Recently many farmers were asking me what is the best crop to farm. Considering my long years of experience as a hands-on farmer, technician of small landholders, and as consultant of a number of big landholders in planting rice, corn, fruit trees, coconut, banana, and other crops, my first choice is oil palm. Small landholders with three to five ha of farmlands should plant oil palm trees either the whole or part of the farm. If planting rice is never fun and coconut is a lazy man’s crop, considering that coconut is easy to plant and maintain, I consider oil palm trees as easier to plant and maintain than coconut trees, with lesser time required for maintenance, harvesting and selling. Here are the ten unique features of oil palm farming and the comparative advantages over other types of crop farming which make farming easy and fun for high income.
- 1. Easy to plant and maintain
Oil palm F1 hybrid is much similar to the best corn hybrid, it grows fast and is very sturdy once planted in the field. Oil palm trees are greener in weedy fields, where coconut trees may appear chlorotic due to weed competition. Oil palm is not prone to damage by moderate drought or floods once established as compare to possible extensive damage on field crops, lansones, durian, and other fruits. Where coconut trees are productive, oil palm trees are more productive with much higher yield and income. One need not cultivate the grass fields or burn the cut second growth forest trees to successfully plant oil palm trees. Let these plant materials decay as organic fertilizer for oil palm trees. That is the author’s experience on the simple and easy way to plant and bring oil palm trees to productivity. He successfully planted a five ha gmelina logged-over farm without any cultivation (Fig. 1). Few maintenance activities are needed in oil palm farming as compared to time-demanding activities of pruning, irrigation, and pesticide spraying in fruit farming; weekly leaf pruning, monthly fertilization, and desuckering in commercial banana farming.
- 2. Wide range of adaptability
Oil palm is successfully grown in flat upland plains to hilly lands with less than 18o slope, newly drained swampy areas and drained lowland rice fields. It does not require extensive drainage canals as in Cavendish or lakatan banana farming. Most oil palm hybrids are highly productive at lower elevations of not more than 500 MASL much similar to the elevation requirements of mango, pummelo and other tropical tree crops. However, there are new oil palm hybrids which are suitable for higher elevations of up to 1000 MASL where many tropical crops including fruit and rubber trees are no longer suitable. This offers the opportunity for oil palm to be used in reforesting the denuded and cogonal highlands so as to convert these highlands to economic prosperity.
- 3. Provide early and long years of income
Oil palm trees produce the first commercial quantity of fruit bunches in just 24 to 28 months after field planting (Fig. 2). An even earlier farm income of within a year of establishment can be achieved if newly planted oil palm trees are intercropped with field crops like rice, corn, vegetables, peanut and other legumes (Fig. 3). It can also be intercropped with Lakatan banana or pineapple. No one is too old to plant and expect income with oil palm trees. Oil palm farming insures that the senior citizen -farmer gets regular high income to meet his medicine needs and for vacation to other countries. In contrast, coconut trees and many other fruit trees come to bearing on the average of five years after planting. Oil palm trees have long duration of productivity of 30 years or longer, meaning plant once and harvests every ten days in 30 years. This makes oil palm attractive for investment and is highly bankable. No defaulting of bank loans properly used for oil palm farming is reported in Malaysia and Southern Thailand.
- 4. An environmentally friendly crop
Oil palm trees have fewer pest and disease problems compared to rice, corn, vegetables, mango, durian, pummelo, and other high value crops. Subsequently, they require minimal amount of pesticides and lesser sprayings. Mango would require six to seven pesticide sprays during fruiting season; so with durian and more so with pummelo which may need 10 to 12 sprayings from flowering to fruit development against rind borer. Cavendish and Lakatan banana requires 22 sprayings of fungicides and insecticides per year!
Mature oil palm trees require lesser amount of fertilizer compared to commercial hybrid corn and banana plants. To insure high yield in hybrid corn farming and for a yield of 10 tons/ha or more, a farmer needs to apply 12 bags of fertilizer/crop or 24 bags for two crops a year. Commercial Lakatan or Cavendish banana farming requires 32 to 35 bags/ha per year of fertilizer for optimum productivity. With mature oil palm, only 18 bags of fertilizer is needed/ha per year for optimum productivity. Such amount can be reduced to ten bags if the oil palm farmer supplements organic fertilizer which he may produce through vermiculture using palmoil processing waste within his farm.
Compared to coconut trees, mature oil palm trees have more extensive canopy. Weeds in a mature plantation are limited requiring less herbicide spraying for weed control. That’s why a lower plant density of oil palm trees is recommended if production of small ruminants is incorporated in palmoil farming to promote the growth of grasses under the oil palm trees for livestock grazing (Fig. 4).
