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2008 WINNERS

AGRICULTURE PHOTO OF THE YEAR

"SOUP IN SALAD"
MAU VICTA
BUSINESS MIRROR

TOBACCO PHOTO OF THE YEAR

"LONGEST TOBACCO"
ANDY ZAPATA
PHILIPPINE STAR
AGRICULTURE STORY OF THE YEAR
"CARABAO MODELS COMMERCIAL BIO-ETHANOL PRODUCTION"
BY: MELPHA ABELLO
MANILA BULLETIN
There’s more to carabao than its meat, milk and being a dependable draft animal. Soon, scientist say, this sturdy animal can be key to commercial production of cellulosic or biomass ethanol from agricultural wastes.

How can this be possible? Carabao has micro-organisms in its rumen that transform lignocellulose into ethanol, says Dr.

FULL STORY 
2008 AGRICULTURE STORY OF THE YEAR
"Carabao Models Commercial Bio-Ethanol Production"
By Melpha Abello
Manila Bulletin



There’s more to carabao than its meat, milk and being a dependable draft animal. Soon, scientist say, this sturdy animal can be key to commercial production of cellulosic or biomass ethanol from agricultural wastes.

How can this be possible? Carabao has micro-organisms in its rumen that transform lignocellulose into ethanol, says Dr. Fiorello B. Abenes, an emeritus professor of the CalPoly State University Pomona in California, and a Balik Scientist Program (BSP) awardee of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

Dr. Abenes together with Dr. Perla C. Florendo of Central Luzon State University (CLSU) and a research team from Philippine Carabao Center (PCC), have developed a method of producing bio-ethanol from lignocellulose using the carabao as a model as validated by their research titled “Validation of a Paradigm: The Philippine Carabao as a Model for Cellulosic Ethamnol Production”.

The research has bagged the third place at the recently concluded competition in energy and industry R&D conducted by the Philippine Council for Industry Energy Research and Development(PCIERD) of the DOST.



THE PHILIPPINE CARABAO AS A MODEL

The Philippine carabao, explains Dr. Abenes, is known for its ability to subsist on low-quality forage like rice stubbles and straw. Such ability is conferred upon the animal by rumen (one of the four compartments of the ruminant’s stomach) micro-organisms that digest cellulose and hemicellulose, turning them into methane CH4, carbon dioxide (CO2) and volatile fatty acids (VFAs). CH4 and CO2, are expelled when the animal eructates, while the VFAs are shared between the host animal (carabao) and micro-organisms.

He said that the carabao uses VFAs as a source of energy, while the micro-organisms use them to support their life functions including growth and reproduction by synthesizing glucose and proteins and storing them as bacterial starch which can be turned into alcohol using common yeast.



BIOSMASS ETHANOL FROM AGRICULTURAL WASTES

Biomass ethanol is a type of biofuel produced from lignocellulose which makes up the structural materials in plants. It is composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Agricultural wastes such as rice straw, corn stover, sugarcane bagasse, grasses and wood are some of the cellulosic feedstocks which can be considered for this purpose.

Lignocellulose is nature’s most abundant molecule. Although its advantage as raw material for bioethanol lies on its high abundance, it has a rigid structure which requires pre-treatment and enzymatic hydrolysis to convert this molecule into alcohol. These processes are very expensive, that is why “commercialization of this technology is not fully achieved,” Dr. Abenes said.

Typically, producing ethanol from biomass feedstocks using a biological approach involves several stages. These are: pre-treatment phase, which makes the lignocellulosic material amenable to hydrolysis; cellulose hydrolysis, wherein the molecules are broken down into sugars; microbial fermentation which converts the sugar into alcohol; and distillation to produce 99.5 percent alcohol.

Dr. Abenes cited that the existing technology uses hydrolyzed glucose using specific enzymes which requires pre-treatment technique involving the costly acid acid hydrolysis, and the hydrolysis of cellulose that uses purified enzymes. He added that the cost of enzyme alone makes up 60 percent of the total processing cost.



ENZYMES FROM RUMEN MICROORGANISMS DO THE WORK

Using the rumen fluid from carabao as a source of cellulosic and hemicellulosic enzymes simplifies the process of producing biomass ethanol. Dr. Abenes said that this method eliminates the acid pre-treatment, suggesting only particle size reduction or grinding of the materials as the pre-treatment method used to simulate rumination that occurs naturally during digestion. Aside from being costly, acid pre-treatment of biomass. He says, has destructive environmental effects due to acid disposal.

