PAOMBONG, Bulacan—Hectares of nipa palm (sasa) plantations in this town may have given way to fishponds but makers and vendors of the famous sukang Paombong are hopeful that with the remaining patches of nipa, the local vinegar industry will not die.
“As long as there are patches of nipa palms, we are assured of continuous supply of Paombong vinegar,” says Dionisia de Leon, who has been selling the native vinegar for 20 years now.
Despite the conversion of plantations into fishponds due to higher income yield for their owners, some residents here maintain plantations not only to continue the legacy of sukang Paombong but also because of the low maintenance cost of these farms, which they call “gubat.”
Conchita Villanueva, 69, owns and manages eight hectares of land planted with nipa palm trees.
“I don’t want to convert my land into fishponds because I don’t need capital in my vinegar production business,” says Villanueva, who has been working on the land for 42 years now.
Villanueva says she used to gather the nipa palm fruit juice when she was younger.
“We harvest the fruit when it reaches the size approximating the mouth of an ordinary pail. Then we would kick the tree once a week so it would produce more juice,” she says.
This season, Villanueva’s plantation is expected to produce about 150 fruits, which will give her two to three containers of fresh nipa palm juice. During the wet season, they gather up to five containers.
The juice is kept in tapayan (earthern jars) for three weeks until it ferments and turns to vinegar.
Several years back when nipa palm plantations in Paombong were thriving, locals gathered up to 30 containers of juice. “That’s why Paombong became popular because the town was the major source of nipa palm juice,” Villanueva says.
She blames water pollution and fishermen’s extensive use of commercial feed for the low production of native vinegar since nipa palm trees depend on the quality of river water to survive.
Lucien Marasigan, 51, who is a fourth-generation manager of a 15-hectare plantation, says they used to maintain rows of earthen jars filled with nipa palm juice. “Now vinegar producers lease our plantations and gather nipa palm juice themselves,” he says.
According to him, nipa palm trees regularly get sick because of the erratic weather and vinegar producers renting the plantation often are in debt because not much nipa palm juice is produced.
Despite this, Marasigan says they have no plans of converting their nipa palm plantation. “By maintaining our plantation, the sukang Paombong legacy lives on. This is pure native vinegar, unlike commercial brands now available in the market,” he says.
Frank Valencia, 56, whose father left him and his six siblings a 14-hectare plantation, says converting their land into fishpond is far from his mind.
“Vinegar production is good because we spend less. Although we earn a little, we do not spend much on maintenance. As long as there are trees, we are assured of harvest. We are satisfied with what we earn,” he says.
During the wet season when nipa palm trees produce more juice, Valencia says they earn up to P20,000 a month. During the dry season, they earn about P10,000 a month.