‘Enlightened’ small farmers

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

A rather simplistic view of what defines Philippine agriculture should rest on two basic tenets: (1) The urgency of providing for a secure supply of and reasonably priced food for a growing nation.  And, (2) Ensuring that those who provide food are reasonably compensated so that they are able to live with dignity and decency.

Such principles help us choose food security rather than food self-sufficiency, the former taking a wider view that balances domestic and global markets of food products, where pricing, supply, demand, and a host of other factors play interdependent roles.

Take the case of rice, which is the staple and center of most Filipinos’ diet. In the latest attempt of government to ensure a stable and continuous supply of rice for the country, the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) was passed in 2019.

Despite criticisms against it, the RTL still provides a good working model for the Department of Agriculture (DA) on how tariffs – through the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) – can be used to raise funds exclusively for the benefit of rice farmers.

The law, which created the RCEF, is far from perfect, especially since a critical part lies in how the funds are collected and accumulated – through import tariffs – is able to truly benefit rice farmers. Yet, it is somehow delivering on its promise.

For the law to be successful, the RCEF must prove to be truly the rice farmers’ safety net against the incursion of cheap imported rice. Ergo, an inefficient or misguided program fund administration by the DA will not deliver the desired results.

Cooperative way

According to the DA, collected tariff funds over the last two years have benefited at least two million rice farmers through the distribution of free seeds, farm machinery, training, and low-interest loans. This has paved the way for beneficiaries to increase their harvests and improve their incomes.

To be eligible for inclusion in the RCEF program, interested rice farmers must be part of a cooperative to benefit from the distribution of farm machinery needed in mechanizing many aspects of rice production, as well as guarantees in securing cheap credit.

Persuading rice farmers to work within a cooperative setting skirts the limitations that small farmers now face because of the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL). As a result of the law’s land redistributive intent, small farmers’ average land ownership now stands at 1.28 hectares, less than half of what it was 40 years ago.

Small independent rice farms, if not operating under a cooperative system, make it virtually impossible for the farmer-owners to earn from their harvest and to compete against lower-priced imported rice from Thailand or even from farther away India.

The Philippine government has been slow in recognizing the ill effects of CARL or perhaps has been more averse to confronting negative reactions that may translate to unfavorable political points if it introduces land ownership changes in the country that may not be  favorable to small farmers.

With globalization and trade liberalization, small farmlands for crops like corn and rice have increasingly been challenged by agro-industrial approaches successful in other countries, even in developing economies like ours.

Thailand and Vietnam are a few of the countries that have adopted laws that protect their farmers and still manage to expand agricultural productivity to a point where they have become major players in the global trading market, even as they let go of tariff barriers. We just have to learn from them.

Small farm challenges

This does not mean that small farming has become obsolete. To date, small farms of less than two hectares are able to thrive well once redirected to growing high-value crops like vegetables or cut flowers. Even better, small farms using advances in technology have shown better resilience and profitability.

“Enlightened” farmers, usually those who have access to capital and innovative farming interventions, have been able to demonstrate how they can grow crops even in vertical farms that maximize land space while using less inputs, including water.

Obviously, enlightened small farmers are not your average Filipino small farmers today, whose highest education attainment would be secondary schooling and who have been bogged down in poverty their whole life.

Unfortunately, small farmers outside the ambit of rice and corn do not receive enough attention from the government to enable them to employ better farming methods to increase their productivity. And for this reason, the likes of the traditional small Filipino farmer is becoming extinct.

The good news, though, is the emergence of a new breed of farmer entrepreneurs who can leverage on market changes, as well as make representations with government on how to provide state support to grow their businesses.

Small farms and enlightened farmers have a role to play in the country’s bid for food security. In some cases, like with cacao and coffee, they have the potential and power to tap the global market and become better contributors in a growing economy.

As the country returns to normal pre-pandemic life, the role of new small farmers, within the context of renewed economic growth, will be in finding value in small landholdings using better farming systems and marketing skills.

Hopefully, new enlightened small farmers will erase the stigma that has been attached to being a small farmer and will inspire more to go into more productive farming.

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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 [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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