It also eliminates the need for enzyme production and enzyme delivery systems because rumen fluid has micro-organisms that generate powerful enzymes. There’s no need to separate the hydrolysate from undigested biomass prior to fermentation, provided that the system is abiotic.

In their experiments conducted between November and December 2007 to validate the carabao paradigm, Dr. Abenes said that anaerobic rumen micro-organisms could be propagated and anaerobically cultured in plastic bioreactors. Quantitative studies showed a microbia1 enzymatic hydrolysis of rice straw with high efficiency within seven days : incubation in vitro at a rate of 84.5 percent. The hydrolysates containing sugars and lysed microbes were successfully converted to ethanol using ordinary yeast.

Experiments also showed that using the micro-organisms from carabao’s rumen fluid could yield more fermentable material than using a purely enzymatic process.

Dr. Abenes stressed that since this is done in a closed system, the micro-organisms do not have to compete with a host animal for the VFAs produced.



LENDING EXPERTISE

Dr. Abenes obtained his doctorate degree in animal science and master’s degree in animal industries both from the University of Connecticut in 1975 and 1971, respectively. He worked for many years in the field of animal science at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos, in the University of Connecticut and in Alberta before moving to CalPoly University Pomona where he served as a professor of animal and veterinary sciences from 1986-2004.

Dr. Abenes was among the first Filipino scientists abroad who responded to the government’s Balik-Scientist Program when it was established in 1975. BSP seeks to encourage overseas Filipino Scientist to return or reside in their country and share their expertise to accelerate the country’s scientific, agro-industrial and econimic development.

He came back to the Philippines as a visiting professor in CLSU from October 2007 to January 2008. In March 10 this year, he availed again of the BSP, this time the Short-term Program which he will carry out up to June 7, 2008.



PROPOSED PROJECT

With optimizing biomass ethanol production model as one of his tasks to be accomplished as a Balik Scientist, Dr. Abenes has proposed in collaboration with PCC and CLSU to establish a bio¬mass ethanol research and development experiment station.

The establishment of an R&D experi¬ment station; whose proposal was submitted to the DOST, will require P102 million as funding according to Dr. Abenes. It will be located in CLSU and will focus on improving ethanol yields from biomass feedstocks.

He said that the technology is now at the optimization stage. Based on their preliminary calculations, a 1,000-kilogram of biomass can yield 117 liters of ethanol using the carabao paradigm, but he said that this rate could change with the continuous improvement of the technology.

At the station, the feedstocks will be digested in bioreactor containers using whole rumen fluid from native carabaos. The resulting “bacterial beer” will be cooked to inactivate the micro-organisms and then yeast will be added to start the fermentation process. The alcohol that will be collected will be distilled in a solar distiller designed by engineers from CLSU.

A unique feature of the system will be that the container used in the collection of biomass is the same container used for microbial digestion, fermentation and distillation, allowing a “factory assembly line” process.

They will also consider the environmental impacts of the project that is why scientists and engineers from CLSU will be working together to refine the bioreactor system. Part of the optimization also suggests engineering designs for the collection of methane gas for power generation. In addition, they will also study possible uses of spent biomass.



SIGNIFICANCE

Several issues were raised on the effect of biofuel production such as it might compete with food production because it will require conversion of some arable lands into plantation for feedstocks. The carabao paradigm, according to Dr. Abenes, could be a very good alternative to bioethanol produced from foodstocks such as sugarcane because it uses farm wastes as sources of lignocellulose which is found in the biomass sources that are widely available in the Philippines.

Data show that 4,046,318 hectares of rice land generate 13 million metric tons of rice straw each harvest season. Added to these are 2.9 million tons of biomass from sugarcane tops and trashes from sugarcane farms. These resources are usually burned which results in environmental pollution.

This project, once commercialized, also aims a partnership with small hold farmers as well as local government units that will be involved in the digestion process. They will be provided with containers where they can collect the biomass feedstocks and start the digestion process right at their own farm using the rumen fluid that will be supplied to them by PCC at CLSU. This way, they will earn additional income.

Dr. Abenes and his team believe that by adopting the carabao paradigm, they can significantly lower the cost of producing biomass ethanol thus allowing commercialization economically feasible. He added that full development of this technology could result in the production of enough ethanol to meet, or even exceed the goals of Philippine Biofuels Act of 2006 and allow the use of 85 percent ethanol for flexible fuel vehicles (FFV).