An oil palm plantation also creates a very healthful environment. Under its canopy is a cool environment free of pesticide sprays and suitable for vermiculture and small livestock production like native chickens, ducks, goats, and pigs (Fig. 5). It is also ideal and safe for shading in parks, resorts, and residences unlike coconut trees whose falling leaves and fruits are dangerous to passersby. Using royal, foxtail or fishtail palms in farm resorts and parks give shade and beauty. Oil palm trees give these both plus income from the fruits. Using oil palm trees in place of ornamental palms is a common practice in highend hotels, resorts, and highways in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand for beauty and income.
- 5. More frequent and higher income than most crops
Oil palm fruits are harvested and give income to the farmers every ten days. Therefore a palmoil farmer receives more frequent income than an employee who receives his salary every 15 days. A coconut farmer harvests and gets income every three to four months. So with a rice and corn farmer if he is industrious enough to plant every four months. A fruit tree farmer gets income only once or twice a year. A sugar cane farmer gets income only once a year and plant sugar cane every two to three years. An oil palm farmer in a medium suitable farm for palmoil production gets at least P182,000.00/ha per year, P15,167.00 per month or P5,505.00 every ten days. In farms highly suitable for oil palm production, the yearly income of P325,500.00/ha per year or P9,042.00/ten days is achievable.
- 6. Easier harvesting and post-harvest handling
A coconut farmer normally processes his nuts into copra before selling. A corn farmer has to shell and dry his corn grains for two or more days before selling. Many fruit crops require intensive and expensive post-harvest practices after each harvest. Not with oil palm farming as the farmer has only to harvest, load to a vehicle (pick-up, high forward or 10-wheelers) and deliver to the milling plant within 2 to 3 days after harvest, the earlier the better for high oil quality, and collect the payment (Fig. 6). Much similar to sugar cane farming except that palmoil needs fewer harvesters than sugar cane which need a “sacada” of harvesters. This is the reason why many highly productive irrigated sugar cane fields in Thailand are converted to irrigated oil palm trees to escape the problem of farm labor shortages. And by the way, irrigated oil palm trees yield 10 tons of fruits higher than the non-irrigated oil palm trees. The added ten tons yield has a value of P75,000.00 much higher than what a rice farmer’s net in come in two croppings a year of irrigated rice farm.
- 7. Cheap harvesting and post-harvest handling
Harvesting and post-harvest handling of palmoil is cheaper compared to coconut, rubber, and other crops. The cost of harvesting and delivering a ton of oil palm fruits to the milling plant is less than P500. This means 7% of the gross sale, assuming a price of P7,500/ton. With rubber and coconut, the farmers normally spend 1/3 of the gross sale for harvesting and processing or P2,500 is paid to labor for harvesting and processing for every P7,500 of gross sale. A rice and corn farm generally spends 20% of his gross sale for harvesting, threshing, and drying.
- 8. Least affected by climate change; help mitigate climate change
Compared to crops like rice and corn the production of palmoil is less adversely affected by climate change. Complete crop failure can happen with rice, corn, and other field crops when moderate to extreme drought or flood occurs but not with oil palm. In the process of photosynthesis, oil palm trees are heavy consumers of CO2 from the atmosphere and in the process help reduce the “greenhouse effect” which causes climate change. Current techniques in oil palm production insure zero waste management. The by-products of milling are used to produce biofuel, biogas and electricity which reduce dependence on petroleum oil from the Arab countries. And by the way increase in the price of petroleum oil from the Middle East is not a worry to an oil palm farmer as this also increases the price of his oil palm fruits. The price of palmoil increased in parallel to petroleum oil as palmoil is commercially use as biofuel.
- 9. Negligible pilferage and stealing
In the experience of the author as a farmer, most fruit crops like banana, durian, pummelo, etc are prone to stealing. In many fruit farm in Mindanao, high expenses are incurred to pay the salary of farm guards. Otherwise the theft would harvest the fruits ahead of the owner. Pilferage is a serious problem in rubber farming. As the joke states, when a tapper (harvester) of rubber harvest during the day he get 1/3 of the gross income. The other 2/3 is the income of the farm owner. When the tapper harvest at night, he gets all the income. Not with palmoil as it is very difficult to steal and sell. The author decided to cut his highly productive hybrid coconut trees grown in five ha seven years ago, seven km away from his residence, as the theft is always ahead of his laborers in harvesting. With his oil palm trees, no stealing is noted.
