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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bannister

It's Time For a Rethink.

Look at any Coconut Plantation in the Philippines and you will see what “Big Corporation” looks like. Sterile acres of land smattered with coconut trees, most coming to the end of their productive life with no viable plan for the future, taking only what the land can offer now. The workers of the land are poor, grafting from first to last light surviving only on the meagre handouts from the landowners that turn a food crop into oil.

Getting the lion's share, most Plantation owners hang on tightly to their wealth, their opulent homes creating an absurd backdrop to the tin and plywood shacks of their employees standing crookedly in front of them. Every Coconut tree scared with Machete made footholds that those workers use to climb daily.

Between the ground and the crop, a staggering amount of nothing, spaces between things, large and devoid of matter. To me, a paradise lost. At least this was my observation as I drove through hundreds of square miles of Coconut Plantations. From one end of the country to the other, each plot being a carbon copy of the last, a perverse and archaic progeny of the oil industry. Yet, this has been the way of things for generations and because of that, lost are the many ways the smaller Plantation owner could add value to their crop and land. They chase the oil money, so they farm the skies forgetting about the potential of the rich volcanic earth lying directly under their feet.

This situation only steels my resolve to think differently and to do things differently. We have to. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we are going to have to admit that those “crazy tree-huggers:” were right, and we need to work together and with our planet, not against it. It is simply no longer acceptable to destroy a natural habitat in order to plant an artificial one.

Our Phoenix Farm has to become a model for what can be accomplished on a small (1.2 Hectare) lot of existing coconut trees. We are going to farm the “spaces between things” with high-value crops and each plant being in some way beneficial to its neighbour. We must farm not only the ground but from the ground to the waist, the waist, to the shoulders, the shoulders to the coconuts and all the spaces in between. We can no longer afford to commit any land to a single crop. We must do this, teach this, and support these systems the best we can. Next to water, food is the world’s greatest requirement, the people that grow food and in variety will be the richest of us all and I am not talking financially.

It does not escape me that EVERYTHING we do on the farm, its success and income directly benefits the Children's Homes we intend to build. For me, this is so much more than a farm, it is an exportable model that can work anywhere, its profits help the children that will inherit the earth we leave for them. We can and MUST do more.

So this will be OUR approach, and I record it here not only as a historical record of our farm but as information that may be beneficial to others. The blueprint is simple, organic and common sense. Of course, these steps may change or be modified the more we learn and so they should, all plans must stay in a constant state of evolution, the plan MUST be changeable and adaptable or it will die. Follow us on our journey as we take this overgrown, uncared-for 1.2 Hectare and change it into a model for tomorrow.

Our Thoughts On Clearing.

For us we must first clear the land (not with a bulldozer!) but only of the growth that may harm our food or harbour pests. We need to rescue beneficial plants that have seeded themselves and create a nursery, they will be protected, nurtured and become assets to our farms' culture. After an initial clearing, we then need to survey the “lay” of the land, not will tape measures and tools, but with the human eye and a notebook. We must look at the land objectively, identifying rises and hollows, where surface water may flow during rain, where the sun strikes the ground through the canopy of coconut leaves, or where natural wind or sun shelters form. We take notes and sketch areas in our notebooks for more thought and reflection in the cooler times of the day.

Part of the clearing phase is inspecting our current food crop, our coconut trees. We look on the surface for pests, insects and the like that burrow into the flesh of the trees themselves, damaging wood and reducing potential growth and crop. On our farm, there is a problem with the large orange Weaver Ant or “Hantik”. This insect can build tubes on the surface bark and is easily spotted on many of our trees. Although this insect does like eating aphids and Mealie Bugs, it is also attracted to sweet substances like coconut fruit, coconut flowers and sweet saps. It can also grow to colonies numbered in the millions. The reason I write all this information about the Hantik is that it brings us to one of the first lessons we must learn in the clearing phase of our farm. Decisions on what stays and what goes and sometimes the only way we can make this decision is to weigh up the pros and cons of having such organisms in our farms' culture. So for an example, here is our process on this amazing insect.