With these developments, the native carabao is seen to have a new role in the near future
TOBACCO STORY OF THE YEAR
"WHY FARMERS CHOOSE VIRGINIA TOBACCO?"
BY: FREDDIE LAZARO
THE STAR NORTHERN LUZON
Why is it that farmers in Ilocos region still prefer Virginia tobacco as main cash crop after rice season?

Marcelo Abalos, at 59, smiles as he smells the aroma of the fresh and attractive flue - cured Virginia tobacco leaves coming from the 20 feet flu-curing barn with a size of 12’ by 14’ length and width, respectively.
FULL STORY 
2008 TOBACCO STORY OF THE YEAR
"Why farmers choose Virginia Tobacco?"
By Freddie Lazaro
The Star Northern Luzon



Why is it that farmers in Ilocos region still prefer Virginia tobacco as main cash crop after rice season?

Marcelo Abalos, at 59, smiles as he smells the aroma of the fresh and attractive flue - cured Virginia tobacco leaves coming from the 20 feet flu-curing barn with a size of 12’ by 14’ length and width, respectively.

Abalos or Mang Celong, a long time tobacco farmer from Barangay Cal-litong, Burgos, Ilocos Sur, is one of the 10, 670 farmers from Ilocos Sur recorded by the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) who engages in tobacco growing this tobacco season.

Manong Celong, who started farming at 15, expects a sufficient amount of money he will earn from the presently cured Virginia tobacco leaves to augment the allowance of his youngest child in college.

Despite the all - out advocacy on various sectors on the ill - effects on tobacco industry specifically on smoking, Manong Celong claimed that the Virginia tobacco is still the best cash crop for him to plant after the rice season. He preferred to grow Virginia tobacco rather than other high value crop considering it as the only crop that could give him an opportunity to earn higher income.

This season, he is expecting to earn an estimated gross income of P150, 000.00 in his one hectare tobacco farm after his eight - week period of harvesting starting last week of February this year. He had estimated gross expenses of P100, 000.00 to include the daily wages of his family members in tending services from planting to harvesting.

“I tried to plant yellow corn in a hectare of land that I had leased before to add my one hectare tobacco plantation, unfortunately I had earned a break-even income in corn growing due to its unstable price unlike the tobacco that had floor prices,” he said.

“Today, I sold my Class AA flue -cured Virginia tobacco into P71.00 a kilo which was P10 higher from its recently approved P61.00 floor price,” added Manong Marcelo, who was also a tobacco contract grower.

In his 44 years of continuous farming of tobacco, he disclosed that he never incurred any losses. His secret is to follow the appropriate cultural practices and technology in tobacco farming coupled with sufficient capital.

With his earning from tobacco farming, he sends his older child in exclusive schools to finish college degree. He was also able to repair his house and procured additional agricultural lands and farm machineries.

Similarly, Elpidio Argel, 55, a father of seven children and native of Barangay Labnig, San Juan, Ilocos Sur, claimed that Virginia tobacco still the best money - earning crop by the farmers in the province among the other alternative crops.

He disclosed that 70% on the expenses of his children in taking up education were from tobacco farming.

The four of his seven children were graduated in exclusive colleges in Ilocos region with degrees on commerce, criminology and education. One of his children is presently studying at Northwestern University in Laoag City and the other one is studying at Minor Seminary in Vigan City.

Reports from the NTA stated that tobacco industry continues to contribute an annual average of P25 billion in excise tax to the government.

The Virginia tobacco industry is the steady source of the RA 7171 tobacco excise tax fund pouring millions of peso funds for the infrastructure and livelihood projects for the four Virginia producing such as Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra and La Union. Ilocos Sur, which is the biggest producer of Virginia tobacco, owns the biggest share among the four provinces.

However, Manong Marcelo and Elpidio, a tobacco farmer since 1974, are both wary that tobacco industry might be a dying industry in the future if the government would not extend appropriate support assistance to the tobacco grower. They cited the all - out campaign against cigarette smoking and a problem on the continuous increase of tobacco farming inputs might threaten the farmers to shift tobacco farming into other crops.

But, NTA Administrator Carlitos S. Encarnacion allayed the fears of the farmers claiming that tobacco industry is “as strong and solid as ever” saying that the demand for tobacco leaf and tobacco products is increasing yearly by 2 percent globally and 3 percent locally.

He depended that the tobacco industry is very far from being a sunset industry despite the presence of anti-smoking law in the country.