- 10. Give rise to productive farming enterprises
Oil palm farming generates and diversifies farmers’ economic activities for higher income particularly among small landholders with five ha of landholding or less. That is why in communities of Southern Thailand where oil palm farming is a dominant crop, farming become vibrant, dynamic and progressive. This is because in oil palm farming, a farmer spends only one day every ten days for harvesting of ripe fruit bunches. Another day is need for maintenance like ring weeding, leaf-pruning, and fertilization. Both activities are carried out in a cool and healthful environment under the canopy of the oil palm trees. As noted in Southern Thailand, the eight free days plus part of the high income of the farmer are used to develop other farming enterprises for added income right under his mature oil palm trees. After all, the environment under the oil palm trees is highly suitable for mushroom production, vermiculture for organic fertilizer production, raising of small ruminants like swine, goats, and sheeps, broilers and native chicken for game and food. In many parts of Malaysia and Southern Thailand, oil palm farmers are raising “Pawakan”, a native chicken also found in Jolo and Basilan, for food and recreation as cock fighting for fun as betting is prohibited in Muslim communities. Outside his oil palm farm a farmer engages in the production of other crops – rice, corn, fruit trees, fish culture, fishing in the lakes and other bodies of water, carpentry work, retail stores, etc. In communities where oil palm farming is prominent in Indonesia and Thailand, rural enterprises become progressive, dynamic and vibrant. Farmers have the capacity to construct cemented and galvanized houses. Cogon and nipa houses are things of the past in these communities. Oil palm farmers have the capacity to buy brand new household appliances, cars and other four-wheeled vehicles, personal goods and a variety of nutritious foods. In fact, in Southern Thailand eating with friends in the restaurant and parks in the evening is a favorite pastime of oil palm farmers.
A challenge. . .
It’s high time to give our field crop farmers in Southern Philippines the needed break. For years farmers have been engaged in back aching and rigorous farm activities of planting various field crops under the scorching heat of the sun. Not necessarily for food but for cash to support the other needs of the family. These farmers need assistance in utilizing a part or a whole of their farms to plant an easy-to-plant and maintain oil palm trees. Idle and underutilized lands largely infested by cogon should be reforested using oil palm trees both for food and climate change mitigation. Large areas grown to old and senile coconut trees should be replaced with oil palm trees.
A famous Canadian Agricultural Scientist, Dr. T.H. Fairhust was correct in saying that oil palm is “the greatest crop of Southeast Asia”. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southern Thailand, the rural populace are enjoying the prosperity brought about by high income in oil palm farming. Although Southern Philippines is a part of the world’s best area for oil palm farming, its populace is not enjoying this prosperity. This is mainly because the Philippine government has not promoted the planting of oil palm at the level similar to those being carried out by the governments of the three other countries mentioned above. Oil palm farming can help bring prosperity to the impoverished communities of Southern Philippines with rich agricultural resources. The small landholders should be taught and provided with resources to plant oil palm trees similar to what is done in neighboring countries in the South. The prosperity of farmers in oil palm farming will likewise bring prosperity to the country as a whole. Oil palm farming should be nurtured to become a major type of crop farming in Southern Philippines.
About the author
A retired Professor of the University of Southern Mindanao, he received many national honors and awards while in the government service. Among these are the National Outstanding Agricultural Scientist Award in Malaca?an Palace in 1998. He is a senior author of six books on fruit production and is actively writing books on palmoil and rubber farming. Currently, he co-manages a family farm of 40-ha of rice, coconut, fruits, rubber and oil palm trees. He traveled extensively and regularly to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to document innovative practices in rubber and palm oil production. He can be contacted through his email address firstname.lastname@example.org and CP # +639189081227.
- A logged-over gmelina farm. The trees were cut without burning or plowing before planting to oil palm hybrid three years ago (a). The oil palm trees (b) are never productive. Take note of the decaying stump of gmelina.
- Ms. Marisa E. Garcia, an oil palm researcher at USM besides a 28 months old oil palm tree already producing fruits of commercial quality.
Income from oil palm farming comes as early as the first year when intercrop with field crops like (a) pineapple, (b) upland rice, (c) Lakatan banana, (d) hybrid corn, and (e) legumes (pictures b,c, d & e through the courtesy of the MPOB in Malaysia).
- Livestock production is a highly viable enterprise in oil palm farms. Shown above are (a) cattle grazing between palm trees at Triple P oil palm farm in Kabacan, Cotabato and (b) goats in oil palm farm in Malaysia
5. Under the canopy of the oil palm trees at Triple P oil palm farm is a cool environment conducive to the conduct of several farming enterprises like vermiculture, mushroom production, production of native chicken, ducks, turkey, broilers and (b) cattle.
6. Pick-up vehicles of small landholders with 3 to 5 ha carrying fresh fruit bunches of oil palm (a) going to the milling plant for delivery. Upon weighing and unloading in the milling (b) the farmer is paid for his delivery.