By Arsenio “Toto” Barcelona

“Kamahal Gid! Sobra! Grabe!” That’s what you will hear from your Ilonggo friend exclaimed when buying truly “high value” vegetables from the supermarket.

As Dr. Rolly Dy quoted the definition of high value crops from DA-BAR, it should provide the highest return for the farmers. But alas, the higher return is still distributed among the layers of non-farmer traders who makes 50% to a 100% in a few days passing on the fresh produce to the next trader. While the poor farmers toiled in the field for several weeks, braving the heat and rain in order to pay back high interest loans and make a net profit just enough to support his family and agribusiness.

Vegetable farmers are mostly the poorest among the marginalized sector of agriculture. Agriculture simply means the growing of crops and animals for food. As the primary producer of food for the nation, amazingly, many are living a hand-to-mouth existence. As the popular saying goes, “you need a doctor when you get sick, a lawyer when you killed someone, a teacher to educate your children….but you need a farmer to stay alive every day.” And yet the real situation is, we are all biting the hand that feeds us. In fact, biting hard till blood comes out from the farmers’ finger.

Why is lettuce P600 per kg?, broccoli P480 per kg?, and Pok Choi P250 per kg?

I just returned from an agri-study tour to Taiwan with Gov. Fred Marañon of Negros Occidental and 22 other Hacienderos. He was so shocked to see big, luscious, broccoli, and cauliflower selling for NT$20 or P30/piece, about 500 grams, at the Kaohsiung Fruits and Vegetables Wholesale Market. By the time it reaches the street markets that abound early morning in the city, it retails at P50 to P60 apiece. Still cheap. And it looks truly high-value.

The culprits to high vegetable price in the Metro Manila are the usual reasons I cited in previous year-end reports. Bad weather that leads to bad harvest, high cost of inputs, high cost of loan, poor roads, multi-layered traders in the distribution network, no unified trading procedure that protects the farmers’ interest, high cost of transportation, and high cost of provincial road checkpoints. You may add to this list the high cost for supermarket concessionaires. Everybody along the supply chain has to make money. It should start from a cheap price from the poor farmers. Farmers are really squeezed.

How should the supply chain start?

The poor and small vegetables farmers should make a comfortable livelihood, or else, their numbers will keep on dwindling every year. Urban residents might end up planting their own vegetables and herbs to satisfy their culinary and gastronomic cravings. How do we make farmers improve their income and fund the needs of the family?

Organizing the vegetable farmers into cluster for production and marketing

Most vegetables farmers are poor because they are not organized. Kanya-kanya attitude. When harvest time comes, they cannot sustain the volume needed by buyers. Oftentimes, it is a buyer’s market. The buyer dictates the buying price. Even the oldest and biggest trading post in La Trinidad, Benguet, working 24 hours a day for 7 days, transactions are done by “bulong-bulong” system, unlike Taiwan’s organized auction method in its seven big Wholesale Markets. Let us hope the new P220 million Benguet Agri Pinoy Trading Center (BAPTC) works. This is a joint project of the BSU, DA, and LGU of La Trinidad.

Clustering farmers can take the model from Thailand wherein the Ministry of Agriculture clusters 30 farm families into one agribusiness unit. We visited a Japanese okra farm cluster of 30 that supplies an exporter daily. Planted areas are scheduled. All are irrigated with micro-sprinklers. Non-toxic inputs are used to avoid toxic residues which the Japanese market is so overly protective. Taiwan’s land rationalization program in the 60’s has truly rationalized land use. Land cuts are rectangular and uniform to allow the efficient use of straight line irrigation canals. All vegetable farms in Taiwan are irrigated; no exemption. They are truly rational.

In Taiwan, farmers cooperative are really organized. Here, let’s touch a simple case for us to follow. Agricultural inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, plastic mulch, seedling tray, trellis nets, and other inputs are sourced and distributed by the cooperative.

Our recent visit to the Fengshan Farmers Cooperative showed proof that a well-managed, business-oriented but not-for-profit organization, can provide lots of benefits for its hundreds of members. The co-op also operates a pig trading post where more than 500 pigs changed hands daily in a very organized way. The co-op also administers the fresh produce wholesale market. Farmer members have a place to bring their produce and get the best price through the auction system. They get paid through their co-op bank account within three days. Accredited buyers are required to pay within the day’s working hours. The co-op earns 6% for administrative fee, 3% from the seller and 3% from the buyer.

Solution for the Filipino farmers

It is God’s generosity that we are given 7,100 islands, twenty of which are highly populated. Growing vegetables in traditional growing areas and shipping or trucking to far urban markets does not work well for costing and logistics. The solution is simple. Plant vegetables near markets. The seed companies and other input suppliers need to be recognized for their concerted effort to disperse production areas and develop new vegetable farmers with improved agronomic technologies – better seeds, precision irrigation and fertigation, intensive farm management with farm mechanization, soil health care, artificial intelligence applications, integrated pest and disease management, and creating new markets for better tasting vegetables. It is really so irrational to bring cabbage, carrots, and broccoli from Baguio to Palawan, or Boracay.