This developed when NTA researchers found out the alternative uses of tobacco as its dusts and its pulps were efficient insecticide to kill snail in the fishponds and excellent material for paper manufacturing, respectively.

The tobacco dust had been tested as effective molluscicide in the 12 fishponds in Paombong, Bulacan using a total of 434 million kilograms. The said tobacco dust was eventually decomposed to produce “lablab -” a good food material for fishes.

The NTA official said that these proven alternative uses of tobacco will not only increase the demand of the tobacco but also to generate more jobs and income for the farmers.

To mitigate the environmental degradation caused by the tobacco industry, the tobacco agency intensified the “Backyard Energy Farm” program, a reforestation program by planting fast growing trees like gmelina and mahogany. A massive campaign on limiting the cutting of tress into its branches for tobacco curing had been realized.

The tobacco agency had already planted with trees a half hectare of forest land in Banayoyo, Ilocos Sur.

As to the tobacco financial assistance is concern, the Virginia tobacco producing provinces had extended soft production loans to tobacco growers.
BEST AGRICULTURE TV PROGRAM/SEGMENT
“MAUNLAD NA AGRIKULTURA: THE PILI EPISODE”
BY: INEZ MAGBUAL
ABC 5
BEST AGRICULTURE RADIO PROGRAM/SEGMENT
“SA KABUKIRAN”
BY: LOUIE TABING
DZMM
BEST AGRICULTURE NEWS STORY (REGIONAL)
“100 MGA UBBING. NAILSI ITI CHILD LABOR”
BY: MANCIELITO SAVELLANO TACADENA
TIMEK TI AMIANAN
BEST AGRICULTURE NEWS STORY-REGIONAL
BREWING ENOUGH COFFEE FOR THE FILIPINO CUP
KARLSTON LAPNITEN
BAGUIO CHRONICLE
BEST AGRICULTURE FEATURE STORY (NATIONAL)
"RICE CRISIS 'IMMINENT' A LONG TIME AGO"
BY: PETER CONRAD CARINO
MANILA TIMES
"Sufficiency not impossible, experts say"

It is quite ironic that the Philippines, with its Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and host to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has never been rice self-sufficient for the most part of the last 20 years.

FULL STORY 
2008 BEST AGRICULTURE FEATURE STORY - NATIONAL
"Rice crisis 'Imminent' a long time ago"
By Peter Conrad Carino
Manila Times



"Sufficiency not impossible, experts say"

It is quite ironic that the Philippines, with its Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and host to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has never been rice self-sufficient for the most part of the last 20 years.

While some argue that the Philippines is not blessed like Thailand, India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Bangladesh, with plains and deltas more highly suitable for rice farming, local experts believe the country could still attain rice self-sufficiency, making imports unnecessary.

In fact, the country even exported rice when then-President Ferdinand Marcos implemented the highly successful “Masagana 99” program. The government carried it out even when a rice crisis was not imminent.

Some of the problems causing our low rice production even have immediate solutions on hand. And many causes of low rice production could have been avoided if the government had foreseen the present crunch in world rice supply.



Food Minister Tanchangco

One of those who foresaw today’s world rice supply problem is Jesus Tanchangco, the former Food Minister of Marcos. More than a year ago, Tanchangco was already making statements that the country could not entirely rely on imported rice to solve domestic production shortages.

“Taking the world supply of rice, for example, statistics show that of the total quantity of rice produced worldwide, less than 3 percent is being traded,” he said.

The former food minister said that a slight decrease in worldwide rice production, as low as 5 percent, would affect many rice-producing countries, including those that import the grain.

Many factors can affect worldwide rice production. IRRI President Robert Zeigler, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, cited “adverse weather in Bangladesh, pests and disease in Vietnam, and political problems in Myanmar” as factors that will make a dent on worldwide rice supply.

The Climate Change Group of IRRI also discovered that a drop of 1 degree centigrade in climate temperatures can result in a 10-percent drop in rice yields.

Before the country signed a deal to buy large quantities of rice from Vietnam, Sen. Mar Roxas had warned that “Thailand, which used to sell rice to the Philippines, could not commit to sell rice. Vietnam, for its part, said it could be able to sell only one-half of the total metric tons the Philippines used to buy.”

The Philippines-Vietnam agreement in March for the supply of 1.5 million MT of the grains has a clause stating “Vietnamese government agrees to sell, unless under circumstances of natural disaster and harvest loss,” which makes it possible for Vietnam to refuse to deliver rice to us.

For this year, the Philippines will import up to two million metric tons of rice, even if rice harvests this year reach over 16 million MT.



