Human Face

Coconut sunrise

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Coconut woman is calling out/And every day you can hear her shout/Get your coconut water/Man, it’s good for your daughter/Coco got a lot of iron/Make you strong like a lion…

Thanks to Harry Belafonte’s hit song “Coconut Woman,” the wonders of the coconut had been immortalized in song long before coconut advocates of this decade aggressively pushed it to its deserved place in the world’s diet and quashed the West’s self-serving black prop.

Coconut refers not only to the edible fruit (or nut) but to the entire wonder tree—from root to crown—of which this country is blessed to have in abundance.

But it is bitter knowledge that the Philippines’ natural bounties have not always been harnessed to benefit the many. To say it bluntly, our coconut industry has miserably failed to be a flagship industry when it could have been. In decades past it was squeezed dry by rapacious beings that left the poor coconut farmers even poorer. Think coconut levy during the dark days of martial rule.

I have written a number of coconut articles of different lengths and focus. The coconut levy issue has always left me aghast because of how its wily crafters got away. To this day, the small coconut farmers who should have benefited from the levy have not seen the fruit of their forced contributions. “Kahit singkong duling (Not even a cross-eyed centavo)…”

More than a decade ago, entrepreneurs went into nata de coco (coconut gel) production. Alas, lack of supervision and quality control spelled doom while the Thais got the better of us.

And then there was the advent of the virgin coconut oil (VCO), the wonder potion that health buffs swear by. Books and books have been written on this VCO. But there’s more to the coconut.

There are individuals who have taken the word—spoken or written—to the next level. They not only speak and write coconut. They do coconut every day.

One of them is Jun A. Castillo Jr. who runs Coconut House at the Quezon City Memorial Circle, a small restaurant (more branches to open, he hopes) that showcases coconut products—delectable dishes, ice cream, coco sugar, and coconut health drinks. Ah, I must tell you about the drinks—sparkling coconut water, pasteurized coco nectar (tuba without the alcohol), skimmed coconut milk, coco coffee. There is even a “coco not soy” that tastes like oyster sauce.

And what do you know—“Coconut University” which needs more space than what I have here.

I was at the Circle last Monday (Earth Day) to meet a friend from the University of Michigan and to sign my books she’d be taking home with her. Castillo, a friend of hers, was there. Our lunch turned out to be a coconut feast, not only of the palatal kind but for the mind as well. We partook of and discussed coconuts.

We later proceeded to Castillo’s coconut ice cream factory on Kalayaan Avenue, where we saw coconut products being processed into a favorite tropical treat—ice cream.

Castillo is an economics graduate, not a coconut farmer. But he knows coconuts like the back of his hand. He belongs to the Philippine Coconut Society, composed of scientists, academics, health buffs, businessmen, farmers. He built Coconut House (coconuthousepinoy.blogpost.com) to promote the coconut as a great source of income for many Filipinos, to prove that it is not a sunset industry but a sunrise industry once more. Park joggers buy a lot of coco drinks.

The latest insect infestation notwithstanding, Castillo and like-minded advocates are forging on with their coconut agenda, with or without the help of the government.

But let me get ahead of myself by sharing what I heard for the first time: that coconuts can be grown as vegetables. So you with idle lands out there, here’s how.

Plant coconut seedlings with a two-meter distance in between (not the usual 10 for tall trees). After three years, uproot a third or half of them and immediately replace with a new batch of coconut seedlings. What to do with the uprooted three-year-old coconut trees? Ubod (or the coconut pith)! As in lumpiang ubod and other delicacies.  Ubod is in demand here and abroad.

Castillo computes and comes up with a windfall for growers of this low-maintenance crop. Better than copra, he will tell you. (Some trees must also be grown for copra.)

And the marketing? Not to worry. If you plant them, the buyers will come. Or leave it to the likes of him, Castillo seems to say. That is why there is the Philippine Coconut Society and the “Coconut University” for farmers where ideas are translated into how-tos.

Castillo is featured in the book “Joey Concepcion’s Go Negosyo: 50 Inspiring Stories of Agri-entrepreneurs” published by the Philippine Center for Entrepreneurship Foundation and edited by Tina Arceo-Dumlao (of the Inquirer’s Business section). Easy to read, wackily designed. Quoth Castillo:

“Coconut farmers can easily earn about P1 million per hectare of coconuts because there is great demand for coconut products. A hectare usually has about 100 coconut trees. Each tree can produce about four liters per day of coco nectar which can be turned into coconut drinks and dessert, among many.  At this rate, one hectare can produce 12,000 liters per month of nectar that can be sold for P20 per liter, providing the farmer with P240,000 per month or over P3 million per year.

“And that’s from coco nectar alone.

“There is no reason why the close to 4 million coconut farmers all over the Philippines should be among the poorest.”

There is more to coconuts than copra, dirt-cheap coco lumber, gata (coconut milk for cooking), VCO and walis tingting.

“Write a book!” I challenged Castillo while I sipped the chilled coco nectar and eyed the coconut noodles being served to us.

(Send feedback to cerespd@gmail.com or www.ceresdoyo.com)

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