The simple solution to make high-value vegetables available and put money in farmers’ pockets is to localize vegetable farming. I have one simple solution that needs the help of the Department of Agriculture and local LGU executives.

Develop suitable sites of 20 to 50 hectares with centralized water sourcing and distribution system. The cuts of the farm will be a uniform rectangular size of 1,000m2 to 5,000m2. Each lot is connected to the main water pipes with water using meters and drip or micro sprinkler system. Fertigation attachment is installed. Each cluster will have an experienced agronomist and a marketing coordinator. Each production cluster will be linked to markets stakeholders like supermarket, food processors or big traders in wholesale trading post. As vegetable farming needs intensive care, farm size should be manageable.

Learning from Taiwan, trading post facilities are invested by government, management is tripartite – farmer group representative, trader group representative, and LGU representative. Monthly rental is paid to government. The wholesale market gets 6% fee for administration – 3% from buyers and 3% from sellers.

Once the production cluster is established, sourcing of inputs can be done by the cluster cooperative. the DA-BSWM (Bureau of Soils and Water Management) can support the irrigation system establishment, but not as a dole out but as a loan, payable in five years. The water fee charged to each individual farmer will pay for the loan in three years. The precision irrigation and fertigation system will last from five to ten years. The main lines can last from ten to twenty years, maintenance-free, compared to our present open irrigation canals which require annual maintenance and repairs. Besides, it is really a misnomer to expect government irrigation projects solely for vegetable production. Irrigation projects are 90% for rice farms.

Management is most important. Farmers need to improve on their skills. Each cluster will have a technical group that will support each other in terms of improving agronomic solutions. The DA-ATI, DA-HVCDP, DA-BAR, DA-BPI, DOST-PCAARRD, as well as seed companies, provide agronomic support to farmers. Funds for farm mechanization will also be provided by DA-ACPC or Landbank’s ACEF loan with 2% to 6% interest per annum. It is better and more sustainable if farmers have a choice on what farm machines to buy rather than the government providing very limited machines to a limited number of farmers for free. Taiwan Council of Agriculture provides 1/3 subsidy. A common motor pool will provide sustainable services on land preparation and irrigation. A common greenhouse for seedling nursery can provide healthy and marketable varieties required by the accredited buyers. With proper agronomic skills training and regular upgrading, timely irrigation and precision fertilization, pests and diseases control, and being prepared for climate change, farmers will be able to produce double or triple per unit space planted. This will naturally lower production costs and increase profits of farmers.

Logistics vehicles can be managed to provide delivery services for both inputs and produce. Internet linkages on market information and weather conditions can provide timely advice to farmers and management. The future holds true for farmers’ fresh produce being marketed directly in urban communities through weekend market, community fresh produce outlets, and even home delivery by logistics services companies, Grab or Bikers.

The growing tourism markets spread out all over the Philippines, and its strong growth in the foreseeable future with the Build, Build, Build program for airports, inter-island highways, and RORO seaports, mobility and accessibility will enhance the market demand for locally-supplied fresh produce.

Involving other stakeholders in the supply chain 

We can pay attention to rationalizing the sourcing of essential supplies such as seeds, mulching film, seedling tray, growing medium, biostimulants, micro-fertilizers, pesticides, pest control, irrigation system, and greenhouses. By clustering farmers, the cooperative can source supplies direct from the wholesalers or distributors. They can be guaranteed of quality and a cheaper price.

Logistic support like delivery trucks, postharvest facilities like plastic crates, chiller, and packaging/branding materials, should be established to attain quick farm to shelves timing.

There is a growing number of small food processors, a lot of them are small home-based operation, that will provide a good market in the future. The Chilliheads Philippines, a Facebook group initiated by our good friend, Ponchit Enrile, has spread and encouraged more young enterprising agri-entrepreneurs to come up with different types of bottled hot sauce. It is catching fire!

A suggestion can be formulating a Filipino Kimchi. We are fond of pickled, sour fermented vegetables like atchara and cucumber pickles. It can be a way to preserve excess production like what the chili growers are doing.

The cost of packaging materials in the Philippines is very expensive, and the reasons are varied. Manufacturers demand a higher margin, maybe due to the higher cost of doing business in the Philippines. Imported packaging materials are highly-taxed. We have very limited variation for packaging materials here, unlike our Asian neighbors such as Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Big brother supermarkets are opening up to a more socialized relationship with suppliers, although it is still a far cry from benefitting the small farmers directly. Traders or concessionaires are still the main link from farm to market. They will provide ready local markets due to the rapid expansion of branches by SM, Robinson’s, Puregold, Rustan’s, Citi Mall, and some new players. If farmers are organized, they can directly deal with these retailers in a strictly business way.

Big processors, institutional buyers, and exporters of fresh produce will eventually find a ready and reliable supply base in the clustered vegetable farms. The farmers have to do their assignment, with government and the buyers.