Avoiding imports

Rice importations in this crisis could have been avoided had the government invested more in the agriculture sector than spending the money on rice imports.

Palawan’s Rep. Abraham Mitra last year suggested that the billions of pesos used to import rice should be allocated to increase the domestic production.

He even pointed out that a fraction of the import funds can be used to improve post-harvest facilities.

Post-harvest losses in rice hovers around 14 to 25 percent. This means that if post-harvest losses are addressed, there may be no need to import rice, because according to the Department of Agriculture, the country today is 90-percent self-sufficient in rice.

Felino Garcia Jr., a farmer leader in Nueva Vizcaya, even said the government subsidy to propagate high-yielding hybrid rice seeds is miniscule compared to the billions of pesos spent for rice imports.

At present, the government shoulders half of the cost of hybrid seeds bought by farmers through the GMA (Ginintuang Masaganang Ani) Rice Program.

Hybrid seeds can improve yields by about 30 percent. There are even hybrid rice farmers who report palay (unhusked rice) yields of above 10 MT per hectare per cropping on irrigated rice fields, which is very high compared to the 3.49 MT national average, also for irrigated lands.



Flawed policies

Largely to blame for today’s rice crisis is the flawed policy of past administrations not to spend heavily on agriculture to make the country self-sufficient.

Notably, when Marcos fled the country in 1986, the government’s buffer stocks for rice was 900,000 MT, making importations unnecessary. It was only in 1973, during the Marcos regime, that rice had to be imported because typhoons that hit Central Luzon in 1972 destroyed much of the expected harvest.

Since 1988, the country was only rice-self sufficient for a short break—when Roberto Sebastian was Agriculture secretary.

Since then, the country has been importing rice. What could have possibly gone wrong?

Arsenio Balisacan, a respected figure in academe and agriculture circles who heads the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research and Agriculture (SEARCA), believes that the government’s investment in the agriculture sector is inappropriately low.

“The country’s investments in agricultural research and related activities have remained at a low level of 0.1 percent of the country’s Gross Value Added [GVA] in agriculture over the past 10 years. This is far below the 1-percent level recommended for developing countries and very much lower than the 2 to 3 percent observed in many countries,” Balisacan said in a paper about the state of Philippine agriculture.

Balisacan said that China’s investment in agriculture in the mid-2000s was 0.8 percent of GVA, which explains why that country is now an agricultural production powerhouse.



Spending per farmer

In an interview with The Manila Times, an official of the Agriculture department said the country spends only P1,000 per farmer, which is low compared to the P3,000 to P4,000 per farmer spent by countries like Thailand, Japan and other developed countries.

Likewise, much has to be done to develop agriculture infrastructure, for example, in irrigation. Data from the National Irrigation Administration show that in 2006, 705,000 hectares were served by national irrigation systems out of the 3.12 million hectares of irrigable lands, which are mostly rice. If there is any consolation, the total area served by irrigation systems as of 2006 is 1.428 million hectares, because of the contribution of communal systems (549,000 hectares) and private irrigation (174,000 hectares).

In contrast, the Marcos administration under the Masagana 99 attained a target of 1.6 million hectares of farms for irrigation, of which 1.3 million hectares were covered by national systems. The rest was served by communal irrigation systems.



Rice sufficiency not impossible, experts say

(Last of two parts)

(Editor’s note: In the first part, the author writes of the Marcos “Masagana 99” program. The administration pursued it even if a rice crisis was not “imminent.” It made the Philippines a rice-exporting nation. The threat of a rice-shortage crisis has always been a threat because the country has not been self-sufficient in rice for most of the last two decades. This is owing to wrong macroeconomic government policies on agriculture.)

With low investments in agriculture, most especially rice farms, the palay yields per hectare hovers from three to four tons in non-irrigated farms, with the higher range produced in irrigated lands.

In China, palay yields of 10 to 12 tons per hectare, per cropping are not unusual. China was once an importer of rice, but strived for self-sufficiency by spending heavily on agriculture.

With the government investing so little in agriculture, it is no wonder that poverty is very high among agricultural households in the Philippines.

“Poverty incidence among agricultural households is about four times that in the rest of the population. While only a little more than one-third of the labor force is in agriculture, two of every three destitute persons are dependent directly on agriculture for employment and sustenance,” said Arsenio Balisacan, head of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research and Agriculture (SEARCA).



