By Tony A. Rodriguez

Benguet State University (BSU), whose main campus is in La Trinidad town—the ‘strawberry capital of the Philippines’—enables small landless farmers to grow crops for their livelihood by allowing them to rent a maximum of 1,000 square meters (sq. m.) per farmer of the university’s annex fields in the barangays of Betag and Balili for P15 per square meter per year. The renters’ main crop is strawberry.

Renting out the land for agricultural use is among the university’s major income-generating projects for supplementing the annual subsidy that it receives from the General Appropriation Act. Its other major income-generating projects are vegetable, strawberry, cut flowers, poultry, and swine production.

A colorful history

BSU began 97 years ago as the La Trinidad Farm School, which was envisioned to develop into a large normal school for training the best Igorot pupils to teach their own people, with an emphasis on agriculture. In 1920, it became the Trinidad Agricultural School. When it reopened after World War II in 1946, the school became the La Trinidad Agricultural High School. Four years later, it offered a two-year post-high school Certificate in Agricultural Education that completely replaced its provincial normal curriculum in 1953.

Later renamed the La Trinidad National Agricultural School, it was nationalized and named the Mountain National Agricultural School. Its other name changes include ‘Mountain National College’, ‘Mountain Agricultural College’, and ‘Mountain State Agricultural College’ in 1969.

On January 12 1986, Presidential Decree 2010 elevated the college to state university status. At present, BSU is at the State Universities and Colleges (SUC) Level IV, the highest category in the SUC level classification of the Commission on Higher Education. For the 2013-2014 school year, its total enrolment was 8,939, with the most students taking up Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (BSA).

A majority of the school’s BSA graduates are employed by agribusiness companies in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), to which Benguet belongs. All the agronomists, market development technologists, and researchers employed by vegetable seed and crop care firm Allied Botanical Corporation (ABC) in the CAR are BSU graduates. The company, which marks its 30th anniversary in 2014, is one of the most active in the Cordilleras. Its Brassica vegetable varieties are market leaders in the region.

Encouraging livelihood development

Just across the provincial highway from BSU’s sprawling campus, Betag is the site of the University’s 32-hectare Strawberry and Vegetable Farm, an area that local residents know as ‘the swamp’ because of its watery state during the rainy months of the year. The Balili site is a much smaller area behind the main campus, but it is where BSU maintains its research and hands-on instruction facilities for open-field and greenhouse crop culture. Both sites are well suited for vegetable and strawberry production.

In Balili, two young farm workers, Mario Sacpa and Julio Sab-it, are among those renting a 1,000 sq. m. field. They pool their resources to be able to earn a living from the land. They do not grow strawberry; instead, their main crops are Brassica vegetables like
cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, and broccoli. These are rotated with lettuce, the shortest-term veggie they can plant. Broccoli is their mainstay because it fetches the highest farmgate price.

The young men chose brassicas as their main crop because their rented field is near ABC’s Highland Crops Research Farm within the BSU’s Balili property. During times that the Farm needs extra hands to assist the researchers and agronomists there, Sacpa and Sab-it are often hired as workers. This enabled the duo to gain some familiarity with the culture of the high-value vegetables.

After harvesting broccoli in late November 2013, the two farmers sublet half of their rented area to a strawberry grower, and sowed seeds of an Iceberg lettuce that ABC markets: Condor Great Lakes XL. The duo decided to plant iceberg lettuce for a relative of Sacpa who brings vegetables to Metro Manila. Iceberg lettuce lasts longer than other types when being transported from Benguet to Metro Manila without refrigeration.

Vegetabletrader Johnny Sang-it
(left) and his assistant harvest Condor
Great Lakes XL iceberg lettuce heads
and ready these for a quick trip to Metro
Manila by wrapping each head with
newspaper and packing in cartons.

As they learned their lessons well at the Farm, Sacpa and Sab-it sowed the lettuce seeds in seedling trays which they housed in a small bamboo-and-coconut lumber-framed rain shelter covered with plastic sheeting. They filled 11 trays each containing 104 small seedpots with Klasmann Peat Substrate.

The duo then transplanted 1,140 seedlings in the open one meterwide elevated beds 20 meters long, choosing a cool and cloudy day in late December for carrying out the task. Unlike other farmers in the area (especially those growing strawberry), they did not mulch their beds with plastic film to save on costs. They fertilized their young plants with urea 10 days after transplanting (DAT) them. At 18 DAT they top-dressed with urea and 14-14-14 fertilizers.

As Condor Great Lakes XL is an iceberg lettuce and thus a heading type, Sacpa and Sab-it’s crop took more than five months before becoming harvestable—about two weeks more than for loose-leaf lettuces. Johnny Sang-it, Sacpa’s relative who brings Benguet vegetables to Metro Manila, had previously arranged to buy their crop at R25 per kilogram regardless of quality.

Sang-it, who took care of the harvesting chores as part of his arrangement with the planters, staggered his harvests according to what his customers in the big city needed. He often took 100 to 120 kilograms to Manila on a quick trip by bus, wrapping each Condor Great Lakes XL head in newspaper for insulation, and packing these in cartons for easy shipment.

Sacpa estimated their total harvest from a 500 sq. m. portion of their field to be 1,530 kilograms. He and partner Sab-it grossed more than P38,000. If they had planted Iceberg lettuce in their entire rented field, they would have grossed double that amount. But their system enabled them to also earn from subletting half of their lot and from working part-time at the ABC Farm. What’s most important for them was how they learned more about the culture of brassicas and other high value highland crops in the process.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2014 issue.