The Pili Nut: Bicol’s Pride

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Mention Bicol to an outsider who knows our region, three icons will probably come to his mind–Mayon Volcano, “Bicol Express”, our savory fare and the pili nut. All three are unique to our place.

Pili is a tree and nut that can only be practically found in the Philippines (it was already introduced in other countries but it is only here that it is commercially processed). 82% of the country’s production comes from the region (and 60% of the region’s drop comes from Sorsogon), hence Bicol’s identification with it. In fact, it is an expected pasalubong (present) from someone who just came from Bicol.

Technically, it is not the nut that is eaten but the seed or kernel inside the nut. It can be eaten raw but mainly it is processed into sweets and more than a dozen kind of this exists. Some of the better known are roasted (salted) pili, glazed pili, sugar-coated pili, pili bocayo, pili brittle, pili jam, buding, pili tart, turrones de pili, mazapan de pili and various kinds of pili bars. Chocolate-coated pili is also made and so is chocolate bars with pili nuts. It can even be used in ice cream.

Most pili processors are in Bicol but Manila processors are now emerging. Actually, the yet few pili sweets sold in Visayas and Mindanao are not from Bicol processors.

Pili has not yet made an international impact. But knowledgeable sources point out that that is also the situation of macadamia nut 30 years ago. It is thought that a breakthrough in international marketing is needed.

But one problem is pili’s lack of supply. Cultivar practices have not yet advanced and research for the crop is lagging. Being organically grown (that is, no agricultural inputs like pesticides and fertilizer) its productivity and availability is not yet in the same level as mango. For a tree that, on the average, is 20 meters in height, it only produces 33 kilos of nuts a year. Before Typhoon “Reming” (or “Durian”) the average price was P25/kg for whole nuts.

From flowering it has a relatively long maturation time of 8-9 months. It takes 6-7 years for a plant to reach fruit-bearing but grafting can reduce it to 4 years. There are seven approved varieties as certificated by the National Seed and Industry Council (NSIC): the “Magnaye”, “Laysa”, “Lanuza”, “M. Orolfo”, “Magayon”, “Mayon 1”, and “Mayon 2”. The Pili Research and Training Center of the Department of Agriculture spearheads the research and propagation of the crop.

Improved varieties which uses cloning are now available and it is mostly for free at the moment since the government is promoting this as a high-value crop. The province of Albay and Sorsogon gives free planting materials and Albay even gives real property tax exemptions for six years to pili growers.

There is an advantage in shifting from coconut to pili. With practically the same tree spacing, pili’s earnings per tree is higher than coconut with less labor involved. Replanting capital even be sourced from the sale of coco lumber. And intercropping pili with root crops and mongo is possible, increasing income. The empty nuts can even be used for fuel and the pulp of the fruit can be eaten after boiling.

With proper drying and storage pili nuts can be stored for up to one year. It is not subject to much price fluctuation and it is still a seller’s market. If an international marketing breakthrough happens possibly all the new production can easily be absorbed. But here there is basically a chicken-and-egg situation: breakthrough is hampered by the limited supply. An oversupply is not much of a problem since pili can easily be processed into pili oil which is comparable to olive oil. The uncoated seed or kernel is 70% fats and oil indicating high recovery.

Plant pili, anyone?

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