Coffee Davao Region

A coffee adventure in Balutakay

What do you do when you’re almost out of coffee beans and you don’t want to settle for the pre-roasted store-bought kind?

You make a trip to the foot of Mount Apo and get it yourself.

We’ve been roasting our own coffee beans for many years now, and for several months our friend Wendil — a champion barista and budding “fourth wave” coffee entrepreneur — has been supplying us from the Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association (BACOFA). An internationally acclaimed group in Davao del Sur, BACOFA has already won several awards for its specialty arabica. The COVID-19 lockdown, however, has made it difficult for the members to bring down their beans to their customers.

We tried to wait until the situation normalized, but when we got down to our last few grams we decided to take matters into our own hands. With Wendil as our guide we drove off to Balutakay on the last day of August, not knowing our trip would be more ”interesting” than we had bargained for.

The drive took about two hours, with the winding road going up to Balutakay itself offering a breathtaking view of Mount Apo and its environs. The last stretch, however, was rough dirt road, and while there was a portion where the car’s tires slid a bit, we didn’t think too much about it.

By midmorning we were at the home of BACOFA marketing manager Marivic Dubria, who warmly welcomed us and even let us “harvest” coffee cherries from the rows of coffee trees behind her house.

I asked Marivic how the COVID-19 lockdown affected BACOFA’s operations, and to my surprise she replied that the demand has still been high and that the association can hardly keep up. Much of the harvest had already been pre-booked, she said, and with the lockdowns now easing they should be able to ship them out again.

Marivic Dubria checks out our “harvest” of coffee cherries

That’s easier said than done, as we would soon discover.

We took our time at Marivic’s home, having lunch and sampling some of her coffee that had been roasted by a specialty shop in Manila. The clouds began to settle into the area by noon, but it wasn’t until a light shower fell in the early afternoon that we decided to head out.

Champion barista Wendil Sollano brews some coffee for us

We left with 19 kilos of coffee beans, but as we drove down the dirt road it became apparent that while it was still relatively dry up at Marivic’s home, it had already been raining hard down the slope. We were OK for a while, but at a particularly sharp drop the car began to slide… and slide… and slide. My son, who was driving, could no longer control the car, and we ended in a small ditch and we couldn’t move anymore without damaging the vehicle or falling into a ravine.

Assessing the situation, we decided it was too dangerous to try to move the car and it was best to leave it behind and return for it the following day when the road would hopefully be drier.

As I looked at the car’s desperate situation, I thought of how the coffee farmers of Balutakay face the very same difficulty on a regular basis. They produce some of the best coffee beans in the world, but without the necessary infrastructure it’s hard for them to get these to the market. There is certainly a demand for specialty arabica, but the farmers of Balutakay need to be able to bring their beans down safely and quickly if they are to benefit from their hard work.

What was a one-day adventure for us is a daily reality for the coffee farmers of Balutakay

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