2009 BEST AGRICULTURE FEATURE STORY - REGIONAL
"The Scent that Heals (Lemongrass Oil Production)"
By Gloria Tuazon
Up in the chilly locale of Kabayan wafts a smell that caught me, flaring my nostrils like a horse testing the air on a windy day. The aroma was so distinct that the thought of rolling lemons entered my mind. I looked around and about but never asked anyway, just that lemons occupied my thoughts for the rest of the day. Then I totally forgot about it.
The next time I went to Kabayan a good lady gave me a gift. Just a tiny bottle with aromatic oil in it she says, good to massage tired muscles with at the end of the day. She asked me to unlid it and smell the oil, told me that even the scent could invigorate, so I did. And it was like déjà vu, the thought of rolling lemons came back. Sweet, tangy, yellow lemons rolling in slow motion coming to splash on icy cold water. Then my thoughts were rudely cut off by her last word, this thing, this cool, aromatic concoction was not of lemons but of grass. Grass? I asked. Yup, grass, lemongrass in particular. Green grass resembling cogon but shorter in blade span. How could a grass get to smell like lemons I argued ridiculously. But it does. With no knowledge up my sleeve to back a futile discussion I decided to research on it instead.
Lemongrass is a grass specie, a perennial and fast growing aromatic grass that has thin, long leaves extending to about 2 feet or more. It was originally cultivated in India and known there as “choomana poolu” and is usually used as medicine to help bring down high fevers and as treatment to some infectious illnesses. As it is the lemony scent is often used in perfumes and soaps and a very effective insect repellent too. It is also most often brewed in the Cordilleras as a tea beverage. Through experiments and tests, lemongrass oil is proven to be a great body revitalizer. It soothes most kinds of headaches too as it helps ease tensions. The oil mixed with the more solid virgin coconut oil is a good massage tonic, giving energy back to the muscles especially while recuperating from an illness. In matters of personal aesthetics, this oil is often used to clear up rather oily skin and acne growth as well as a help to cure athlete’s foot by correcting excessive perspiration. So much more uses are attributed to this lowly plant.
With all that in mind I came back to Kabayan. They led me downstairs to a backyard, makeshift laboratory cum factory. Waiting to explain is the fidgety, youngish barangay official with a ready smile, ready to pounce a joke or two whenever he gets the chance. So his name is Albert Paday Jr., and he started prattling how a bunch or should I say a mountain of those grass come about to produce a few drops of precious oil. There in front of us is a humungous stainless steel tank called an extractor, tightly sealed on top with a handle like a steering wheel. The tank was elevated to allow firewood to be pushed in under it, in turn to cook the “grass” with a tankful of water. It goes on to simmer in that pressurized container for about two hours or more in about 180 degrees celsius before the steam moves on to a smaller tank resembling a space capsule called the “condenser”, to produce the droplets of saturated, precious oil. From below at almost the bottom line of the tank protrudes a spout. It brings out the hot water that was first put in as coolant for condensing the steam. It is from these condensed steam that the oil travels then down to a collecting pail called a”separator”. From here one can watch the oil separate from the water by staying above it, as water is denser than oil and never mix. Each flows into separate containers. And so the birth of the lemongrass oil.
Lemongrass oil production is an industry that requires hardwork. Before one can even get an ounce of it, a hundred or more kilos of the grass has to be processed. Paday explained that in their production experience, the east Indian type or the citronella produces lesser than the west Indian or native kind. The production process does not happen often as they have to wait also for the collection of grass sold to them by the suppliers and growers. In Kabayan, the residents are encouraged to grow the grass and sold to this outfit, each one helping each other, providing a little income generation to sustain their usual industry. To date, a few hectares of land adjacent to the Tinongchol burial rock are planted with the aromatic grass, giving people a whiff of life whenever passing by the route. With hopes that this may someday grow to become a continuing industry, the task was undertaken as a pilot project of the Kabayan Women’s and farmers’ Development Association, Inc. They ventured in this in partnership with U Lagi and Grassroots Development Association and is being promoted by the local government of Kabayan.
Albert explained that it was a Japanese friend of the business owner who first introduced them to the idea. That a lot can be done with it if only with patience. The owners started out with some capital and hopes to improve their technical know how and facilities in the long run. So with a lot of patience, perseverance and “grass”, these venture could go a long way.