Helping small farmers

Our agrarian reform program limits farm sizes to uneconomical levels, making it impossible for our farmers to earn enough to get themselves out of poverty. The other strong deterrent for better productivity is tradition.

Farmers are by nature tradition-bound. This is more so because the average age of our farmers is now in the early 60s.

It is difficult to make them shift to higher yielding rice varieties. It is even more difficult to make them shift to planting higher value crops better suited to the type of soil they have and more likely to earn them more.

I was covering the Senate when the late senator Ed Angara sponsored the law promoting the planting of high value crops. The intention of the law is good, but has it made a difference?

Over dinner at the Canadian Embassy residence four months ago, Canadian Ambassador Peter MacArthur, told me they are helping our potato farmers by providing them with Canadian seed. This, he said, has led to sharp increases in yields for Filipino farmers, translating into increased incomes and more efficient production.

The Canadians are working with Universal Robina Corp. (URC) and the DA in launching the Sustainable Potato Program that provides growers with quality potato seed, training, and research.

A group of farmers went on a five-day training course in Canada as part of URC’s collaboration with the Prince Edward Island Potato Board. There, they learned new techniques on seeding and planting, soil management, storage, and other key practices.

As part of the program, URC imported Granola potato seed from Canada for dissemination to several farming communities. The program has helped growers increase their yield fivefold, helping the industry through the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ambassador reported.

Benguet potato farmers reported a double yield with the use of Canadian seed potatoes. Farmers reported harvesting an average of 20 tons, which at only P30 per kilo, could easily earn them P600,000 in just three months and 10 days.

Apparently, the initiative for the program came from URC president Lance Gokongwei. He asked DA for assistance in importing the chipping potato that local farmers do not grow and is needed by URC’s potato chip brand. That’s how the Canadians came in.

The seed variety was introduced through the Potato Development Program of the DA in partnership with URC. URC brought in 100 tons of G-3 potato planting materials from Prince Edward Island in Canada. These were distributed to farmers in Buguias, Benguet; Talakag, Bukidnon; and Kapatagan, Davao del Sur.

Part of the agreement is for URC, a subsidiary of JG Summit Holdings, Inc., to purchase medium-sized potatoes, while the large, extra-large, and marble potatoes will be sold in the open market. Robinsons Supermarket, also under JG Summit, will purchase the produce.

This is exactly how to integrate small farmers into the value chain of a conglomerate. The project provides technical assistance and right seeds, and an assured market that frees farmers from the clutches of traders.

The other project Ambassador MacArthur told me helps small-scale cacao farmers in Mindanao increase their productivity. It additionally helps promote resiliency in communities vulnerable to conflict and climate change.

The project aims to, among others, provide training and investment capital to financial intermediaries and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); improve the farming and business practices of cacao smallholder farmers and co-operatives.

This project expects to benefit 6,250 smallholder cacao farmers, 15 cacao cooperatives and 150 smallholder household couples in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and the Davao region of Mindanao.

Then there is this project of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) with the Mindoro State University (MinSU) for the calamansi farmers in Oriental Mindoro.

Region IV-B, composed of Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan, is the country’s top producer of calamansi, representing 32.6 percent of the total production in 2020. Oriental Mindoro accounts for over 90 percent of that calamansi production.

Under the program, they are developing an automated sorting machine to shorten the processing time of calamansi-based products and minimize possible postharvest losses due to manual sorting and handling.

In 2019, Tokyo University of Agriculture (Tokyo Nodai), in cooperation with SEARCA and Mindoro State College of Agriculture and Technology (MinSCAT), introduced off-season production of calamansi in Victoria, Oriental Mindoro as part of efforts to help the Philippines export the commodity.

A technology on pruning and the use of plant growth regulators to delay the harvest of calamansi has been employed in a pilot calamansi production in Victoria. The techniques allowed year-round harvest, enabling farmers to enjoy a higher income from the high-value crop.

These are but a few examples of how small farmers can be helped. The participation of private sector conglomerates like Universal Robina for potatoes, shows how the big guys can help the small guys by including them in their value chain.

What URC is doing is not philanthropy or a one time feel good project that will earn some column inches of good publicity for a few days and that’s it. Because it is now part of URC’s business model, its supply chain for raw materials, it will likely be sustained. Only sustained projects help improve the lives of farmers.

For rice, there is UP alumnus Henry Lim Bon Liong who has developed a hybrid rice seed proven to triple harvest. When I interviewed him way back in 2011, Henry claimed farmers using his hybrid produced 14 to17 tons of palay (unhusked rice) per hectare where before they could produce only three tons per hectare.

Because of the lukewarm reception, Henry now exports his hybrid seeds to neighboring countries. That’s like selling our intellectual property and importing back the produce.

Rice self-sufficiency is within our grasp, he told me, “if only we can all work together and use the technology we ourselves developed.”

Farmers need not be poor. Technology and good programs can lift them out of poverty.

We need more examples of inclusive business. It enables those at the bottom of the pyramid to share in the growth of the economy a lot faster than for them to wait for GDP growth to trickle down.