The global pandemic has brought agriculture back into the public consciousness. With borders tightened to halt the spread of COVID-19, everyone—producers and consumers alike—now focus their attention to the role food production plays in everyone’s lives.

“Eating is an agricultural act,” American agriculturist Wendell Berry said.

So as long as one eats, one has a responsibility to ensure that the people who grow their food are treated fairly. After all, how can the Philippines call itself an agricultural country when a majority of its farmers can barely feed themselves?

“It’s always important to talk about the state of our agriculture and conditions of our farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk—our food security frontliners. They need all the support they can get from the private sector and more importantly, from the government. We are pushing for cash assistance and production support for the losses they suffered due to the pandemic,” said Rae Rival, coordinator for Rural Women Advocates (RUWA), an organization of volunteers of the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women.

The pandemic has focused attention on agriculture and food production. Many people, because of the lockdown, turned to backyard gardening, growing agricultural products for their food. Many even sold portions to friends and neighbors with dreams of eventually devoting more time to agriculture.

The charm of growing one’s food has attracted many consumers whose enthusiasm has been boosted by other consumers who offered a ready market for these produce.

The interest in backyard or urban agriculture has also strengthened the base of a longtime movement of concerned consumers who make it a big deal to know the facts behind one’s food — how it is grown and if the prices they pay will sustain the farmers’ livelihood.

From that interest came the many organizations who are committed to ensuring fair trade with the farmers. They not only buy straight from the farmers, they also make sure that they pay higher than farm gate prices.

“Organizations who really want to help our farmers must immerse [themselves] with our farmers to know their real conditions. Aside from helping financially, they must continuously communicate with them and know the kind of support they need,” Rival said.

The real cost of growing food

Part of this includes paying the farmers enough to make a decent living. Sometimes, this amount can go beyond the current farmgate price.

The farmgate price is the amount farmers receive for their produce at the location of the farm. This does not include the cost of transportation or other charges involved in selling the produce which should be shouldered by the buyer or the middle man.

Buying from farmers at prices that are enough for them to earn a living means a rise in food costs. This is the reality of one’s concern to help farmers get out of poverty.

After all, we want our agriculture industry to flourish, and the way to do that is to make sure that it is seen as a viable livelihood, especially by young people. (Many farms in the provinces have been abandoned because the farmers themselves discouraged their children from the livelihood, sending them off to schools to learn other skills.)

Rival explained the issue using the production of palay as an example: “Right now, farmgate price of fresh palay is at P11- P12 per kilo in Iloilo and Capiz, and P13-P14 per kilo in Nueva Ecija, Isabela and Cagayan,” she said.

“Farmers usually need to produce P30,000 [per hectare] for land preparation, irrigation, procurement of seeds and fertilizers, maintenance and harvesting. For them to earn enough, we must buy their palay produce at P20 per kilo and the government must provide P10,000 cash assistance and P15,000 production support for the loss they suffered during the lockdown.”

This doesn’t just apply to palay. All agricultural produce require a formula that weaves around inputs, outputs and profit.

For example, at the time of the interview the farmgate price for squash was P1 per kilo. Although there were reports that farmer-championing organizations were buying squash at P4 per kilo which is P3 above the farmgate price, and selling it for P60 to P80 a kilo, the farmers still did not make much from the harvest.

Barbi Cruz of Grassroots & Co. Farms did the math: “At P4 per kilo 400 pesos lang lalabas [na kita] ang 100kgs. Hindi man lang aabot sa thousand ang cash flow [ng farmer],” she said.

“Just because they buy it higher [than the farmgate price] doesn’t mean they buy it at a proportional or sustainable rate,” she added.

When this editor asked Raphael Dacones of Teraoka Family Farm what is the farmgate price that would be fair to both farmers and middlemen, his approximation, still using squash as an example, was around P25 to P35/kg, and it could still be sold at P60 to P80/kg.

“Let’s say an average squash is 1.2kgs. You can harvest 1000kg [total]. At 1.2kg each, squash [can be bought from the farmer at P25 per kilo], with P30,000 [being earned by] the farmer. Middle man will sell it at 60/kg [earning] P35,000-55,000… I think that can cover expenses for both sides,” he said.

Standardize farmgate prices

He also suggested that it might be a good move to standardize farmgate prices instead of relying on the current fluctuating rates dictated by many factors, one of them weather conditions.

“With Taiwan chili, you can earn if you sell it at P50-P70/kg for the whole year. So if people can buy chili at P50-P70/kg, basta sure buyer, it can be a win-win for both farmer and buyer. Cut the price fluctuations. Won’t both parties be happier?” he said.

Cruz added: “I’d just like to point out that there should be a regulatory board that sets floor or ceiling prices to protect farmers or producers and not just buyers. A lot of farmers operate at a loss because they shoulder all the costs, be it structural, raw materials or labor,” she said.

Farmers should not also suffer when there is a bumper crop. When everyone has a good harvest they end up selling their produce at very low prices which does not give them a good return for their investment.

Consumers can help the farmers through small acts that determine their purchases. We asked Rival, a volunteer who actually works with farmers, what questions should be on one’s mind when buying agricultural products from organizations. Here are some of her tips:

1. It is better to buy straight from farmers and farmer organizations instead of traders and agri-businesses. Avoid haggling! Ask if they can supply you regularly with the produce so you can think of ways to distribute to friends. Or if you are very inventive, you can make them into preserves to sell or give away as holiday gifts. Your requirement for more produce will help the farmers.

2. If you are buying from organizations, best to ask why they are selling it at the prices they offer. If the prices are so low, ask why. Perhaps it is because of “vegetable dumping” due to overproduction in that area. If the prices are high, you’d like to know if the trader had paid a fair price to the farmer or had a big transportation overhead.

3. Ask your local seller how you can “help local farmers,” especially if they are using this as their sales pitch.

When you buy your food, always keep in mind our “food heroes” — the farmers who supply us with our food. Supporting them will keep our food chain growing.