Sunday, June 24, 2018
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No Free Lunch

Wanted: successor farmers

I don’t have the green thumb that my late father Celestino used to have. He was the son of a poor rice farmer, and spent his career educating agriculturists, while being an after-hours farmer himself. In my young growing years, he would spend an hour or so before and after work in our small backyard, filling it with plants and trees, the fruits of which our family enjoyed. Later in life, he saved up enough to acquire small pieces of farmland in his home province of Quezon, to which he extended his love for nurturing life on the earth and bringing forth bounty from it.

Even as an agriculture graduate of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), my own direct association with agriculture has been far less practical. It was the context where I had my first formal economics training, having majored in agricultural economics. It was not my original choice as a college course. An unforeseen change in family circumstances in 1970 led me to enroll in the university located right where our family lives, and where my own father pursued his career. Hands-on training on the ground was very much part of my studies, even in grade school. I had to maintain a plot of vegetables in my fifth grade at the Maquiling School (I managed to grow cabbages the size of tennis balls). I had to do the same in my college agronomy course (my string beans did a little better then). I first learned to drive on a four-wheel tractor, again part of the hands-on training in UPLB’s course on the agronomy of field crops.

In my masteral studies, I chose to do my thesis on the choice of technologies in rice harvesting, threshing and drying in Central Luzon, Bicol and Panay, which gave me the chance to stay with poor farmers and witness their life challenges firsthand. It was my late friend Bart Duff, then agricultural economist at the International Rice Research Institute’s Agricultural Engineering Department, who made that possible by allowing me access to their project on rice postharvest systems. Bart eventually retired to Palawan with his Filipino wife, and became a practicing agriculturist and agribusinessman himself.

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I tell my own story with combined feelings of embarrassment and frustration. The embarrassment comes from not having become a true agriculturist like my father and my friend Bart, among others (including classmates at UPLB who were scions of wealthy Mindanao farmers, sent by their parents to train to take over their family farms). With all my past exposure to the science and practice of farming, one might have expected that I’d eventually take it up directly. But I didn’t. Still, agriculture has always been close to my heart, but from a policy perspective rather than a get-your-hands-dirty one. This is where the frustration comes in. It’s a frustration not with myself, but with the entire situation where agriculture as a profession has remained unattractive through the decades, despite our supposed excellence in the agricultural sciences in a now bygone era. Of great concern is the lack of a successor generation of farmers to take over from our aging farmers of today. Two years ago, I wrote of how the average age of Filipino farmers was 57 years old (http://opinion.inquirer.net/97884/drawing-the-young-to-farming). With hardly any new young entrants since then, it must be approaching 60 now.

Why aren’t the young being drawn to the farms? It doesn’t take rocket science to answer that. To me, it is clear that we need fundamental paradigm shifts in how our policymakers manage the sector. I’ve pointed out these shifts since at least eight years ago (http://opinion.inquirer.net/
72470/paradigm-shifts-in-agriculture), yet there is little to suggest that any such shifts in approach have since occurred. I have lately been affirmed in these by the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines, a formidable group of aging but venerable agricultural experts—
also frustrated that our government continues to take age-old approaches that never worked.

Now I worry that the way we are going, even young policy analysts will be drawn away from applying their craft on this most important sector of the Philippine economy.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: agriculture, Cielito F. Habito, farmers, No Free Lunch
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