2008 BEST AGRICULTURE FEATURE STORY - REGIONAL

 

"Magtanim ay di biro" (Planting Is Never Fun)
By Leny Escaro
Bandillo ng Palawan

 

THE boxing bout of national pugilist Many “Pacman” Pacquiao has just ended when Bandillo ng Palawan came upon Wilson Salibio, 42, watching the television he acquired by monthly installment. He was happy because Pacman defeated Jose Antonio Barrera of Mexico for the second time. At that moment, Salibio seemed unmindful of the problem of the farm at the back of his house in Barangay Sicsican, Puerto Princesa City.

It is already October, but he has not yet planted his field for the year. Like the ones living in Luzon, the scant rain has become a problem for Palaweño farmers. Although there had been rain, it was not enough. In spite of this, he is still hoping that there will be more rain very soon to irrigate the farm. In fact he has prepared the seedlings.

“After 25 days, these seedlings have to be planted. But if it does not rain, these will be wasted,” he worriedly said.

It was in 1990 when he became a caretaker of the two-hectare flatland owned by a retired general. He does not receive a salary, but he was free to farm the land without giving anything back to the owner who pays the property tax. This agreement is in effect till now.

Despite these privileges, Salibio admits that he will not be able to support his family if he will just rely on rice farming. During dry season, they plant the land with vegetables and watermelon. From time to time he sidelines as a payloader driver earning him P300 per day. But this is not permanent. On the other hand, his wife Sally, 41, is a manicurist.

This is the way the have managed to attend to their daily needs, including the P50 daily fare of their daughter Michelle, 17, who is taking up Education at the Palawan State University. “It’s fortunate that half of her tuition fee is shouldered by the scholarship program of one politician. Otherwise, we would have extreme difficulty,” said Salibio.

He adds, “We labored for her studies because she is our only hope.” His older daughter already got married without finishing school.

 

The life of a farmer

“It’s difficult to be a farmer these days compared to when I was just starting,” Salibio narrates.

This is because of the high cost of farming. For one hectare of farmland, he spends more than P15,000. In his experience, his harvest never goes beyond 100 sacks of rice. Out of these, nine sacks go to the owner of the thresher and nine go to the people who help in harvesting the rice. In other words, 82 sacks or 4,100 kilos of rice will be left for him.

“When it does not rain, the trader will buy it for P8.50 per kilo. However, if we are unlucky and it is wet, the price drops to P5.50,” he explained.

There is no questioning that this buying scheme with the traders is far cheaper than that with the National Food Authority that is P10.00 per kilo with a lot of incentives waiting for the farmers. But if Salibio is going to be asked it is very difficult to sell to NFA because of the tedious paperwork needed. Moist rice is also a problem because the price will surely drop, too. “It’s better to sell to traders. There is no problem.”

This means a farmer earns no more than P20,000 in one year, especially like Salibio who only plants once a year. He is dependent on the rain because there is no irrigation.

According to farmer Nelson Peneyra of Aborlan, “We are no longer farmers, but just baggers of rice.” According to the former mayor and provincial board member, they only plant so that there will be rice to deliver to the traders come harvest time.

The ones who tend to lose most are the farmers who gamble in “tiyempuhan.” In this system a usurer who lends money to the farmers. An example of this is Salibio who has just borrowed P10,000 to augment the tuition of Michelle and the family’s daily expenses because they have been buying rice for daily consumption for so long. He is supposed to pay this amount with 40 sacks of rice, either dry or moist.

In this system a farmer losses a lot because the rice is paid only P5 per kilo. “We can not do anything because we have no other source of money.”

Salibio is lucky to be one of the beneficiaries of free seeds and fertilizers from the City Agriculturist’s Office. This is said to be a part of the program of the Department of Agriculture after a State of Calamity was declared due to the long dry spell.

According to Salibio, in his 17 years as a farmer this is the second time he was given free seeds and fertilizers. The first time was when he received hybrid seeds from the Department of Agriculture. He could not recall what year it was.

 

NFA’s rules and incentives

It was in 1997 when the power to regulate the traders was removed from NFA. Since then till now it has only done monitoring function for the rice trading industry. As of now, the price per kilo of the finest rice in the market has reached more than P30.00.

“What we do is place NFA rice in the market to balance the price and so that consumers have a choice,” explained NFA Palawan Manager Prudencio Tayco.

At the old market of Puerto Princesa, 400 sacks of rice from NFA are sold by four outlets per week.

A large portion of their stock comes from San Jose, Mindoro or from their regional office in Batangas which imports rice from Vietnam.

Palawan needs 7,100 sacks of rice daily and a buffer stock of 35,500 sacks. For this year, NFA Palawan has an allocation of 240 sacks from the imported rice.

Last 2006, NFA bought only 20,000 sacks of palay in Palawan. Among the possible reasons are the strict rules of NFA in accreditation and the strong competition from traders when it comes to paying farmers. Traders pay in cash while NFA pays in checks. In this system, farmers would rather sell to traders because they still have to travel to Puerto Princesa to en-cash NFA checks.

“The check payment system is a security measure to protect our personnel,” explained Tayco.

