Valuing Farmers
November 21, 2018

Agriculture still is the lifeblood of the country, literally putting food on the tables of families. There are some 5.56 million farms here, 99 percent of which are operated by households or individual tillers. Clearly, agriculture directly affects the lives of a huge proportion of the population, and indirectly all the rest of us, at least those of us who eat, or who eat local.

But, strangely enough, for an agricultural country where farming, fishing and related fields like poultry raising and pig and cattle breeding are big economic activities, the Philippines doesn’t seem all that interested in agricultural issues. At least, judging from the content of our media. The only time food issues come to the fore is when food prices suddenly spike—as they have recently — and consumers begin to feel the pinch.

A fellow judge at the recent Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards was of the opinion that agriculture reporting isn’t popular because journalists consider the subject “boring.” How many times could one write about rice?

But the prizewinning entries in the competition this year, which drew a record of 600 submissions — prompting emcee Tony Velasquez to quip that “there is inflation, too, in Bright Leaf!” — prove that common belief wrong. This year’s Agriculture Story of the Year, “The grass that feeds Filipinos,” published in Edge Davao and written by Henrylito Tacio, is in fact about rice. It traced the history of rice production and importation here, triggered by the sudden rise in prices and the threatened shortfall in supply of our staple food.

With the exception of a few newspapers or news outlets, much of the agriculture coverage in the country is done by provincial or regional papers, where, noted writer Krip Yuson, who has chaired the Bright Leaf judging for many years, agriculture is truly a gut issue.

The award for Tobacco Story of the Year — “Is tobacco the next ‘miracle crop’?” — came out in SunStar Pampanga, written by Ian Ocampo Flora. And if you’re wondering why writing on tobacco got a special mention, that’s because the Bright Leaf Awards have been sponsored for the last 12 years by PMFTC, or Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp.

For the second time, BusinessMirror, one of only a few dailies of national circulation that devote major space to agriculture, won two awards in a single year. Young reporter Jasper Emmanuel Y. Arcalas was honored with the best agriculture feature story, the same category in which he won last year. This year’s feature, “Fowl farmers’ fears persist 1 year after bird flu flare-up,” was actually a follow-up to his winning entry. It gave a human face and human drama to the fowl raisers affected by the mass culling of infected fowl.

Arcalas also won recognition, together with senior reporter Cai U. Ordinario, for best agriculture news story, National. “Snapshot of rice-consumption data remains grainy” focused on the murky data collection and interpretation of agencies tasked with gathering information that could better serve policymakers, legislators and the consuming public alike.

In case you’re wondering, the Inquirer did bag an award in Golden Leaf courtesy of photo correspondent Willie Lomibao, whose shot of jumping bangus churning the waters of a fishpond won as photo of the year.

Guest speaker at the awards night was Argentinian agribusiness investor Nico Bolzico, who, to the disappointment of many, announced that he wasn’t accompanied to the event by his wife (“It” Girl and actor Solenn Heusaff) nor any of his pets (I did miss his turtle Patato!).

But the social media personality was all seriousness talking about LM10, the company he put up with the help of his father to revolutionize the agriculture scene. The three major problems of the local agriculture sector, he said, were the lack of financing, the lack of clear benchmarks to determine right pricing, and the lack of dryers which could help rice farmers during the rainy season.

His prescription: Focus on high-value crops like tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables and move away from dependence on rice and corn. Plus, reform the entire planting and distribution system. “Make farmers part of the value chain,” he urged.

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