Sericulture Grapples for Economic Toehold in CAR

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There’s this popular rhyming song you often sang during your kiddie days and goes this way: “Here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush; here we go round the mulberry bush, so early in the morning. . . “

Daily Laborer, during those kiddie days, too, and after asking permission from mulberry tree owners for him to pick mulberries, would stuff his pockets with the berries and eat them till sated while his teeth would be stained purple.

So his mother would say, “Go wash your teeth. It’s colored purple.” Off, this Daily Laborer would go to rinse his mulberry-stained teeth, and singing on his way, “This is the way we wash our face, wash our face, wash our face. . .”

Said song presently applies to a motley bunch of farmers and techno-entrepreneurs in Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) particularly in the provinces of Benguet and Apayao who refuse to surrender their mulberry bushes and trees and call it “quits” for the region’s moribund sericulture or silk farming.

Despite existing challenges and setbacks, factors that affect productivity and profitability of sericulture-based agroecosystems, those engaged in sericulture pine for the time when they can economically cash in profit from sales of raw silk fiber, the universally considered “Queen of Textiles.”

They pin their hope on institutional support from the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA), CAR line agencies like Department of Agriculture (DA), Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI), Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA), Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), Local Government Units (LGUs) and the academe to help improve the sericulture industry situation in CAR.

At the provincial Sericulture Center in Wangal, La Trinidad, Benguet, is where silkworm rearing, cocoon production and raw silk processing can be learned by any interested in sericulture. The facility serves as training center for silk production and as incubation area for silkworms needed by sericulturists.

Fundamentally, sericulture is an agricultural venture with main two-step process, which are, cultivation of mulberry trees and rearing of silkworms on mulberry leaves to produce cocoons.

Sericulture or silkworm culture for production of raw silk remains an infant or developmental stage in CAR, compared to other agri-based ventures, reason for need of joint help by government to boost sericulture development in the region.

Mulberry trees are where silkworms thrive, particularly the white mulberry variety. They eat the leaves, their primary food source. Silkworms, having a highly tuned olfactory receptor in their antennae, are attracted by the jasmine-scented chemical released by mulberry trees. The don’t thrive on other flora.

Octavio Nahetet, 56, from kapangan and techno- farmer who had been helping his father plant mulberries for a long time in their landholding, says mulberry production, silkworm rearing and operational financing altogether often contribute to low quality cocoon production and, therefore, low profitability.

Mulberry leaf production is a pre-requisite of sericulture, Nahetet said, being the food of the silkworms and followed by silkworm rearing for the production of cocoon that ends with processing of cocoons into raw silk fibers.

Nahetet said growth of silkworms depend mainly on the quality of mulberry leaves supplied as food. From experience, Nahetet found out silkworm rearing should be timed to the correct stage of leaf maturity, necessary to obtain quality cocoon crop.

Nahetet explained a cocoon is an oval-shaped object made by a mature silkworm larva by spinning silk proteins.

To obtain good cocoon, Nahetet said mulberry leaf is dependent on variety through good agricultural practices to stem worm mortality rates, because leaf quality ultimately reflects on the growth and development of silkworms and overall silk production.

Since mulberry leaves must be fresh for silkworms to eat, those engaged in sericulture in Benguet have found the difficulty of transporting them from long distances.

Another, Leoncio Badiwan, who said he learned sericulture by having worked in mulberry tree stands in barangays Lubo and Sagpat in Kibungan, said mulberry cultivation in Benguet and other parts of CAR started long even before the science of sericulture was introduced in the region, particularly to farmers in Sablan, Itogon and Kapangan in the early ‘80’s.

But Badiwan was emphatic on the need of farmers for technological trainings on sericulture like silkworm rearing that includes preservation of silkworm eggs, management of rearing rooms, handling of rearing equipment, prevention of silkworm diseases, supplying mulberry leaves and collecting mature larvae for transfer to cocooning frames.

Badiwan said that in Kapangan, old mulberry plantations have been revitalized with newly established mulberry areas and the municipality   presently is promoting sericulture as it “One-Town, One Product,” (OTOP).

There was also a recently-signed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the local government of Kabugao, in Apayao with FIDA, Apayao State College and DOST for planting of mulberry trees in 10 hectares of land in Kabugao for requirement of silkworms for cocoon production, Badiwan revealed.

Natural silk is a prized fabric in the textile industry and demand for it is high. However, both Badiwan and Nahetet said buyers of raw silk often pay less for the product, which is not even commensurate to the efforts exerted by the farmers.

A solution to such problem is for sericulturists to group themselves into a cooperative which can protect farmers by setting competitive price quotations for their raw silk products, Badiwan and Nahetet advised.

By forming into a cooperative, those engaged in sericulture in CAR can also offer contracts to buyers in Manila, which is concededly a competitive textile consumer.

Badiwan and Nahetet also revealed that aside from use of mulberry leaves in their sericulture endeavors, they found these very suitable for food of their livestock while the mulberry trees serve as buffer stands against the elements. Both happens to be correct.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) notes mulberry as “an exceptional forage,” based on its findings.

“Mulberry leaves are highly palatable and digestible and can be used as supplements replacing concentrates for cattle, main feed for goats, sheep, rabbits and as ingredient for food of fowls,” FAO said in its study, “Mulberry, an Exceptional Forage Available Almost Worldwide and written by FAO expert, Dr. Manuel D. Sanchez.

FAO noted that crude protein content in mulberry leaves register at 15-28 per cent, depending on variety and age of leaves. That is almost comparable to crude protein values found in   legumes eaten by humans.

A striking feature of mulberry leaves is the mineral content, with ash values up to 25 per cent, potassium, 1,90-2.87% in leaves and 1.33-1.53% in young stems and, magnesium at 0.47-0.63% in leaves and 0.26-0.35 in young stems.

One of the main features of mulberry is its high palatability, with cattle and fowl consuming the leaves even if they have never been exposed to it before.

In a comparative study, FAO noted, animals preferred mulberry leaves more over other forages when these are offered simultaneously, eating only the other forages after consuming the mulberry leaves. —Bony A. Bengwayan