The Orange Weaver Ant scoping out a home in one of our Banana Trees.

Damage Vs Benefit:

Damage/Loss Benefit/Gains

Eats Bark Eats Ahpids

Eats Wood Eats Mealie Bugs

Eats Coconut flower, flesh and saps

Eats all flowers and Nectars

Resource heavy for control

Nests can house millions of individuals

Noxious to eat, few known predators

Bites – Can kill in large numbers

Very expensive to eradicate.

As you can see from the list above, this particular insect could reap devastation on all of our crops, with few natural predators it is virtually impossible to control and offers very little benefit to a balanced system. As we refuse to use insecticides on our farm, the decision for this creature is to eradicate it. Keep in mind, we are growing a food crop, to try and manage such a veracious insect within our food crop would spell failure.

To counter this example, let’s look at another inhabitant on our farm, the Golden Orb Web Spider or known locally as the “Banana Spider”

A Massive Golden Orb Web or Banana Spider on a 10' Diameter Web Between 2 of Our Coconut Trees

Damage/Loss Benefit/Gains

May bite if messed with Non-Venomous to humans

Large Webs Large Webs

Eats Beneficial Insects Eats Destructive Insects

This list is split straight down the middle, so we turn to our common sense and rely on what we know or at least make an effort to learn about what we don’t. Considering this Spider is non-venomous, not seen as a threat to humans (easily handled) and can eat a large number of pests, we choose to keep this lady around our farm. There is a much higher percentage of destructive flying insects around than beneficial ones. (for now) The Web although up to 10 feet in diameter is easy enough to work around, but if not, she is easy to relocate to another part of the farm and she will build a new web overnight. In this case, common sense would dictate that she is a welcome addition to our system and is welcomed, if not encouraged to stay. As a footnote, Orb-Web Spiders can wreak havoc on a mosquito population (a potential source of Malaria, Dingue and Sika) if relocated near a body of fresh water.

This Picture of our New Farm is Typical of its Condition. It Has Not Been Looked After for Many Years.

Another thing I see during our initial "walk-through" is a great deal of is deadwood. These are branches or furn-heads cut from the crop trees and left where they fell. The thinking is that this will eventually turn into food for the plants. This is true and had our farm been located in a cooler climate, we may have subscribed to this way of thinking BUT, it's not. One thing we know about the Tropical Zones of the world is that the very insects that would destroy our crop also love deadwood and there are many of them, Millipedes, Centipedes, Ants, Termites etc all thrive on this food source. Branches that have fallen but remain attached to the tree create a no better ladder system for pests to gain access to the more vulnerable part of the plant. We will use this fallen deadwood for food, but we will gather it, compost it away from our crops, and then return it to the plants in the form of rich worm-filled mulch.

The above evaluation process is important, necessary and must go on until you have a clear and sensible understanding of your current ecosystem. There is absolutely no point in planting $1000 dollar’s worth of seedlings if they are cut down overnight by pests or washed away by a flooded stream. You MUST know the dangers and risks but also the strengths and resources of your particular garden of Eden.

Remember that Notebook I mentioned earlier? You should never be without one on your farm, keep it in your back pocket as it is an invaluable habit to get into, writing notes of your observations, recording ideas and data, drawing sections of your land for future development or plant out. When it comes to information about your land, there is no such thing as too much! Record everything you find yourself thinking about.

Our Thoughts on Planning.

For our piece of land, we have pencilled in the following plan of attack. As mentioned before, this is for recording purposes but feel free to use this as your base plan and adjust it to suit. Use what is useful and discard the rest.

1. Access:

An accessway must be cut between the road and the plantation. This will consist of hiring a backhoe that with do most of the large clearing, leaving smaller machine/handwork for us to complete.

2. A. Walking Survey:

The land has been Surveyed, so using this map we will clearly mark the Boundary Lines for the Lot. Each Corner-Peg will be located and strung with a builder’s line to aid planning and clearly define boundaries.

