How to Milk Carabaos

Article | 8 November 2010

Promising but cash-poor agricultural ventures across the Philippines are taking advantage of an ADB project that provides funds for equipment, transport networks, and other facilities, helping poor farmers scale up their incomes.

Talavera, Nueva Ecija - The words "carabao" and "slim" do not normally occupy the same thought. But for health-conscious fans of the milk from this rotund icon of Philippine agriculture, which has less fat than cow's milk, they go together like bread and butter.

Joyce Ramones of the agrarian reform office in Nueva Ecija is living proof that carabao milk is healthful. At 46 years old, this regular carabao-milk drinker showed off a svelte figure and youthful looks that belie her age." I not only stay fit and slim, I also have no hypertension because of low levels of cholesterol from carabao milk," she declared.

Milk from carabao, a type of water buffalo, is gaining popularity. The Nueva Ecija Federation of Dairy Carabao Cooperatives - in Talavera, a town famous for its fresh carabao milk and sweets called pastillas de leche - produces the most milk in the province. From its 27 farmer cooperatives and 5 associate-member cooperatives, it procures 1,000 to 1,200 liters of milk daily, enough for a small-scale operation.

Yet even that fell far short of the 5,000-liter requirement, for example, of a major ice cream maker that approached them for an exclusive supply contract.

From its early ragtag operations using plastic pails and containers, the federation has been transformed into a modern and sanitary enterprise using stainless-steel containers for collection and storage.

It started with only nine member cooperatives in 2002, when it became apparent that an umbrella group could better distribute the highly perishable dairy product and compete for better pricing and quality control. Most of its daily volume, or 650 liters, is sold as raw milk, and the rest processed. It also markets dairy products to major food and gift stores in Metro Manila and other big cities.

Going Nationwide

ADB fits into this picture through the Agrarian Reform Communities Project (ARCP) implemented by the government's Department of Agrarian Reform, and providing about P500,000 (US$10,752) worth of equipment for milk collection, quality control, beef management, and training.

The nationwide ARCP - to which ADB contributed a US$93.2-million loan out of a total project cost of US$168.9 million in 1998 - benefited nearly 30,000 rural households or 140 agrarian reform communities in almost 1,000 poverty-stricken villages.

To qualify, farmers had to own land but lack the basic infrastructure and support services needed to reap its full potential. They also had to organize themselves into agrarian reform communities. The project provided these communities with roads, bridges, communal irrigation, drinking water sources, or other infrastructure - whatever was deemed necessary.

With the success of the ARCP, completed in 2007, ADB approved Phase II in October 2008, focusing on the southern Philippines, where three-quarters of the country's rural poor live. The ARCP II will assist 152 agrarian reform communities covering 731 barangays (districts) in 137 municipalities of 18 provinces in 6 regions. Beneficiaries are expected to increase to about 215,000 rural community members with the inclusion of the 3 provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

For the federation in Nueva Ecija, besides the equipment, the ARCP provided six farm-to-market road networks in Talavera to improve access to markets and reduce transportation and hauling costs. ARCP funds built the concrete road leading to the cooperative's milk collection and processing and marketing center in the Unlad Buhay agrarian reform community, in barangay San Ricardo.

Typhoon Proof

The federation helped provide farmers with lucrative income opportunities. Andy Vallarte, 64, the federation's vice chair and one of almost 700 farmers supplying milk, earns P29 (US$0.62) per liter from the 10 to 11 liters a day he milks from his two carabaos. That means that, rain or shine, he nets up to P8,000 (US$172) per carabao per month. He would earn the same from a 1-hectare rice field per year.

"I don't have any losses in dairy farming. Even if there is a typhoon, I can still milk my carabao," said Vallarte. He no longer incurs high-interest debt just to get by, and if he needs to borrow money for an emergency, he can pay it back right away with his income from carabao milk.

Long known as the "rice bowl of the Philippines," Nueva Ecija could soon also be known as the "dairy capital." Indeed, with milk and dairy products accounting for a quarter of total agricultural imports, the potential for carabao milk farming is promising.