Lifting farmers out of poverty

July 8, 2016 at 10:52

Lifting farmers out of poverty

The Duterte administration seems to be genuinely concerned about lifting our farmers out of poverty. Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez recently told a group of businessmen that this administration is planning a revolution in agriculture.

Sonny, who once had that responsibility as secretary of Agriculture during the Cory Aquino administration, knows what the problem is all about. I imagine that between him and current Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, they can honestly implement programs to help our farmers improve yields and break the cycle of poverty.

But I am not too sure about this administration’s commitment to rice self sufficiency and the continuation of the NFA import monopoly. Okay, Piñol also said there would be no rice importation, at least for now, so that takes care of the problem with NFA importations.

Hopefully, they don’t feel too obligated to keep the no importation promise and decide too late to import enough to cover a local production shortfall. The world just came out of an El Nino induced drought and world supply is tightening. Traditional rice exporting countries may decide to limit exports. Costs will also go through the roof as the shortage becomes more eminent.

But change is starting to happen at the Department of Agriculture. The new secretary is going down to basics, something neglected by the Agriculture secretaries of the Arroyo and Aquino administrations.

It all stemmed from an order of President Duterte for the DA to come up with a color coded agriculture guide map, an excellent idea. And he wants this to be realized during the first 100 days of his term.

This requires up to date soil sample data that will allow farmers to determine the appropriate crops and fertilizers they should use. Piñol was angered to find out DA officials are still using soil sample data from the late 70s.

“Why is a national soil sampling important? A national soil testing and sampling is very vital in determining which region of the country could grow which crop best based on soil components and fertility,” Piñol posted on Facebook.

Piñol is correct to say “success in agriculture is all about correct and timely data, right strategy and immediate action.” It is like doctors requiring sensitivity cultures of bacteria causing diseases to know what antibiotic to use.

Unfortunately, past Agriculture officials were only interested in buying fertilizers, any fertilizer or even anything that is labeled fertilizer with no regard to how useful these purchases are. We ended up with billions of pesos lost in fertilizer scams through the years.

Now, Piñol is giving Agriculture officials 45 days to update their data on soil characteristics nationwide. Should they fail, Piñol said, he would ask them to leave government.

Hopefully, getting soil and climate data right will enable the government to determine which areas are better off planting high value crops. We don’t have to force every farmer to plant rice to meet the rice self-sufficiency goal, if the farmer can make more money planting camote.

I have been intrigued by the lowly camote in my last two foreign trips. We look down on this root crop, but I have encountered it in malls in Tokyo and Singapore. Maybe if we urge our farmers to go plant camote, we are not necessarily condemning them to remain in poverty.

The camote is apparently a high value crop. My wife bought some during our visit to Singapore over the weekend. The Japanese variety camote in Singapore’s Takashimaya mall could well be the same variety we tasted in Tokyo.

It was not cheap. Four pieces of this camote set us back S$45 or about P1,500. To me it is just camote, but my wife insists it is a different kind from what we have. Ours, or at least the ones we can get at the palengke, is not as sweet.

I realize not all camotes are created equal. There are many varieties and maybe the Japanese variety also depends on the type of Japanese soil.

But I am sure we have experts at UP Los Baños or elsewhere in the many agricultural colleges nationwide who have experimented with various varieties. Their findings are probably just waiting to be commercially exploited.

Mayo G. Lopez, a professor at the Asian Institute of Management volunteered the information that “the sweet potato expert in UPLB is retired professor Dr. Davide who resides in the UPLB. He told us he had 23 varieties of sweet potatoes in his garden.”

This looks like a good cash crop that can help farmers augment their income. It is not difficult to cultivate and is even more resilient to the typhoons that devastate rice and other crops every year. But I also think marketing is important and that’s what made the Japanese camote special.

There are other such high value crops out there. Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas, wrote in his Manila Bulletin column about how Vietnam developed ‘the five ‘stars’ of Vietnam agriculture. These products earn over $1 billion annually in exports: rice, natural rubber, cashews, shrimps, and catfish. In contrast, the Philippines has only one: coconut.

“The greatest success over the last 10 years was in coffee. In less than a decade, Vietnam has become the largest coffee exporter in the world, surpassing Brazil.

“One of the major reasons for Vietnam’s high productivity is the support given by the government to research and development. In Daklak, there is the Western Highlands Research Center for Agriculture and Forestry. The center has 50 researchers on coffee alone…”

And while Vietnam persevered and prospered, Dr Rolly Dy, an agri-business professor at the University of Asia and the Pacific noted we did not. In “over 33 years, Philippine agriculture exports posted the slowest growth at 3.2 percent a year as compared to Malaysia’s 5.9 percent, Thailand’s 7.2 percent, Indonesia’s eight percent, and Vietnam’s 16.3 percent.”

Writing in his column for the Management Association of the Philippines, Dr Dy noted that “For crops and livestock exports, the Philippines grew 2.5x, Indonesia 12.7x, Malaysia 6.8x, Thailand 9.2x, and Vietnam 102x.

“Three countries were outstanding in growing their seafood and aqua exports between 1980 and 2013. Vietnam multiplied its exports over 630x to $6.9 billion, Thailand 19.7x to $7.1 billion, and Indonesia 19.1x to $4.0 billion.”

In other words, we do not have to tie down our farmers to just rice and condemn them to poverty. That is why younger generations do not want to be farmers. The average age of our farmers is now 57 years.

Sure, let us give our rice farmers all the help they need to make us self sufficient. But farmers in areas that are not that suited to rice should be helped to find an alternative crop with a ready market too.

The Agriculture Secretary ordering updates to soil sampling data is a good start not just for rice, but for all other possible crops including camote. If our variety is as good as the Japanese one, there is the export market to consider.

We can earn the dollars selling camote to the world and use the same dollars to buy rice from the more efficient rice producers.

Then there is cacao. Indeed, cacao can be our answer to Vietnam’s coffee. A cacao producer in Davao has won awards abroad certifying to our chocolate’s world class quality.

As someone in my economics e-group commented: Why can’t somebody change the report card of the Secretary of Agriculture… From rice self-sufficiency to increased farm incomes and reduction of rural poverty!


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