BUMBARAN, Philippines - A Japanese company is growing buckwheat, popularly known in Japan as "soba," in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Sur on Mindanao island with an aim of exporting to Japan starting later this year.
Takeyoshi Sumikawa of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Mindanao, Inc. said Nissey Delica Corp., a leading soba producer in Japan, tied up with local groups Datu Paglas-Japan Development Initiatives Inc. and Manabilang Services Inc. for the growing of soba in the uphill, Muslim-dominated municipality of Bumbaran.
The project is also getting support from Unifrutti Philippines, which has a vast banana and pineapple plantation in the province.
While Sumikawa said the soba plantation is still in the experimental stage, the initial harvest is projected to be sufficient to begin producing soba noodles in Japan before the year ends. If the plan pushes through, it will be the first time for Japanese consumers to taste Philippine-grown soba.
Soba noodles, which are prepared in various hot and cold dishes, are very popular and easily available in Japan, as well as in Japanese restaurants around the world including in those in Philippines. Sumikawa said the minerals contained in soba make it a very healthy food.
Sumikawa, who also serves as an adviser of the company, said that Nissey Delica wants to produce as many as 300 tons of soba in the Philippines next year.
"And I think that might be possible because we already have enough seeds," he said, speaking in an interview over the weekend at the soba plantation.
Sumikawa, who has been in Mindanao for seven years already engaging initially in the banana fiber business, recalled how soba seeds were scattered randomly at a small piece of land in Bumbaran for trial growing nearly three years ago.
"I feel that the soil and climate here is different. And indeed, it was a very successful test. We put only 1 kilogram of soba seeds, and the harvest was 30 kg. In Japan, the best harvest is only up to 20 kg," he said.
The soba plantation area is situated some 1,200 meters above sea level, with an average temperature of 25 C.
Prior to this, the group tried to grow soba in Datu Paglas town in the neighboring province of Maguindanao. But for four and a half years, the attempt was futile.
"Nissey Delica almost gave up because of this failure. So, we moved to Bumbaran," Sumikawa said.
Citing the strong demand for soba in Japan at 100,000 tons a year, most of which are being sourced from the United States, China and Russia, Sumikawa said producing soba in the Philippines can provide a good alternative, promising even a competitive price against those sourced from Japan and the United States.
"We are still at the experimental stage now with our 30-to-40- hectare plantation. But we are targeting to eventually have a 500-hectare plantation, which can therefore produce 1,000 tons per year if we harvest twice within the year," he said.
Antonio Carlos of Unifrutti Philippines disclosed that so far, the Kumamoto variety of soba seeds provided by Nissey Delica yielded the best quality from those that were tested in Bumbaran. The Miyazaki and Kagoshima varieties were not as good, he said.
From the Philippines, the harvested soba seeds will be sent to a flour mill in Kumamoto, and Nissey Delica will make them into noodles for distribution to a popular convenience outlet in Japan.
Sumikawa said the soba project is expected to provide additional livelihood opportunities for local farmers and even Muslim rebels who are now expected to lay down their arms after a peace agreement was signed with the government on March 27.
In an interview at one of the villages of Bumbaran, Momin Omadan said he is willing to finally hang his uniform as commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the rebel group that negotiated the peace deal with the government, if he is given the chance to grow soba on his family's farmland.
"I can retire from the MILF if I start a soba plantation. When you're already old, you can't be a combatant anymore," the 60-year-old rebel said.
"Soba is something new to us, but it won't be difficult for us to grow it with the proper training. Soba will contribute to our lives because, as far as I know, it will only take three months to harvest it, unlike bananas that take a year," he added.
Omadan has been working for Unifrutti Philippines as a banana plantation supervisor during the last 10 years even as he retained his active membership with the MILF.
A combatant since 1981, Omadan admitted being skilled with M16 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons -- skills he is passing on to his male children and other younger rebels until the complete implementation of the peace deal.
"It's important for us, MILF rebels, to have livelihood. When the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed, I told myself that I should stop fighting under the MILF because I'm getting old and I'm getting tired. I'm preparing myself to retire so that I can have time with my children and teach them the right path so they don't follow my life. I don't want them to be combatants anymore," said the father of nine and grandfather of 18.
Ordinary farmer Kashan Panambulan also expressed approval of the soba because it grows fast and can be harvested sooner than corn, which he is used to planting.
"We are willing to grow soba as long as payment continues," Panambulan said, disclosing that the current agreed price for soba from the farm is around 20 pesos ($0.44) per kilo.
Sumikawa was confident that security is no longer a concern in the area where the soba plantation is located and predicted the peace agreement between the Muslim rebels and the government will have positive impacts on the project.
He saw no problem with availability and cost of labor, and instead voiced hopes that the weather will cooperate come planting time and that electricity supply in the area will be ensured so that storage of the soba harvest will not be a problem.