Help the farmers

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

There was this song taught to us in our early grade school about farming not being a joke. “Magtanim ay di biro… maghapong nakayuko…’di man lang makaupo… ‘Di man lang makatayo…”

Today our farmers are into their 60s, and the next generation would rather live in an urban slum than plant rice.

To be a farmer in our country is to be doomed to a life of poverty. Farmers have long been victims of social injustice and society’s response, giving them land titles has failed to make their lives better.

There seems to be no end to the public discussions on how to help farmers. Unfortunately, our farmers are not living better lives.

A reader, a former agricultural extension worker, wrote me some interesting observations. He lamented that Philippine agriculture deteriorated through the years and he tries to understand why.

“It is often said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I am very sure that the framers of government policies mean well, but sometimes policies lead to unintended consequences.

“Here are three policies that largely contributed to the rapid decline of Philippine agriculture: First is the shift to a multi-commodity technician approach in the delivery of agricultural services. Delivery of agricultural technology and services to farmers previously utilized specialized technicians, typically four technicians/town or two depending on the size – one for livestock, two for crops (one for rice/corn and one for vegetables) and one for fish.

“The technicians were then proud of their expertise, and of their important role in the local farmer culture, and in turn, the farmers were profoundly appreciative and dependent on their expertise.

“The agriculture industry then was consistently growing, productively and technologically. Agricultural technicians and students from countries all over Asia in the ‘70s and ‘80s came in droves to observe, learn, and copy our approach.

“In the late ‘80s, the Agriculture department shifted to a multi-commodity approach, with one technician providing services for ALL agri commodities – rice, corn, vegetables, fish, shrimp, pigs, poultry,  etc.

“Technicians were given just a few weeks of classroom lectures, and were let loose with new found instant expertise. Farmers eventually lost confidence in their cluttered advice.

“Technician morale rapidly dropped, many lost their passion, while some opted out for the private sector. Farmers were practically left on their own to navigate the rapidly changing environment.

“The most typical consequence is the often repeating seasonal gross oversupply of onions and tomatoes brought about by farmers in large areas, planting and harvesting the same crop at the same time, with resulting prices dropping rock bottom every time due to oversupply, and farmers dumping produce to rot. This is a clear manifestation of the absence of vital technical guidance and marketing support.

“The second whammy was the devolution of field services to LGUs whose officials tend to look at farmers primarily as a source of votes.

“Most devolved agriculture technicians were tasked by local politicians with delivering free fertilizers and seeds and other government largesse, NOT as bearers of technology and services.

“Then came the push for mechanization of farms.  Mechanization is inarguably vital to increased efficiency and productivity, but its impact was similarly opposite as intended.

“Starting in the ‘90s, portable irrigation water pumps, ‘kuligligs’, rice threshers and second hand small tractors became available to agriculture, intended to afford the industry a new level of productivity.

“Traditionally, village people were obliged, actually excited, to help in the various routine farming activities – land preparation, seed preparation and planting, harvesting, threshing, etc., either for bayanihan, for paid labor or share of the harvest. These provided a reliable means of ongoing additional income, in cash or kind, for everyone, on top of enhancing ‘pakikisama’ with fellow villagers.

“With the arrival of machines, drastically less manpower was needed, and with it, the disappearance of much of the revolving community cash from community labor, significantly impacting the local economy.

“A very small part of the village population can afford to buy or have bank access for a loan to buy machines. In a typical village, only one in 20 farmers has a small tractor and/or a thresher, which is rented out to village mates either for a fee or a share of the harvest.

“In the end, the farmer is lucky to net nearly enough (1/5 or less) to pay for his own labor if no weather disturbance or plant disease affects the crop. He doesn’t earn enough to get his family to the next cropping.

“And the cycle continues. Every year we lose farmers due to increasing poverty. A new class of farmer/entrepreneur/financier – the one who has the machines gets most of the proceeds.

“Unfortunately these new entrepreneurs will not plow the proceeds back to the land, but to building bigger houses and buying cars,  and  buying condominiums in the city.

“The confluence of the above events, in less than three decades, has largely led to the rather rapid decline of Philippine agriculture from model to laggard.”

His suggestions:

“Transfer all agricultural service, extension, and research to state run provincial agricultural colleges. There is at least one state run agricultural college/university in each of the provinces.

“These institutions are more aware of local agricultural issues on the ground, and possess the technological resources, capabilities and expertise, including marketing support.

“Actually, this is not a novel approach, as such has been a lynchpin agricultural strategy in many western countries for decades.

“Bring the bank to the farmer. More than 90 percent of the farmers are unbanked. The Landbank needs to simplify the lending process for farmers. Provide access to farm loans guaranteed by other members of the village/cooperative as co-makers.

“Provide equipment for common use, with the village/cooperative responsible for its use and maintenance. The amount spent giving away free seeds and fertilizers yearly are actually more than enough to procure communal farm equipment.

“Our farmers don’t need ‘ayuda’. They need access to credit, implements, technical services and marketing support. Let’s not treat them as ‘votes’. Let’s recognize them as a potent resource of production. As partners for national growth.”



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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