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Philippines: worm fever catches on
Donna Demetillo
11/19/2005

Who's afraid of worms? Not Benguct farmers who feed them lovingly as if they arc precious. And that's what they are, wriggling gems that weave cocoons that unravel into silk thread.
Hard pressed because of the problem of vegetables smuggled from China, farmers here have found another way of making, money: The mulberry trees that flourish almost like wild plants in the region are promising good cash for them. Now they don't gather the dark berries for jams or pies - they gather the mulberry leaves to feed silkworms.
Agustrina Ambes, a farmer in Monglo, Sablan, spun money from silkworms. Ambes was one of the first to embark into sericulture in 1992. The Peso 18,500 (US SI=P??) per year that she used to earn from bananas, tiger grass and ginger harvested from their 1.5 hectare land, plus sale of her knitted products, was barely enough to feed her children and -send them to school.
Then came sericulture. By 2003, Ambes, 34, and husband Eduardo, 48, were rearing 7.25 boxes of silkworms yielding 251.65 kg of cocoons, and giving her an income of p30, 167 per year. Now she not only feeds her five children well and sends them to school, she also gives them a regular allowance. Electrification of their home has made it easier for them to study.
Now, the trend is catching on with Benguet farmers.
According to Fe Donato, Provincial Fibre Officer of the Benguct Fibre Industry Development Authority (FIDA), a government agency overseeing the local fibre industry, around 23 farms are now fully operational. In Kapangan, Benguiet, alone, there are 19 fully optimised sericulture farms. In Sablan, there arc two, while Mankayan and Tuba each have one.
Donato added that more farmers are following the trend, with some of their farms ready for mulberry planting this rainy season. At present, there is only one cooperative in Benguet (the Kapangan Ecological Livelihood and Multi Purpose Cooperative), which has 100 farmer members.
Sericulture is the rearing, of silkworms for cocoon production to be processed into silk The industry was first started in Benguet in 1992 when the United Nations Development Programme-Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNDP-FAO) funded a project to promote sericulture as a rural agro-based industry in the Philippines.
Benguet was chosen as the best site for sericulture since it possesses the right agroclimate for the successful rearing of silkworms. Mulberry trees also thrive in the area. Benguet today is called the pioneer and cradle of sericulture.
Silkworms are reared in special houses called rearing houses where they are fed by farmers with mulberry leaves. According, to Wilfredo Scguritan of FIDA, the farmer only needs to work for 16 days, feeding the worms and ensuring that measures to keep them free from disease are followed. The rest of the work is done by the silkworm as it weaves its cocoon, which must then be marketed on the 21st day.
According to him, there are five technologies involved in sericulture. Usually, the first three years are dedicated to the development of the mulberry field (planting of mulberry cuttings) and the setting up of reaing houses and procurement of materials needed in rearing the silkworms. Thus, farmers may have a lower income until the mulberry trees reach their optimum leaf production on the fourth or fifth year from planting. Mulberry trees have a productive life span of 20-25 years if well cultivated. Breeding is the next step, where silkworms are reared and fed in the rearing houses, after which cocoon production takes place. This is a self-processing stage as the silkworm is left to weave its cocoon. The cocoons are then processed into raw silk and then woven to silk material.
Seguritan said that a farmer may cam an average of P20,000 in a I hectare mulberry field. And because there are four to five harvests yearly, this translates to around P 80,000 to P 100,000 annual income. He also said 4,000-5,000 mulberry trees can be grown in only 1/4 of a hectare, but this needs a capital of about P5,000 or P 10,000 if the farmer owns the land.
According to Seguritan, the market potential of silk itself is very promising. But the collective production of silk in Benguet last year only totalled 785 k- of silk. Which is why silkworm fever is catching on. The market is just waiting.
Seguritan also cited the requirement for government employees to wear uniforms made from locally produced natural fabrics, such as abaca, pifia, and banana. All these fabrics are blended with silk to improve their quality.
And there's really more to the market since the Cordillera region of the Philippines is a niche of weavers. That silk need not be imported now is exciting) weavers in the region. The latest trend in Cordillera's old tradition of weaving is weaving with locally produced silk.
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