Benguet coop makes a mark in the coffee industry

The Autonomous Cordillera Region straddles the lush and mineral-rich Cordillera Mountain Range and is considered home to one of the best producers of coffee in the country.

This recognition is galvanized when Benguet province won three of six awards in the Philippine Coffee Quality Competition in March this year.

The cool and refreshing air in Benguet province is the ideal setting for cultivating coffee, particularly the arabica variety. Although robusta coffee is the most popular variety, arabica beans are the most flavorful and aromatic variety, with its distinct mocha taste and low caffeine content. Arabica is used to add flavor to other coffee varieties and is mixed into concoctions of ice cream, cakes, and candies.

The elevation and well-drained soil in Atok is ideal for growing arabica beans, particularly the arabica typica, red bourbon, yellow catura, and granica.

The coffee produced by the farmers in Atok, in fact, is sold in a popular tourist destination local restaurant. The Saddle Cafe is one of the establishments that sell arabica coffee processed by the farmers. The Guerilla Saddle area, according to the official website of Atok, is the place where Filipino guerillas of the World War II fought with the US army against Japanese soldiers.

The members of the Atok Arabica Coffee Growers Marketing Coop or ACOGMAC place their hope and vision of a better life on these aromatic beans that happen to grow naturally in their backyard.

Doon kami kumakain sa kape,” said Dick Evasco, cooperative head. He intends to prepare his business as “pamana sa mga anak,” as his 16-year-old son has shown interest in farming.

The ACOGMAC was organized in 2009 with 183 coffee growers.  Lack of capital hampered the group from meeting the orders and demand for arabica beans during its initial years. The cooperative linked up with organizations to beef up its finances, increase production, improve the quality of coffee beans, as well as upgrade farming practices.

Through these linkages, ACOGMAC partnered with the Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF) for trainings on good agricultural practices, among others.

Tedious processes result in high quality coffee

The farmers started with just collecting beans for their daily consumption needs and bringing the surplus to the market.

Then with the help of the Department of Agriculture – Cordillera Administrative Region, they were given roasting and grinding equipment. After some time, the farmers had access to a depulping machine, which made their job easier.

The beans are sorted, roasted and ground at a milling plant also located in Atok. The ground coffee is then sold in sealed pouches that weigh 200 grams each.

To determine the quality of coffee beans, the process begins with the pick red method followed by drying (using solar dryers instead of drying directly on the ground), sorting, and the roasting process.  Then a so-called “cupping” or coffee tasting is done. Cupping is the test for several factors, including acidity, sweetness, aroma, a good blend of type of beans, and after taste.

Bong Soto of PEF said that “cupping” can be a tricky process because only experienced individuals can tell what makes a good cup of coffee.  “The quality of coffee is different in each farm. A bad mix of coffee beans may not be able to get a high price,” he added.

ACOGMAC produces around 500 pouches of ground coffee a month that are sold in Benguet and in Metro Manila.  Today, the cooperative has about 300 members that currently produces 700 up to 800 kilos in one harvest season.

On to the coffee-tainted road to success

One of the competition judges was quoted as saying that the unanimous choice of the winning arabica variety from Benguet “blends the characteristics of apricot, lemongrass, pomelo, oolong tea, and the aroma of a rose.”

There is a high demand for good quality coffee beans, which buyers search for in the province.  Arabica is the choice because of its aroma and low caffeine content.

Yet, there is room for growth for this industry. And in order to compete with international brands, Soto emphasizes that farmers must veer away from traditional farming practices and begin to regularly prune trees, apply organic fertilizer, and join cupping events.  Planting more trees means a significant increase in production because new trees, particularly the yellow catura variety, have bigger beans.

As former PEF chairperson Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, SJ expressed, “For an area that envisions itself to become a center of a flourishing coffee industry, we must encourage farmers and advocates to learn the necessary steps to grow the industry to greater heights.” (Source: Beans that Count, Basic Guide to Coffee, Philippine Coffee Board, Inc.)

The future of these hardworking farmers of Atok, Benguet is indeed paved with the rich, aromatic scent of one of the best arabica coffees in the country.

Postscript to Typhoon Ompong:
Benguet farmers still hope for good coffee harvest

Coffee farmers of the town of Atok Benguet are holders of a well-deserved victory in a very competitive industry.

Buyers are surely knocking at the doorstep of these farmers to avail of the “best arabica coffee in the country.”

However, this year, coffee farms have been adversely affected when typhoon Ompong [International name: Mangkhut] hit the province in September 2018.

Based on reports, the cost of damage has reached PHP 5.3 million with at least 20,000 coffee trees affected, including those tended by more than 200 members of Atok Arabica Coffee Growers Marketing Cooperative (ACOGMAC). The damage reached a total of PHP 26.7 billion, according to Agricultural Secretary Emmanuel Piñol. “This is the highest damage to agriculture since Yolanda. In Yolanda, we have PHP 35 billion,” the Cabinet official noted.

The harvest season for coffee beans is between November and February but the farmers’ income will be affected because of the damage caused by the strong typhoon.

In the meantime, the Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF) extended assistance to ACOGMAC for fertilizer and piglets to augment their income while the coffee farms are recovering.

Aside from financial assistance, PEF has also provided training seminars aimed to improve farming practices in the area.

ACOGMAC only produces 20 percent of coffee in Benguet province. But with buyers continuously searching for good quality coffee beans, Atok farmers hope to bounce back and fill the void.