Cacao’s untapped potential: Pangasinan fruit grower promotes permaculture through cacao farming

Conrado Soriano drying the cacao beans in the sun. (Royal Cocoa Farm)


Conrado Soriano is the owner of Royal Cocoa Farm and Cocoa Federico in Mangaldan, Pangasinan. His journey in cacao farming traces back to his childhood when his father introduced him to the world of planting cacao. Although initially skeptical about pursuing a career in farming, Conrado’s perspective changed once he reached the age of 50. The realization of his deep-rooted passion for cacao led him to contemplate the idea of planting thousands of cacao trees. With a determined mindset, Conrado set a goal to plant 10,000 trees, a number that would require several years of dedicated effort.

Mr. and Ms. Soriano make the chocolate drink out of their tablea products. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

Pioneering cacao farming in Pangasinan

Originally a marine engineering graduate, Conrado chose not to pursue a career in his field of study. Instead, he ventured into the industry of mango flower induction and exportation, along with the distribution of agricultural produce in the Metro Manila area. In 1992, he expanded his interests into ornamental plants and gardening. After amassing a collection of ornamental plants for a year, he decided to open a garden store in Pangasinan. It was on that day that a landscaper made a considerable purchase, and Soriano realized the potential profitability of selling plants.

“Over time, people began to inquire if I could provide landscaping services,” Conrado said in Tagalog. “Although I had no prior experience at that point, I decided to accept the offer. I started learning how to landscape, and soon enough, I had clients approaching me to transform their spaces.”

The landscaping business played a crucial role in Soriano’s life, as it enabled him to financially support the education of his three children. At present, Soriano considers his landscaping business as a side career, as his primary focus lies on taking care of his cacao farm.

Prolific fruiting of cacao. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

His cacao journey began as an accident: A customer placed an order for 1000 cacao seedlings. However, the customer failed to pick up the order at the agreed-upon time. As months passed and the seedlings grew in size, it became necessary for Conrado to transplant them into grow bags. Eventually, the customer expressed the desire to still receive the order, but Soriano explained that an additional cost would be incurred due to the investment made in rebagging the seedlings. Unfortunately, the customer refused to pay the additional charges, and as a result, Soriano chose not to fulfill the order.

Soriano shared his decision with his wife, stating that they should not sell the cacao seedlings. “This became my personal challenge – to become the first cacao farmer in Pangasinan and plant these seedlings myself. I remained steadfast in my determination and have now successfully established a cacao farm,” he said

Devotion and development on the farm

Conrado planted the cacao seedlings in May 2011, and after three years, they started to bloom. However, at that time, there was no concrete plan for marketing the cacao pods or making products out of them. Initially, the belief was that planting the cacao trees would be sufficient, and the marketing aspect could be sorted out later, with the expectation of reaping the benefits in due course. Seeking guidance, Conrado reached out to the provincial agriculture office for technical support to improve the farm.

Each fruit trees are propagated and taken care in polybags for before planting permanently in the farm. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

In the province of Pangasinan, cacao was relatively unfamiliar since the predominant focus of the local population revolved around rice and corn farming. Fortunately, Conrado had the opportunity to participate in a paid training program for basic cacao farming, which included a farm tour to Batangas and Laguna. During their training program, the participants also had the opportunity to visit Conrado’s impressive 8000-square-meter cacao farm in Pangasinan. This visit marked the first time the Department of Agriculture had set foot on his farm, and they were astounded by what they discovered. Conrado had not only established a thriving cacao plantation but had also planted a substantial number of cacao trees.

Conrado plans to further expand his production and has acquired 16.8 hectares of land in the western part of Pangasinan. However, realizing the need for assistance in managing the farm, he is actively searching for partners.

The farm is still in the process of development and requires financial investments. Whenever funds are available, Conrado undertakes gradual development, making progress step by step.

Cacao are cauliflory, which means that they bear flowers and fruits on stem. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

The cacao plants used in their farm originated from a Trinitario variety found in their backyard. In coordination with the local government, Conrado received 500 seedlings of UF18 and BR25 cacao varieties. Additionally, through sponsorship from the Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producer Association, they propagated criollo cacao last year. The scion, a plant part used for grafting, was provided from Cebu. This distinction makes Conrado the first cacao criollo farmer in Pangasinan.

In the propagation process, Conrado initially nurtures the seedlings in plastic bags to ensure their care and prevent competition from weeds. Once the seedlings have established themselves, they are transplanted, which aids in boosting their growth and facilitates earlier flower production.

Conrado Soriano firmly believes in treating his trees with care and refraining from any form of abuse. He practices organic farming, avoiding the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The National Organic Board once paid him a visit, providing valuable suggestions to help them attain certification and improve their organic farming practices.

