Benjamin Lao : My First Love Is Farming
A farmer from Davao del Sur maximized his plantation by transforming coconuts into amazing value-added products.
“The amazing thing about the coconut palm is that it provides almost all the necessities of life: food, drink, oil, medicine, fiber, timber, thatch, mats, fuel, and domestic utensils, as well as serving important environmental services such as soil erosion control in coastal regions, wind protection and shade for other crops,” wrote Craig Elevitch, author of various books on tropical agriculture.
Benjamin R. Lao, who owns a farm in barangay Eman in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, is very much aware of the versatility of coconut. So much that he produces several products out of coconuts, including coco sugar and coco syrup. Both don’t only command good prices, there is also a big demand for them in national and international markets.
“More and more people in the United States, Europe, and Canada are looking for products that are natural and organically-grown,” says Lao. “My coco sugar and coco syrup are guaranteed 100-percent free from chemicals.”
This is the reason why he was able to penetrate the US market recently. “I am very much thankful to our government agencies like Department of Agrarian Reform and Department of Trade and Industry which helped us in the promotion and marketing of our products in other countries,” he says.
Lao also sells his coconut products at the display center right inside his farm. He also distributes in some outlets in nearby areas and in the cities of Digos, General Santos, and Butuan. In Davao City, he is negotiating with the management of the Robinson’s Supermarket to display his products. Those from Luzon can visit his office in Manila, which serves as the distributor of his products.
“My first love is farming,” he says. Both his parents were farmers and he grew up in a surrounding area where people were planting rice, corn, and several other crops. He owns only five hectares. Since the coconut planted in his farm are not enough for coconut sap production (the main sources of coco sugar and coco syrup), he entered into a lease agreement with other coconut farmers, particularly agrarian reform beneficiaries, in order to increase its production capacity.
Lao learned the technology of producing coco sugar and syrup from the Philippine Coconut Authority. “But I did some extensive research on how to improve the quality of our products for export,” he says. He also tapped the expertise of the Department of Science and Technology in regards to product development and good manufacturing practices.
“It’s an established fact that coconut food products can boost the human immune system and heal a lot of illnesses,” he answers when asked why he focuses more on coco sugar and coco syrup. “Coco products have low glycemic index, a measurement of blood sugar, thus they are good for diabetics and those having prostate problems. It has also glumatic acid, the same ingredient present in Viagra.”
Aside from coconut, his integrated, diversified farm is also teeming with various fruits like lanzones (more than a thousand trees), durian (700 trees), mangosteen, and rambutan. You won’t see his farm workers using chemical pesticides. “I had a tragic experience with chemical pesticides when I was still a teenager while cultivating rice in our farm located at the neighboring barangay,” he revealed.
Instead, he recommends using Eman, which stands for “epektibo, mura, at natural” (effective, cheap, and natural). “This is a concoction composed of fresh goats’ manure, kakawate, makabuhay, and hot pepper,” he informs. “These are soaked together for 48 hours and after that the concoction is ready for application.”
According to him, Eman is effective in repelling plant pests and diseases. In addition, it is also a good course of foliar fertilizer. “We are committed to help preserve our environment. We want to teach Filipino farmers the right way of farming through natural method and that is by not using commercial fertilizer or pesticides,” he says.
Lao also raises goats and pigs. He utilizes goat manure as fertilizer for his crops. On the other hand, he converts the pig manure as biogas. “We are able to save money since we are no longer buying LPG and firewood to cook our food and coco products,” he points out.
He further turns his other farm wastes into organic fertilizer using earthworms. Known as vermicomposting, it is the process of converting biodegradable wastes from households and farms into compost (organic soil) through the action of earthworms.
Aside from coco sugar and coco syrup, Lao also produces durian ice cream with goats milk and coco sugar as sweetener. “We also have ginger brew with coconut sugar, banana chips, coconut polvoron, coconut ball, hot chocolate or cacao with coconut sugar, and hot and spicy seasoning with coconut syrup, among many others,” he says.
He is one believer of value adding to a product. “Value adding is an important component in any farming system,” he explains. “For instance, if you have goats, you must know how to produce fresh milk and having other saleable products from the animals. In the case of coconut, don’t think only of copra because when it is cheaper, you can always have another product to sell.”
For all his laudable endeavors, he was a recipient of national awards from various government agencies and private sectors. In 2008, he was chosen as one of the outstanding farmers by the Department of Agriculture (DA). A press release issued by DA said that Lao has been efficiently managing his integrated coconut farm which earns his family a gross income of P500,000 per hectare.
In 2009, Lao received two recognitions: Presidential Award for Micro Enterprises, the BPI Family Savings Bank Business Excellence Award. Early this year, he was cited as the Mindanao Island wide winner of the government’s One Town One Product initiative.
“We are just a custodian of the earth’s resources,” he answers when inquired about the secret of his success. “We must have to take care of the things we borrowed from Him, particularly the environment. You must also complement your vision and ideas with hard work and perseverance. More importantly, you should be considerate to others, especially to your customers and employees.”
By Henrylito D. Tacio