Poverty alleviation through mushroom farming in Mindanao
Text and photo by Gina Mission

Fifteen years ago, Jose Nobleza, Jr., a gentleman farmer in Toril, Davao del Sur, decided to find out how poor tenant farmers would perform if someone picked them up from their state of deprivation and provided with opportunities for economic advancement. Nobelza, who used to be a contract grower of bananas, formed a "control group" of 15 farmers who are tenants of a neighboring farm, for his experiment.

___Today, the members of the control group have not only risen from poverty, they have also managed to integrate into urban living in Davao City. More significantly, they are pursuing a mission of empowerment, a mission which, in Nobleza’s vision, "would set the Mindanao poor free from the bondage of poverty" through waste management and mushroom farming.

___Two years ago, Nobleza set up Sakalaya, a "closed" service cooperative to carry out Nobelza’s vision by breaking the island’s indifference to mushroom culture, and to be able to take advantage of the support government is giving to cooperatives. Its closed membership does not negate its name, which comes from two Filipino root words saka, meaning "farm" and laya, "free". Loosely, this translates in English to "freedom farming."

___"The coop is for farmer empowerment and is against lopsided contracts with big land owners. But we want to focus on the effectiveness of our members. We don’t want a big but loose group. We’d rather have a small but successful one," explained Nobleza.

Mushrooms and Mindanao

___Mushroom farming, according to Nobleza, is largely taken for granted by most Mindanaoans. He observed that a lot of horticultural products have been grown extensively in the area, except mushrooms. With Mindanao’s abundant resources and mushroom’s dietary, health and economic potentials, it is ironic that Mindanaoans hardly eat mushroom at all. Those who do have to deal with the high prices of imported supplies.

___Mushrooms are edible fungi. The life cycle - birth, living, eating, excretion, replication, aging, death and finally decomposing – is made possible by a complex process involving fungi. In scientific terms, fungi are the earth’s digestive system, dissolving dead and decaying matter and making nutrients available to form new substances again.

___Most trees and many plants cannot grow without their fungal partnerships. Antibiotics make extensive use of fungi. At present, fungi are used for genetic research and in the production of organic acids. Yeast, which is used in bread, wine, beer or French brandy, is a one-celled fungus. Among the health conscious, mushrooms are regarded as a health food for cancer prevention and a low-cholesterol diet.

___While it may seem like mushrooms sprout overnight, they actually take days or weeks to develop. Most of the growth of a fungus goes unnoticed because it occurs underground. Fungi grow almost everywhere, on every natural material imaginable: On trees, large logs, soil, decomposing leaves, dung, mulch and compost.

___The very nature of mushrooms makes Mindanao perfect for their cultivation. According to Nobleza, around 3,000 mushroom varieties - 2,000 of which are edible - are found in the island. With 60 per cent of the country’s coconut supply coming from Mindanao and most of the bananas produced in the country grown there, the island has a large supply of materials that are natural hosts for mushrooms. It makes good sense, therefore, Nobleza said, to cultivate mushrooms there because it thrives in these substances which are readily available and which are just being burned or thrown away as scrap.

___Nobleza pointed out that Mindanao offers two million hectares of land, complete with an agricultural system in place, and the organic wastes necessary for mushroom cultivation.

___On a per capita basis, mushroom consumption of one kilo-a-year for Mindanao’s 16 million people would mean an annual demand of 16 million kilos of mushroom. However, the present production in Davao, according to Nobleza, is only 112,000 kilos per year.

___The country’s proximity to Asian countries with high mushroom consumption, as well as Mindanao’s membership in the East Asian Growth Area (EAGA) growth corridor which includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (BIMP), bolsters its advantage as a potential mushroom capital of Asean, Nobleza pointed out. He said that the mushroom production of Thailand, Taiwan and China has reached saturation point so that any significant additional market demand would have to be sourced elsewhere.

___"Clearly, Mindanao has the competitive edge for mushroom farming," Nobleza declared.

___Most people, however, fail to see this opportunity. Nobleza lamented that "For them, mushrooms are not something to be serious about." While he said that some people in Davao have gone into the commercial production of mushrooms, he stressed that these are "not enough" to address the needs of the people in Mindanao. "We simply lack ‘mushroom consciousness’," he added.

___Aside from Davao, only Benguet and Tagaytay are known to commercially produce mushrooms. But, as Nobleza pointed out, Benguet could not even supply the demand of its neighbors. And Tagaytay’s mushroom supply, is "only good for its burger houses."

___Part of the problem, Nobleza said, is, unlike in China, Japan, Thailand and other Asian countries, mushrooms have not really been introduced in the country as a major dietary factor. As a result, there has not been established a major mushroom industry in the country. Up to this day, the Philippines still imports dried mushrooms from China and canned varieties from Thailand.

___"This is really ridiculous," he said. "We were the first to develop the mushroom technology, we have all the resources to grow mushrooms on a large scale, and yet we’re importing its processed product."

Sakalaya’s mushroom program

___Sakalaya is aggressively promoting mushroom farming in Mindanao because, as Nobleza said, "We want the government to realize the potential of mushroom farming in Mindanao in its poverty alleviation program."

___Nobleza’s control group in Sakalaya has conducted project studies on mushroom farming and presented these to government agencies, particularly the Department of Science and Techonology (DOST) and the Department of Agriculture (DA). This is where the "learned skills" of Sakalaya members are put to use.

___"What we badly need now is a massive ‘mushroom education’ not only for the farmers but also for consumers as well," Nobleza said. DOST-Davao has already provided financial support for Sakalaya’s region-wide information campaign on mushroom farming. Davao-based NGOs, he disclosed, are also getting involved.

___Agriculture Secretary Edgardo Angara has also favorably endorsed Sakalaya’s plan to develop a big mushroom farm in Mindanao.

___Sakalaya is targeting the end of the year for its first crop of mushrooms. "We will be using a low-cost, low-maintenance mushroom variety. It does not need chemical input and its life cycle is only two months, after which it is ready for harvest," Nobleza said.

___With Mindanao’s favorable weather, Sakalaya is confident of its success. "Mushrooms are not very sensitive to climatic changes. Plus we rarely have calamities here," Nobleza added.

___Nobleza is weary of the age-old complaint that Mindanao not getting enough attention from the national government. Which is one of the reasons why Sakalaya is pushing mushroom farming.

___"Because we don’t need a big investment for this, we can go ahead with our project with or without government support. All signs point to Mindanao as a strategic and important economic player in the country and in Asia. If we don’t move now and instead wait for the government to do things for us, we will miss this opportunity. We won’t let that happen," Nobleza said.

___Other Sakalaya members agree. If there is one good thing all those years of government neglect has given Sakalaya members, it is that they have become wiser and bolder. Today, they feel empowered enough to take their own future and development in their own hands.

___Saka-laya indeed.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.08.26