the market, it is that world-known coffee companies are following the trail of the aroma of the highland brews leading to the direction of local coffee growers here.
One is the Henry and Sons Co. The company in the early-2000s became the first coffee-roasting company in the country to package coffee in tin cans with pull tabs, making locally manufactured coffee competitive with international brands, like Illy and Lavazza. The company also introduced the Draft Coffee System in 2015, pioneering then the nitro and cold brew coffee taste for Filipinos. It was also the first to provide coffee shops a steady supply of freshly roasted coffee beans.
Last November Henry and Sons launched its Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence (FSCE), established as part of its corporate social responsibility that will focus on the five major issues burdening coffee farmers and deterring them from producing more and better-quality coffee. The event, held at the La Trinidad municipal gym, was attended by no less than the company’s president, Michael Harris Lim.
“Coffee consumption in the Philippines—especially specialty coffee—is enjoying a steady growth, and most establishments offering these products source their beans from abroad,” Lim said.
He reminded how the country was once a major producer in Asia, exporting as much as $100 million worth of coffee beans annually.
Somewhere along the way, problems besetting coffee producers have caused its losing its niche in the global market.
“We did a study to identify the biggest hindrances stopping our coffee farmers from growing superior-quality coffee beans, and found these five issues. These issues stem from several problems that have been in existence for decades now; problems that could have been avoided had someone taken the time to address them earlier on. We feel very happy to be the ones to be addressing these issues,” Lim said.
The company has devised five programs to directly address the basic problems confronting the farmers, and these are not directly connected with the agricultural aspect of planting the trees and nurturing them, but have something to do with some basic needs that can improve the quality of life of farmers. These five programs are called Giving Well, Beans for Little Ones, Coffee for Great Minds, Seed to Cup and Beans within Reach that will all be part of a Bloom 2017 package.
In essence, FSCE wishes to give coffee farmers potable water; saving their kids from common but serious diseases; a source of steady income until their coffee beans are sold; matching them with coffee sellers willing to buy their beans at a higher price, and educational assistance to their children.
To help get these programs off the ground, Henry and Sons has created the Foundation Coffee line that comes in nice-looking tin cans that can be purchased at Robinsons grocery stores, Rustan’s department stores and through the Henry and Sons mobile app for P200 for every 250 grams. The special coffees will come in five kinds representing each program, and for every purchase of a tin can, P50 goes to the specific program it represents.
The Giving Well program considers most coffee farmers live up in the mountains with homes far from each other and without easy access to safe drinking water. Spring water may contain bacteria and contaminants. Besides, with global warming, continuous depletion of sources and population increases, spring water may just soon dry up.
FSCE is not merely going to do the usual solutions, like establishing a water facility but going the more creative and technologically interesting way. An atmospheric water generator will be provided to a chosen recipient barangay that will be solar-powered. The technology involves turning the moisture in the atmosphere and purifying it into potable water.
Coffee for Great Minds aims to provide more learning to consumers on the local coffee industry and to find fund-raising programs for scholarships for coffee farmers’ children to go through the K to 12 Program, housekeeping, secretarial, barista, agricultural courses or training to become safety and order officers.
A component of the Seed to Cup program is the provision of a coffee moisture and density analyzer that will test moisture and density level at the same time of green/parchment/dry cherry/and roasted beans that can work continuosly for 15 hours once fully charged. The ideal moisture content is 9 percent to 12 percent because anything higher can cause beans to become moldy, musty, woody, fade and lose color.
It will take only 2,232 cans of Cup to Seed coffee to fund this machine for a chosen cooperative.
Beans within Reach intends to match farmers with buyers to motivate farmers to produce better-quality beans. The FSCE will first focus on farmers within La Trinidad, particularly on their Arabica coffee. The land and climate here are ideal for growing world-class coffee beans, Lim said. Benguet, in fact, because of its high elevation, has one of the best conditions for growing Arabica coffee. Already, the DA is encouraging the planting of coffee as part of its agroforestry program, as coffee grows best under dappled sunlight.
Lim hopes to have the Benguet Arabica make a niche in the international market. He acknowledges there is no way to compete in quantity, but that the potential of the Arabica as a specialty coffee is promising.
“We just need to work closely with the farmers. That’s why we are here. The better they take care of their trees and their processing of the cherry beans, the higher the price they can command,” he said.
Lim expressed confidence if farmers can be committed, they can well get into the international market by 2018, competing with universal standards.
“Then in the next 10 years, the coffee can become really special, and something the Philippines can really be proud of,” he said.
Lim said part of the Cup to Seed program is the putting up of a nursery, where they will grow quality seedlings to distribute to farmers.
“We have started to look around for a place that will be just right and accessible to farmers, and we can start this hopefully by 2018,” he said.
Lim disclosed the values close to his heart, acknowledging foremost that their forming FSCE also benefits their company. “If you are in business, your products should have the highest certifications for quality and safety,” he said.
Lim added, “Suppliers form sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships with us, because they see for themselves that even our small efforts count. The coffee industry has witnessed the grandest pledges to find out in the end that few promises have come true. The few steps we are taking now to help the farmers in La Trinidad count more than the biggest promises.”
His closing remarks wrapped up what, in essence, the FSCE is all about: “The moral beauty of caring for people transcends the boundaries of business. It elevates our status not just in business but in humanity. The metrics of all our efforts will be the number of lives we have touched.”