After a night of drinks, food, and lots of catching up the night before, we woke up at 6:00 am the next morning just in time to join Mike during his daily morning inspection of the farm. He drove the tractor while we stood in the small trailer behind him. I didn’t realize just how big the farm was before the tour, as “50 hectares” sounds so abstract until you actually traverse all 500,000 square meters of it.
The farm is registered with the SEC under the name “Hacienda Immaculada”. It’s the largest muscovado sugar-producing hacienda in Antique and has been in Mike’s family for generations. At the start of the tour, Mike pointed out the tree Ferdinand Marcos climbed to get away from the dog that was chasing him. Although sugar is its primary crop, the farm also produces rice, vegetables, and tilapia. Mike pointed out the various stages of the sugarcane crop: the newly cleared fields, the just-planted sugarcane, the several-months-old sugarcane, and the sugarcane ready for harvesting.
After the impurities settle, the clear juice is transferred to the first of a series of metal vats where the juice’s water content is continuously boiled off. The juice goes through eight vats, with the juice transferred to the next vat after about 50% of the water has boiled off. The juice gets darker and thicker as it’s boiled, turning from a watery dark green juice to a thick dark brown syrup as it cooks. The fires beneath the vats are fueled by dried crushed sugarcane.
After several hours, the syrup is almost ready. Mike tests the syrup to check if the sugar will crystallize properly. He does this by dipping a stick into the hot syrup and letting it drip into a coconut shell bowl filled with water, cooling the syrup instantly. If the syrup solidifies into crackly tendrils, then it’s ready. If the syrup becomes gummy, it needs a few more hours of cooking. Mike is one of only two people on the farm who can give the order to cool the syrup. This is because this stage is so crucial to the production process. If the syrup is cooled too soon, the potentially high-quality sugar turns into a chunky, gummy mess.
While a friend inviting you to visit his place is a common enough occurrence, that said “place” being a functional hacienda is not quite as common. My friends and I got to visit Mike’s home in Patnongon, Antique last March and stayed there overnight. Funny thing is that I basically invited myself along 😛
We caught Air Philippines’ first flight out to Iloilo (hurrah for seat sales!) and saw the sun rise as we were flying. In all honesty, I don’t think we were conscious enough to fully appreciate it *sheepish*
We landed at around 6:20am then waited for Nonoy’s wife Queenie, his daughter Xi, and his brother-in-law Lai to pick us up in Lai’s van. It took us around 5 hours to get to Patnongon because of our various pit stops – the church where Nonoy and Queenie got married, UP Visayas in Miag-ao, and lunch – and the not-so-nice roads.
Mike’s farm was just outside the poblacion. In order to find it, all he said was to ask people where the hacienda was and they’d give us directions. We all thought he was kidding but apparently, he wasn’t. When we thought we’d traveled far enough from the town proper and asked someone by the roadside, he promptly raised his arm and pointed to a spot about 15 meters away. We’d overshot our destination.
It was easy to see why we missed the entrance the first time around. There was no gate announcing its presence, just a small metal archway hidden by the tall trees beside it. That archway felt like a portal though time, as the first things we saw were the sugar mill and an ancient truck for hauling the sugarcane from the fields to the mill. To our left was the house that Mike’s grandfather built, still with its original wooden walls and ceilings.