The unique properties of rubber make it one of the most widely used material since it is elastic, bouncy, and moldable. It is found in finished products ranging from children’s toys and birthday balloons to car tires and hand gloves.
In the Philippines, natural rubber production remains an emerging industry even though the country started growing trees at around the same time as Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
As per businessdiary.com.ph report, rubber is one of the top 5 priority commodities of the Department of Agriculture (DA). Aside from generating employment in the rural areas, planting rubber in idle hilly lands and uplands will enhance environmental rehabilitation, being a good plant specie in sequestration of carbon dioxide. Also, the Philippines ranked sixth in the world’s list of rubber producers, with annual production of 122,000 metric tons.
Today, nearly 50 percent of every auto tire and 100 percent of all aircraft tires are made of this natural material sourced from a milky sap known as latex, harvested from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis).
Rubber as perennial income source
“Unlike other crops, like corn, what we like about farming rubber trees is that it is a long term venture,” said Nelfred Combalan, the older brother of Godwin, whose 1.8 hectare farm is planted with 486 rubber trees intercropped with cacao, as well as with corn and vegetables on the side. “It also needs little maintenance and we don’t have to make much fuss about it,” interjected the younger Godwin.
As I munched a boiled banana for snack during their interview at the farm, I was informed by Nelfred that Idong-Idong Farm (Idong is ‘ilong’ in Higaonon or nose in English) which was established in 2014 is more on rubber trees, and another area in Kumpasan, is now planted with highland vegetables and coconuts.
The farming dynamics of the Combalan brothers is already defined since Godwin takes care of the cash crops and chickens that give them food and sustenance, while Nelfred looks after the rubber trees. Sometimes, they like to mix things up and swap farm areas to busy themselves with. Come harvest season, the duo combines their farming might and supplies their family with their bounty. The brothers attribute their farming success to their sheer stamina, dedication, and strength since their father Edmundo Combalan is now in his 70s.
Currently, Godwin is the president of the 4H-Club Dumalaguing Youth Organization while Nelfred is the president of the Dumalaguing Rubber Planters Association (DURPA).
As of this writing, the latest profit of their latex is 24 thousand pesos in early May which was sold by gallons according to technician Dayana Padilla.
The brothers’ effort and hard work has paid off for making both ends meet aside from the arduous task of maintaining two farms in opposite directions.
Investing in flowing “white gold” and other crops
“Our main crops and money maker is our cash crops such as corn, adlai, sweet peas and sweet peppers which is in Kumpasan. Aside from the coconuts and copra which we profit from time to time, I also took advantage of the available spring water here in the farm by putting in some tilapia fingerlings”, Nelfred said.
Idong-Idong Farm is 18 kilometers from Impasugong proper, and going to their other farm in Kumpasan would take the brothers another 5 kilometers to get there. “Baklayon nako isa ka oras ug tabokon pa ug opat ka suba ayha ka maka-abot sa pikas farm. Problema kung ma-trap ka inig saka sa tubig kay mubaha”, (From Impasugong, I have to walk for an hour and walk past four rivers in order to get to the other farm. The problem comes when the water would rise and you’ll get trapped) Godwin shared.
Prior to the pandemic, Nelfred and Godwin provide their farm as venue to campers with a corresponding fee, as well as cater their native chicken for a sumptuous chicken-based dish. With the onslaught of the pandemic, the brothers are busy expanding their farm with more coconut trees, abaca, fruit trees such as lanzones, mango, marang, durian, rambutan, and falcata trees.
Nelfred then proceeded by showing us how latex is collected and harvested. The latex, which gradually flows in a spiral manner through rubber tapping, is considered “white gold” among local folks. Natural rubber latex does not spoil and can be stored for many years.
Rubber tapping is the process by which latex is collected from the rubber tree. The latex is harvested by slicing a groove into the bark of the tree at a depth of one-quarter inch (6.4 mm) with a hooked knife and peeling back the bark. Trees must be approximately six years old and six inches (150 mm) in diameter in order to be tapped for latex.
Rubber is usually marketed as centrifuged latex, cup lumps, crepe sheets, crumb rubber and smoked. Marketing is usually done through local and provincial assemblers then to processors/traders and manufacturers.
The LGU of Impasugong was among the first to organized a rubber project and established a buying station in Bukidnon.
The Philippine Rubber Research Institute
The Philippine government through the Department of Agriculture established the Philippine Rubber Research Institute (PRRI) to comprehensively realize the goals of human empowerment and economic development in the countryside through programs and projects that will increase rubber production in the country, and improve the quality of life especially in poor rural communities that depend primarily on this industry.
The newly-created institute will be under the control and supervision of the Department of Agriculture as one of its attached agencies. It is mandated to initiate and administer research and development (R&D) programs to improve quality and increase productivity of rubber especially for the benefit of smallholder rubber producers and processors.
Bright prospect seen in the rubber industry
The Philippines has large extent of potential lands suitable for expanding the cultivation of rubber.
In Northern Mindanao, other than its favorable weather conditions, a total of 500,000 hectares of potential area for rubber production was identified.
As consumers and the companies that buy rubber grow more discerning about rubber’s environmental and social impact, the pressure builds on the industry to produce sustainable natural rubber, grown in a way that protects forests while meeting rising demand for the commodity.
It takes about seven years for a rubber tree to mature before it can produce rubber for tapping, and intercropping rubber with timber trees and fruit trees is a smart move for the brothers since it counters the ill effects of monoculturing.
The Combalan brothers are on the right track since they are diligent in attending trainings mounted by the MAO of Impasugong, the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), or from the academe such as Central Mindanao University (CMU).
Meanwhile, the LGU of Impasugong and the MAO have been supportive of the brother’s rubber farming endeavors since 2014 by extending farm inputs assistance through the provision of rubber plant seedlings and buddings, fertilizers, trainings, and other technical and post-training support.
The expected increase in domestic and global demand for natural rubber is an opportune time to strengthen the rubber products industry in the country, and the Combalan brothers are ready to produce and contribute to a promising and growing industry.