Regenerative agriculture is shifting paradigms for coffee farmers in the Philippines
Published January 6, 2023
7 min read
For Arnold Cagas Abear, coffee is life.
The 42-year-old Filipino farmer comes from generations of smallholders who have tended their fields through hard, manual labor. Abear, with his calloused hands has made a decent living for his family over time.
” In Filipino culture, family means everything,” Abear says from his farm at Bukidnon in northern Mindanao. His priority is to provide a good lifestyle for his three young sons. “This is why I do this.”
But tilling the land has never been easy. Abear struggled to support himself and his family before he started cultivating coffee. Even though he started coffee farming, his life was still difficult. Many coffee farmers in the Philippines lack the necessary knowledge and technology. Their production is affected by the environment’s deterioration, particularly the continual depletion in soil nutrients after each harvest. They are limited access to capital and have limited production costs that can hinder their ability to produce. For Filipino coffee farmers, it can be difficult to navigate the coffee landscape.
In 2010, Nestle launched the Nescafe Plan program to help thousands of small-scale coffee farmers in addressing challenges concerning their yields, income, and quality of life. 2018, Nestle began collaborating with the Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit, a German development organization, and with other local agencies and groups to implement Project Coffee . This project aims to teach farmers regenerative agriculture techniques and to expand their operations by teaching them how they can maintain their crops using new techniques. The project participants’ average yields and incomes increased by some 64 percent and 45 percent respectively in 2021.
“Part of the plan is to teach our coffee farmers best agricultural farming practices,” says Donnel Jun M. Tiedra, an agronomist and public affairs executive who is a driver of the project. “Regenerative agriculture is a system that aims to help farmers and nature to flourish together.”
Farmers are taught intercropping, a practice that helps improve soil biodiversity by growing vegetables alongside their coffee plants. They learn agroforestry, which involves the integration of trees and crops to protect the soil from erosion. Cover cropping is a practice that uses ground-crawling crops to hold the topsoil together, which helps with soil nutrition.
After adopting these practices, Abear is finally finding success through coffee farming. The history of coffee has been long and complicated.
Ruth P. Novales is the National Agriculture and Fisheries Council’s focal person for coffee. He says that coffee has been deeply ingrained in Philippine culture over the centuries.
” Coffee is life for farmers and consumers. It’s consumed every day, from the early morning until late at night. When people drink locally grown and manufactured coffee, they are directly helping a Filipino coffee farmer.”
Coffee farming didn’t take off in the Philippines until the early 1800s. Within a few decades, Filipino coffee was considered a top competitor in the global market, alongside those from Africa and Brazil.
But in 1889, the Philippine industry declined after the appearance of coffee rust, a fungal disease that destroys the coffee plant. The infestation quickly spread throughout the country, affecting large swathes.
Despite the trade coming close to implosion, it wasn’t the end for Filipino coffee.
“In The Philippines, coffee is a heritage crop,” Novales states. “It has come down through families for years and years, and it’s still here.”
The Philippines sits on the world’s ‘coffee belt,’ an area where climate conditions are conducive to the growth and quality of the plant. Education between the farmers and the public is key to the rise in Filipino coffee. Tiedra states that Nestle will continue to support the country’s coffee farmers by helping them build a better life, despite major obstacles.
Abear is getting older, and he worries about the future of his farm. This concern is shared by most of the country’s farmers, who are also aging. Their children may not be interested in farming, which is a sad reality. Data from the Philippine Journal of Science shows that natural coffee populations are also at risk due to deforestation and changes in land use in the Philippines.
But the regenerative agricultural project is attempting to address these concerns. Similar programs are helping to find a sustainable future as the country expands its coffee industry. The government is working with other local organizations to market agriculture to younger generation.
Ultimately, Filipino farmers are a resilient group. It will take much more to stop them producing the best coffee in the world. Abear sees coffee as more than a trendy beverage or cultural artifact. It is his family’s future.
“We are expanding and building a training center to help other coffee lovers,” he says. “We can now provide for our children’s daily needs and send our children to school.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.