Small farmers are vanishing

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

Among the many ancient laws that need a comprehensive review – and, in all likelihood, subsequent revisions – would be the Magna Carta of Small Farmers (MCSP), which will pass its 30th year of existence in June next year.

Over the life of its existence, the law has romanticized and glorified small farmers in a way that has beaten its avowed beneficiaries to death. As is becoming more apparent, small farmers have been pushed further into poverty and small farms have become less productive.

Worse, we see “small farmers” who claim to speak on behalf of millions of small family farm owners, but who in truth and reality, barely talk sense on how small farmers can really become competitive and, therefore, able to more than survive with better farm productivity.

Over the last four decades since the government adopted a radicalized agricultural reform program aimed at redistributing land to small farmers to dismantling haciendas and the land tenancy system, more small farm sizes have shrunk to less than a hectare after farm owners die and the property is divided among those left behind.

Without the essential safeguards to keep small farms viable, small farmers are giving up on the idea that the land will keep them alive. Why shouldn’t they when what they earn has never allowed them to rise above the poverty threshold, which is already at a low of P8,022 a month for a family of five.

At the rate things are going, small farmers will become a vanishing breed as their descendants choose to pursue other means of earning. Currently, the farming sector has the highest poverty incidence next only to those in fishing communities.

Competition from agro-industries

Truly, small farming, even in developed economies, continues to face multiple challenges that have been created by the push for economies of scale. So far, keeping big land holdings devoted to single crops has proven to be an effective formula to improved land productivity and lower unit price of produce.

Large farms are able to benefit from the adoption of mechanization, that incidentally is possible only because funds to buy tractors and other labor-saving implements are available to large land owners who are able to secure investments for these interventions.

Most of all, government’s commitment to support big industrial farms is not only to secure food sufficiency for its population, but also to dominate in world trading through the exportation of a competitively priced commodity.

The US, for example, saw that the world was going to need a lot of grains to feed livestock industries, and therefore adopted significant measures that encouraged its companies to go into mechanized farming of barley, wheat, corn, and soybean.

Governments in other countries that have made a conscious decision to support a specific sector of agriculture have likewise built a system that incentivizes and protects farmers and farmlands. Such is the case of India and Thailand for rice.

Muddled directions

Critics of Philippine agriculture say that there have been too many laws introduced since the early 1900s to bring about land reform, and still have not have managed to benefit the Filipino farmer, much more to make agriculture a productive venture.

This is all too true, especially when the laws that are passed often contradict basic tenets espoused by a magna carta. The law itself has become irrelevant, but no one in the legislature would want to introduce sweeping reviews to make it relevant and workable.

For sure, Filipino small farmers now numbering at about five million are struggling, especially if they persist in finding decent income from rice or corn farming without realizing the new paradigm shifts dictated by competition from other major producers of rice and corn.

A reader’s view

We would continue our discussion on small farming in the next column. Meanwhile, let’s give space to one of our readers, Parker Holden, who shares his experience on agriculture from an American’s perspective. Here’s what he says:

“I am a retired American engineer living part time in Cebu. My home was eastern Washington State and I am a graduate of a land grant agricultural university (Washington State). Agriculture is in my blood for all of my 80 years.

“Here are my thoughts, having grown up in one of the most developed agriculture areas in the USA.

1. Small farmers will not make it on their own. The system must allow the more capable to buy out the less capable.

2. The government has a significant role, but the ownership of land and units of production must stay in private hands though many larger family farms have incorporated.

3. Farmer cooperatives, both producing, processing, and marketing, are encouraged and are very effective in things that are too much for a family operation (Ocean Spray is an excellent example).

4. There must be a supply of cheap labor for peak labor demands like during apple harvest time. The high school I attended shut down in October for apple harvest. All of us went to work in the orchards. Nowadays, Mexicans (both legal and illegal!) do this work.

5. Last, but not least, are the research and extension programs from the land grant universities. The Morrell Act of 1890 established an agricultural university in every state with a bunch of farmland included. The job of the university was to teach agriculture by demonstration. Today, these universities provide all kinds of technical support to farms of all sizes.

“Did you know that Washington hay feeds Japans dairy industries’ cows? It does.”

Facebook and Twitter

We are actively using two social networking websites to reach out more often and even interact with and engage our readers, friends and colleagues in the various areas of interest that I tackle in my column. Please like us on www.facebook.com/ReyGamboa and follow us on www.twitter.com/ReyGamboa.

Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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