3. Map & Mark the Location of the Dwelling:

Once this has been accomplished, a survey should be taken to locate the best possible position for a dwelling. Notes to keep in mind. The Location should be elevated, looking down over the Lot. This will reduce the amount of run-off and surface water that the area will be exposed to, ideally on a natural shelf, but cutting into the right position is also acceptable. The Dwelling will NOT be built in a hollow. Minimise the impact of the dwelling on the land by (if possible) finding a location void of established Coconut or Banana trees. Some clearing will be necessary and the wood from such clearing shall be used to construct a Utility-shed for the site. The Dwelling will be staked out according to the Plan and Services clearly marked and planned. Thought and time should be given to establishing Water supply and lines/location to the stream on the lot and water harvesting. A General clearing of the lot may be completed at this time. With this set we can turn our attention to the Land.

4. Crop Survey and Clearing:

Starting from one corner of the Lot and moving forward in a grid, a tally of all producing plants must be taken, along with current crop loading and condition notes. A tag will be allocated to each producing Tree. We also need to identify all plants that have self-seeded and taken root, whether these plants can be relocated, and which plants will be lifted and added to our nursery. A coloured ribbon will be added to each plant indicating the plan for that particular plant.

RED = Removed and composted

YELLOW = Relocated to the Nursery (Bagged)

WHITE = Relocated to another position on the Lot

Once all crop plants have been Tagged, Ribboned and Removed, a general clearing of the Lot may begin. In order to deter pests and eradicate those already established, the initial clearing process will be thorough and extensive. Clearing will include the removal of all remaining plants to the composting area. Grasses will be kept but trimmed close to the ground. The bases of all the coconut trees will be trimmed and cleared, with any Pest Colony being eradicated. The trunks of the trees will be cleared of any and all Ant Hives and Termite Tubes. Insect damage on the trees will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. A note will be made in the crop Data-sheet as this work progresses. Because of the poor condition of many Crop Trees and Plants a Natural and Biodegradable insecticide will be used until control has been accomplished, following this a Natural process of control will be established (Companion Planting, etc)

5. Lot Repair (Ground).

Now we can see the lay of the land any area that is eroded, sunken or peaked will be levelled with good-quality Soil. This is NOT an attempt to level the lot outright, more simply to rid the ground of Potholes and deformations that could be a danger to man and machine. Natural Run-offs will be supported, not removed as these are established water supplies already irrigating the Lot.

6. Second Review of Dwelling Location:

A Second and possibly last evaluation of the Dwelling location will be completed at this time. Now that land is cleared there may be issues with the location that was not visible or accounted for during the initial stake-out.

7. Building of Implement Shed:

An implement shed will need to be built onsite. This will house the equipment used to accomplish the above steps. The Shed MUST be built securely and have a good quality floor, walls and roof. A solid locking system will also be required. The Shed will be roughly 1.8M X 1.8M, it shall have one solid door and no window. Light will be provided from a Solar charged LED system. The implement shed will double as the plantation pumphouse once the dwelling is completed.

8. Plantation Planning:

The Plantation now needs to be planned out in regard to crops, layout and location of newly introduced plants. Companion Planting will be utilised in all areas of the plantation going forward. Thought must be now given to a sun, wind and rain exposure map that we recorded earlier in our notebook.

We know that:

1. For every row of food plants, there will be a row of Beneficial plants (Vegetable & Fruit) AND a row of Pest and Disease control plants (flowers and grasses)

2. We will support plant growth with Fish waste from the future Tilapia crops and that cleaned water will be recycled.

3. We know that we will need to cut down older low-producing trees and replant them with Saplings. These will be Hybrid Dwarfs, bringing the Harvest height closer to the ground. This will increase efficiency in care and at harvest time. The downside is that trees won't produce until year 5 in favourable conditions. Knowing this we will feed the remains trees with salts and carbon to maximise crop size. We estimate a 20% loss in the number of trees but are able to cover this with an increased harvest from the remaining and cared-for plants/palms.

To be continued.

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