Growing population

Compounding the lack of rice self-sufficiency is the country’s growing population and the dwindling supply of arable lands to plant rice. This combination can be explosive, since an increasing population means more farming areas have to be developed for human habitation.

Rodelio Cataring, the technical assistant to the director of the Bureau of Soils and Water Management, said rice is best planted on arable plains or flat lands, and that most of the two to four million hectares of idle lands that the government can open up for new agricultural activities are mostly on hilly or upland areas that may not be suitable for planting rice on a large scale.

While the conversion of rice lands for commercial, industrial or residential use can be checked by the issuance of a presidential decree or an act of Congress, arresting population growth by contraceptives is a very sensitive issue in largely Catholic Philippines.

“While population growth rates declined substantially to well below 2 percent a year in such countries as Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam, the rate in the Philippines hardly changed; it is still at a high level of 2.3 percent a year,” Balisacan said. Rice self-sufficiency

Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that the country could not attain rice self-sufficiency.

In fact, the government’s target for attaining rice self-sufficiency is just three to four years away, and is not an impossible dream. Frisco Malabanan, director of the GMA (Ginintuang Masaganang Ani) Rice Program, said a 95-percent self-sufficiency in rice is targeted in 2009 or 2010. Today, the country’s rice self-sufficiency is already about 90 percent.

Among the reasons why the country can achieve rice self-sufficiency is the availability of viable technologies that can improve rice yields, and the country’s hosting PhilRice and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Of the many available “modern” rice-growing technologies in the Philippines, hybrid and certified seeds are fast gaining popularity over inbred varieties.

On hybrid seeds, Malabanan said about 300,000 hectares of rice farms now use hybrid seeds, while the use of genetically modified rice seeds is still “under study.”

Noel Mamicpic, vice-president of hybrid rice producer SL Agritech Corp., said if the total area planted to hybrid rice reaches 800,000 hectares, that will increase local rice production by 3 million metric tons, enough to negate the need to import rice. The only disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that the mature plants cannot be sourced for planting materials, unlike certified or in-bred seeds.

Certified seeds can boost rice yields from 20 percent to 30 percent.

Besides propagating hybrid and certified seeds, the Agriculture department is set to jumpstart a program that will reduce chemical fertilizer use in rice farms by 50 percent, through the use of compost, bio-fertilizers and seed inoculants. This protocol can also increase yields from 30 percent to 50 percent.



Farm technology

That program, called Tamang Abono, belies the claims of critics who accuse Agriculture of favoring chemical farming.

Likewise, PhilRice and IRRI are collaborating on rice varieties that can withstand submergence in water for at least two weeks.

The PhilRice’s website says scientists from both rice-research institutes are also identifying rice varieties that can “either avoid, tolerate or resist heat stress.”

The experiments of PhilRice and IRRI on water- and heat-tolerant rice-varieties address the possible impact of climate change on rice production.

The good news is the techno-demo rice farms of the Agriculture department using the various technologies to increase production are yielding between 5 to 6 metric tons of palay per hectare, per cropping. There is even a farmer in Nueva Ecija whose farm hit a record 17 metric tons per hectare, per cropping using hybrid seeds.

Higher levels of rice production could make rice farming a more profitable venture, which will stop farmers from shifting to other crops, particularly biofuels.

Better rice production will also make farmers a more creditworthy, viable borrower for banks and financial institutions.



Opportunities abound

In a forum, Agriculture Secretary Arturo Yap said the present crisis being faced by the country holds many opportunities for farmers. “Facing these grave threats gives the golden opportunities for farmers to better their incomes,” Yap said.

This remains to be seen. But President Gloria Arroyo’s positive response to the present rice crisis, and her promise of releasing billions to support the rice industry and other agricultural activities and launching the FIELDS programs, is laudable. FIELDS stands for what the government aims to provide farmers: fertilizer, irrigation, extension and education, loan and insurance, dryers and other post-harvest facilities, and seeds.

While those developments are good news for rice farmers, the specter of the fertilizer scam and the recently uncovered swine scam casts a doubt if government is serious in implementing programs without graft or corruption.

However, if much of the large funds released by the President to support rice production is spent as intended, then rice self-sufficiency can be attained. Besides, much of the technology to improve rice yields is readily available, and the unabated conversion of agricultural lands can be stopped by a presidential action.

Balisacan said, “To win the war against chronic food insecurity and poverty, government must put its resources where its mouth is. It must invest in agriculture and rural development and must improve governance relating to it and the rest of the economy.
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.

FULL STORY 
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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