Helping small farmers with easy access to credit

Small vegetable farmers are like lepers that banks do not want to touch. However, Secretary Manny Piñol has proudly claimed that they have attained 98% to 100% repayment for DA-initiated financing program with the Agricultural Credit Policy Center (ACPC) loan program, headed by Director Jocelyn Joy Badiola.

The ACEF credit facility has found a new face in Landbank, far from its notorious image of high corruption in previous administration before PNoy. It is about time that small farmers be treated as a good client by banks. They just need to be educated and guided. Some banks now are going to them, visiting and offering credit services in the comfort of the sala of successful farmers, or seated on a bamboo bench under the mango tree. Millennials have tapped crowd funding to support their agribusiness ventures.

State universities and colleges with agriculture courses

The SUCs should start producing smart young farmers, equipped with necessary skills to produce quality food. They should produce good farmers and not diplomats, holding a piece of parchment paper proudly declaring them as graduates, but do not know how to plant or raise animals.

The Benguet State University, the Isabela State University, and Visayas State University have spearheaded specialized courses on Natural Farming and Organic Agriculture. This is a welcome news for the future of the vegetables industry. But there is still a lot of work to be done to strengthen the practicum training of students. The SUCs should even come up with practical hands-on training for short courses of one semester for non-full term students who can get certificates of completion of training for specific crops, say, three-month course on watermelon, melon, and honeydew production, three-month course on ampalaya, upo, cucumber, and patola production. Three half-day classroom sessions for two hours each, and the rest of the week is field practice with guidance. After which, the student can earn his certificate accrediting him/her as a farmer for crop-specific production. I am sure these guys will be in demand after their “graduation” and can proudly proclaim, “I am a farmer”.

Mentoring programs

It is about time that successful agri-businessmen leave the comfort of their executive chairs and organize mentees who are hoping to become successful like them – upscaling micro and small enterprises into medium size food producers. The Go Negosyo Kapatid Agri Mentor Me Program with the Department of Agriculture is opening up more opportunities for young aspiring businessmen. We have to commend Joey Concepcion and his team at the Philippine Center for Entrepreneurship for linking big brother mentors to the thousands of mentees ready to learn and earn. Dr. Rolly Dy, and Dr. Willie Dar are creating a new consciousness among readers of their columns by providing solutions and suggestions to our sick status in Asean agricultural productivity. The Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food, Inc. has grouped agriculture sectoral leaders to lead in proposing and directing policy direction for the development of their sector. You Tube, Internet, the Harbest Agribiz Kapehan with Zac Sarian, ATI, and TESDA training programs, SM Foundation’s Kabalikat sa Kabuhayan vegetable farmers season-long training program implemented by Harbest, with other partners for the past eleven years, have developed empowered small farmers earning a decent income from their vegetable plot. I thank my friends in agribusiness for pulling me out of my comfort zone and mentor with them whoever wants to listen and learn.

Growing your own vegetables in your home

Community edible garden and school vegetable garden should be encouraged. Primarily, this is to educate urban residents to learn how to grow food. Community greenhouse seedling nursery made of bamboo with fine nets and plastic film roofing can provide vegetable seedlings to “Barangay Gulayan” programs. Building developers can even include rooftop garden as part of their development plan. Vegetables are the easiest and fastest way to produce nutritious food. It is timely that we develop our green thumb and produce safe and healthy vegetables. Good for your health, too!

Educate Filipinos to eat more safe vegetables 

To create more demand for fresh vegetables, Filipinos should learn the proper way to cook vegetables. The Chinese can teach us a lot on simple vegetable dishes. Aside from the growing market for salads, oriental leafies, micro greens, and fruit vegetables like squash and cucumber, these have big market potential if they are readily available daily, fresh and affordable. Maybe, it is about time that early morning sidewalk or street markets will provide a ready market for urban farmers.

By cutting down on logistics costs, increasing yield two to three-fold, expanding the varieties available in the market, and providing fresh vegetables directly from farm to market, I am sure having affordable vegetables will encourage more Filipinos to change their eating preference.

Why not start a mentoring program by Filipino chefs to the households on proper vegetable cooking? The TV station and YouTube channels can be great communication providers. We can learn from Taiwanese TV cooking program wherein the host explains the nutritive value of each ingredient. Techniques of mixing ingredients are well-documented. Volunteer mothers can also handle cooking class in schools, particularly on vegetables harvested from the school garden or community garden. Big companies like Shell and Petron can be the major sponsors for this nationwide program.

School feeding program should consider farmers within the community to supply the daily requirement of the schools in the community. They should be paid in cash. Fresh vegetables and camote are better substitutes for noodles or buns.

By educating young minds how a small seed can feed the nation, they will appreciate better the important role farmers have in their lives. Malnutrition is a personal problem. Parents and government should share responsibilities to prevent this. (A speech presented at UA&P)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2019 issue.