Making agriculture viable for millennials






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Making agriculture viable for millennials

           Deciding a career to pursue in this smart- phone toting generation should not be as difficult as when professions were limited to those what parents wished for their children to study or to what youngsters really felt as their calling. Today, all one has to do is swipe their communication gadgets for an idea on what is “in” or trending online.

           As studies would show, it will not come as a surprise if one that is related to information technology or those that keep pace with the digital trend would turn out as the prevailing career option of those born in the millennial era.

           Nineteen-year-old Dexter Tad-o, however, did not need much thought when he decided to enroll in an agriculture course, despite the current demand for digital and information technology-related skills.

           The interest must run in the blood, being born to parents who cultivate gardens in barangays Topdac and Cattubo, both in the highlands of Atok, Benguet where some of the high-value crops in the province are produced. Five from a brood of nine siblings have taken the same path. He and a brother are graduating with a degree in Bachelor of Science major in Plant Pathology and soon would be tinkering with “inputs” to get the desired “outputs” when planting cabbage or broccoli, while three of his older siblings have stopped schooling to send the two of them to school by working in their gardens back home.

           As kids, he and all of his siblings have experienced helping out with whatever their young hands could get done in the farm after school hours and on weekends. For them, no one needed to be forced to help out. It is a tradition.

           For single mom Freda, 27, decision-making was not that easy. Her plan of studying nursing did not pan out due to financial difficulties. She worked abroad, but decided to return home. While she qualified for a certificate after six months of studying dressmaking, she found herself working instead on vegetable gardens in a barangay in Mt. Kabuyao in Tuba, Benguet.

           She is a member of a small group of farmers there who recently started producing organic highland crops, in the hope of earning a living within a forest reserve without causing so much harm through sustainable farm practices. She is one of those who would welcome support either from the government and private sector, so that producing less attractive but chemical-free crops would find regular customers who appreciate safety in food more than attractive packaging.

           Having trained on urban gardening, organic crop production, entrepreneurship, and basic bookkeeping through the initiatives of her group called Everlasting Flower Growers Association, Freda has become one brawny and determined woman whose dream for a better life for herself and her five-year-old daughter Gywneth is pinned on a yet uncertain future in organic farming – including having to endure climbing on steep paths to reach the gardens on carved plateaus, at times with Gywneth, leisurely plucking her share of lettuce, in tow.

           Dexter, who admitted he also nurtured a desire to be one of the 700 mushroom pickers currently needed in Canada and earn P100,000 to P150,000 a month; and Freda, who preferred to farm instead of going back abroad to work so that she could be with her daughter while she’s growing, are among the few in the current generation who have chosen to make it their business to study or remain in the production of food, a primary necessity but an unpopular path to tread in the millennial era.

           They are among the few who dream for a better life not only for themselves but also for those who depend on land tilling as a livelihood source, which is reportedly dwindling by the number. By becoming a licensed plant pathologist, Dexter wants to prove how good farming practices come out of science – that one day might be relevant for the likes of Freda and young Gywneth – and so that agriculture would not have to be thought as a less fashionable profession like it is generally perceived.


Aging farmers, fewer students taking up agriculture

           Despite the fact that the Philippines is a predominantly agricultural-based nation, when crops and livestock remain staples in everybody’s food basket, and farming remains the primary if not the only method to produce them, few of today’s college students line up to become a farmer or enroll in courses related to agriculture. Based on the latest Fresh Graduates Report by released on April 18, the list is topped by jobs in law/legal services, public relations, journalism, advertising, training and development, information technology, human resources, marketing, customer services, and quality control.

           Another study released by networking site LinkedIn in 2017 showed there is an increasing demand for highly skilled jobs in various sectors, and it did not include one that is involved in food production. The top three most hired occupations, according to the site through its study, “Recruiting in the Philippines: A Special Report on the Philippines’ Skilled Workforce and How to Attract a Top Talent,” are sales professional, software developer, and customer service special specialist.

           More notable are reports reaching colleagues from the agriculture academe in the Cordillera that confirm the decreasing trend of enrollees in some of the universities in the country specializing in agricultural courses.

           Dr. Danilo Padua, former dean and currently a faculty member of the Department of Agronomy of the Benguet State University College of Agriculture, indicated that knowing the consequences of such reports need not much thought: If the aging farmers, including those who are licensed to conduct research and devise modes to support and improve the sector, will not have anyone following their footsteps, the food chain would be seriously disrupted.


Disproving perceptions  on farmers as poor workers

           Padua said it is very ironic that some people consider the farm as some sort of a jail, from which they want to be out. Farmers, up to now, are believed to be poor, which is proven by the reluctance of some to do away with traditional harmful practices and the presence of the middleman system that leaves farm producers with the least profits. Many look down on what was supposed to be a high calling, due to the low return on a backbreaking investment.

           “It is ironic because they are producing what we need. Here in the Cordillera, it is true that very few now wanted to farm, and the situation is similar not only in the entire country but in the international situation as well,” Padua said.

           He said the challenge now, as far as the leading agriculture college in the Cordillera is concerned, is to get as many of the selfie generation babies as possible interested in and choose food production as an important and viable career.