On the other hand, the strict regulation is NFA’s way to ensure that only legitimate farmers are sourced for palay. “An issue came up against us before, that NFA was buying rice from traders.”

But even if a farmer passes the strict regulation, he still needs to make sure that his palay seeds are 95 percent whole and the moisture content does not go below 14 percent before these are bought by NFA.

Some of the incentives offered by NFA are the 15-centavo per kilo drying incentive that will go directly to the farmer and the 10-centavo per kilo delivery incentive that will go to the cooperative. The agency also gives a 25-centavo per kilo Cooperative Development for Post Harvest Incentive Fee that goes to a trust fund which can be used for buying seeds and fertilizers.

For Tayco, one of the greatest challenges that farmers are facing today is the lack of mechanical or solar dyer that will help farmers to ensure proper drying of their palay even during rainy season.

“Many of them are forced to sell their palay at a low price to avoid having their hands full of unsellable germinated palay,” the NFA manager said.

This is attested by Salibio and Peneyra. “When the palay becomes wet and stored in an enclosed space, in three days time it will begin germinating,” said Peneyra.

Government support Engr. Elmer Ferry, chief of DA-Provincial Agriculture Experimental Station (DA-PAES), admits that it is so hard for a farmer to make a living. “If they (farmers) will rely only in farming they won’t live decent lives.”

In Salibio’s case, in his 17 years as a farmer, the 300 square meters home lot located at the barrio site of Sicsican, which he bought the rights for for P4,200, is his only tangible investment.

The DA Palawan and the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist (OPA) can only provide technical support to farmers.

“Our office has no fund for rice production,” said Eleanor Lotibo, planning officer of DA-PAES. According to her, the fund for rice production comes from the Regional Office, the fund at hand in the DA Palawan office is only for high value crops like cashew.

Meanwhile, OPA’s only functions are to coordinate with the local government units and disseminate technical knowledge to the farmers. Their hands are tied due to their meager budget. For this year, OPA has only P750,000 for Maintenance and Operating Expenses. This is where they get the budget for the office and travel expenses of personnel who go to the farmers to give technical assistance.

Right now, the only tangible project that they have is the Farmer Field School. This is where farmers who would like to learn new technical approaches in farming are enrolled. According to Domingo Cacal, Senior Agriculturist and in-charge for rice production, they now have five Farmer Field Schools in the North and five in the South. OPA believes that these schools have helped improve farming in the province.

In his State of the Province Address (SOPA) last July, Governor Joel Reyes admitted that a rice farmer earned an average of only P15,000 per harvest. He promised to help the farmers increase their production through trainings, demo farms and farmer field schools.

 

Palawan’s potential for rice production

From the data of DA-PAES, Palawan has 192,875 hectares of arable land. The record of OPA in 2006 indicates that 42,506.72 hectares during wet season and 16,441.55 hectares during dry season were actually planted with rice. It means that there are still more arable lands not planted with rice.

One of the problems in the province is the lack irrigation. Only 19,217 hectares are irrigated hence only a few farmers in Palawan have the capability to plant rice twice a year.

From the report of OPA for 2006, there are only 11,559 rice farmers who planted during the dry season. This is half of the 22,013 farmers who planted during the wet season.

 

The solution

The DA has some temporary solutions to the problem like the 50/50 scheme. In this program, the farmer has to pay only half the price of the seedlings and the other half will be shouldered by the DA. In Palawan, the DA allotted 7,000 sacks of seedlings for this program. However, this is minimal, considering the big population of farmers in the province.

One of the long term solutions is to lessen the cost of farm input by launching the Organic-Tipid Abono Program. Trichoderma – a microorganism – is used to accelerate the decomposition of rice stalks into organic fertilizer that can be used in the field. This technology can cut the expense for fertilizers by 50 percent. In Palawan, the income of farmers who tried this technology have increased, according to the DA.

These technologies aside, Salibio still insists there is a need for irrigation facilities. NFA Palawan Manager Tayco said that the government has to invest on post-harvest facilities like solar and mechanical dryers for farmers.

“We have facilities like this in Brooke’s Point and Narra but these could not accommodate the needs of all the palay farmers,” said Tayco.

There is also a need to strengthen farmers’ cooperatives and associations to ensure the welfare of farmers. Right now, more farmers go solo, with the belief that they cannot benefit from cooperatives. “It doesn’t help. The registration is just additional expense,” said Salibio who was once a member of an association of rice farmers in Sicsican.

The farmers need the help of government to sell their palay at a higher price so they will not fall into the hands of traders who control the prices most of the time. “We are now encouraging farmers to study production versus profitability of their product,” said Ferry. The NFA also sees that establishing more government banks in the rural areas is another answer to the problem.

Governor Reyes in his SOPA promised to help farmers in the promotion and marketing of their produce, but he did not make it clear how this promise would be implemented.

Another important area where the government has to do something is the capital source for seedlings so that farmers do not become victims of tiyempuhan (usury). It is true that there are banks that give loans to farmers, but Salibio and his like would surely fail the application standards because they do not own the land they till. They are the ones most likely to grab the sharp edge of the tiyempuhan knife.

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