Given the extremely hot weather in Region I, Conrado prioritizes the water system. To safeguard their cacao trees from wilting, they invested in a centrifugal pump. This investment has proven crucial in maintaining the health and well-being of their cacao trees.

The farm boasts different varieties of cacao such as Criollo. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

To further enhance their operations, they constructed a processing factory called Cocoa Federico, named as a tribute to Conrado’s father. The farm has three main products: Cocoa Federico tablea de cacao (sweetened and unsweetened cocoa tablets) and cacao nibs.

Permaculture: a sustainable farming concept

Conrado is a firm believer in permaculture, a concept that emphasizes minimal replanting by maintaining crops like cacao through regular maintenance, watering, and sanitation. Soriano envisions the widespread adoption of permaculture in the Philippines to benefit farmers.

“In contrast to rice, which needs to be replanted each time, cacao only requires a one-time planting,” Conrado said. “This is my unique idea, and currently, there are no existing programs specifically focused on this farming method.”

In addition to cacao trees, Conrado has also planted avocado and guyabano (soursop) trees. His approach involves allocating 80% of the land for cacao cultivation, while the remaining portion is dedicated to a mixture of fruit trees. Among the fruit trees in his farm, Conrado specifically mentions having jackfruit trees as well.

Aside from cacao, fruit trees such as durian are also planted in the farm. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

The market challenge: From farm to consumer

Conrado is currently facing a challenge regarding the market for his products. Despite having a variety of products, the lack of a market poses a significant problem. This issue is particularly crucial as perishable fruits need to be sold promptly after harvest. To address this, Conrado is conducting experiments to find ways to preserve their fruits. One method they are trying involves storing some fruits in zip lock bags and refrigerating them for further processing, such as making jackfruit jam.

In an effort to showcase their products and gain exposure, Conrado participated in the Philippine Food Expo held at SMX Mall of Asia. This event held great significance for them as they had the opportunity to meet numerous individuals who were willing to lend a helping hand. Moreover, many people expressed genuine interest in their products, providing a potential avenue for growth and market expansion.

Cacao as the pride of Pangasinan

Conrado Soriano expresses admiration for the cacao farmers from Davao who were the pioneers in developing and establishing the cacao industry. However, “I take pride in our own cacao here in Region I. It possesses a distinct taste and aroma that sets it apart,” he said.

Cocoa Federico is their name brand for their tablea product. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

Although there is still much room for improvement on their farm, Conrado Soriano happily shares that they receive many visitors from various locations such as Davao, Cebu, Manila, Nueva Ecija, and other organizations. These visitors come to witness their farm firsthand.

“Our future plan involves venturing into chocolate production to introduce product innovations,” Conrado said. “We have already started supplying a hotel here in Pangasinan, and we are currently in the process of expanding our supply to the National Capital Region.”

Although cacao cultivation is not common in Pangasinan, Conrado’s endeavors have inspired others in the area to follow suit and begin planting cacao as well. Their ultimate goal is to increase the number of cacao farmers in the region. They believe that if there are only a few farmers, Region I will not gain recognition as a sustainable cacao-producing region.

“The volume of production will serve as an indicator of our sustainability as cacao producers. It would be advantageous if all regions were engaged in cacao production, considering the current shortage of cacao supply,” Conrado said.

Spreading inspiration

Conrado Soriano finds immense happiness in his work on the farm. His dedication often leads him to return home late, so he decided to build a farmhouse on the premises where he currently resides. This provides him with a resting place, ensuring convenience during his farming activities.

Conrado draws inspiration from his father, who was also a farmer. Despite initially refusing to follow in his parents’ footsteps, Conrado believes that his father would be proud of his decision to eventually embrace farming.

Conrado Soriano drying the cacao beans in the sun. (Royal Cocoa Farm)

“I greatly admire their hard work and uphold the values they have imparted to me,” Conrado said. “They have taught me valuable lessons on farm improvement, and now, as I have grandchildren of my own, I pass on these stories to them as well.”

For those considering venturing into cacao farming, Conrado offers advice to make a well-thought-out plan and assess their determination beforehand. “Cacao farming is not without its challenges, and many have experienced setbacks,” he said. “The key to success lies in unwavering determination and a willingness to overcome obstacles.”

Conrado encourages aspiring farmers not to be discouraged by challenges but to persevere, as the rewards will be great. “Cacao is the only fruit that can be transformed into chocolate, and while we may not have reached the stage of chocolate production yet, we firmly believe that we will reach that milestone in due course,” he said.

READ: The art of transforming cacao into tablea

Photo courtesy of Royal Cocoa Farm

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