           “We are trying to equip our students to become an entrepreneur, inculcate in them love of the farm, and for them to get back to the farm when they finish,” he said.


“Agricoolture”: Making agriculture a trendy and viable career

           With the prevailing use of digital and online formats that made available information and techniques in almost every field, the traditional classroom for agricultural courses at BSU found the need to break down the confining walls and get online, in order for the university to realize its goal of providing quality education to enhance food security, sustainable communities, industry innovation, and climate resilience, among others.

           BSU College of Agriculture Dean Janet Pablo said computer softwares, models, and applications available online are now used as part of the college curriculum for professors to catch up and make agriculture an attractive course to would-be college students.

           Along with the giant shift that started two years ago, Pablo said they have introduced “Agricoolture,” where students get access to app-based programs implemented by BSU in collaboration with entities like Philippine Rice Research Institute to learn latest technologies in various fields of agriculture.

           “With this program, nabibigyan ang mga bata ng insight na puwedeng hindi lang sa farm matututunan at maia-apply ang mga theories, na merong mga technology na makakatulong. They can venture in research or in production since they could use the app for instance to determine and report the presence of pests in a particular setting using IT or app-based methods,” Pablo explained.

           For other fields, the college has been using software like the Easy Leaf Area, which allows one to gather parameters for plant growth.

           For Animal Science, models available online such as STELLA, which makes use of computer to predict animal production, can now be used by students.

           Madeleine Kingan, one of those who have used the model, was able to predict how much weight an animal could gain on a daily basis using different nutrient contents of feedstock, the purpose of which is to reduce costs or to give one who is venturing in animal production business the most effective intervention to use in breeding animals.

           “Ang kagandahan ng simulation is you will be able to put in as many interventions and innovations as possible and choose which among these will have the most significant effect before trying it on field, instead of having no idea which will have the chances of being useful,” Kingan said. The model, which can also be used in determining different nutrient levels of different ration combinations, reduction of mortality of native stock, which results are presented in a table or graph, is now used in cow, goat, and originally applied in fish production.

           Pablo said it is especially useful now with the farmers’ need to adapt with climate change. “We need to predict, we have to forecast with the changing climatic conditions today,” she said.

           Products of modern technology such as smart phones are also allowed in the classroom, particularly in doing assignments, papers, and reports, and are helpful as well in plagiarism check.

           Along with traditional trainings and seminar series hosted by the college on related topics that can help students keep up with trends and changing times, both Agriculture students and faculty staff engage in mobility programs, where they get immersed with the latest technologies and practices through collaboration with local and foreign universities, the latest of which is the exchange lecture and training on strawberry production by BSU with the universities of Huelva and Oviedo in Spain.


Entrepreneur-based agriculture, farm tourism, value adding

           Another feature that is emphasized in the agriculture curriculum is changing mindsets towards agriculture by considering it as a free enterprise, pursuant to Republic Act 10816 or the Farm Tourism Development Act of 2016, where students, upon finishing their degree could choose becoming farmer-entrepreneurs by making their farms sustainable through tourism.

           “We agree that it is the way to go, aside from the various ways that a mere farm producer could add value to their raw products,” deans Pablo and Padua said.

           Farming, Pablo said, can now be upgraded as a private enterprise by making it a learning site, injecting science-based agriculture, which one would increase a farm’s income. 

           Padua added that farmers may now also engage in food processing where value addition takes place, hopefully to attract students to consider the work’s viability. “If they see that they can get more by adding value like processing their own produce, it should not be hard to convince students into this field. Siguro mas maraming maa-attract sa agriculture, mas maraming babalik,” Padua said.


Progressive, science-based farmers

           The problem is that many of the current farmers did not specialize or at least have a college degree. Also, based on experience, Padua said it is hard for some farmers to do away with practices they got used to. “For them it is to see to believe, and they wouldn’t like to start first.”

           He said although a degree is not a requirement for one to become a farmer, the ever evolving time requires a farmer to be progressive.

           “A progressive farmer is someone who has a scientific mind, those who by themselves would experiment on what should be done, and this will be possible when one constantly reads and knows how to listen. They must be willing to use new technologies and are willing to adapt. If you did not have education, mahihirapan ka magbasa o umintindi ng mga related technical matters,” Padua said.

           If there is lack of learned farmers, Padua predicts that all of us will suffer, and so that makes agriculture that important.

           “To solve the problem, what we aim to have in our farms today are those who studied and finished agriculture, para more scientific ang gagawin nila. Ito sana ang mangyayari,” Padua said.

           In high school, Dexter found himself excelling in school activities and subjects related to agriculture, and got awards for it. With his background, he got acquainted with things like pests and chemicals that either diminish or improve the quality of produce, and how a farmer usually does not earn enough for a day’s hard work. Given a choice, Dexter said he would return to Atok, have his own farm garden, or go abroad to learn planting techniques that are not available here, and come back home to build a laboratory where he could build a career on crops and all the things he learned from school about the farm business.

           Freda, for herself, says with proper guidance she would not mind whatever her daughter chooses to become in the future. With a mind set on helping her group refine their planting system for them to meet weekly orders for organic lettuce and other crops from their clients – for her to meet the needs of a growing child, Freda said there would not be any prouder mom than her if Gywneth decides to follow her steps.