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From farms to agri-enterprises

Just as I completed writing my last piece expressing embarrassment and frustration with not having directly engaged in farming, even as my undergraduate and masteral studies focused on it, something arrived in the mail that somewhat rubbed it in further. It was a copy of my friend Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan’s little book “Tagsibol” (spring), where he chronicles his own foray into farming, an occupation he chose to take up in 2012. He explains that as chair of the Senate committee on agriculture then, “what little I knew about farming, I made up for with learning first-hand about this much ignored sector.”

Kiko planted his family’s 1.7-hectare farm in Alfonso, Cavite, with assorted vegetables and more, with lettuce and herbs as flagship products, all grown naturally and chemical-free. He was no ordinary farmer, of course, and his Sweet Valley Country Farm no ordinary farm. But through it, especially in the two years he found himself idled from public service and running the farm himself, he lived the same joys and travails that millions of Filipino small farmers go through for a lifetime. It was his way of seeking to inform his policymaking work with the education, perspective and empathy that only hands-on practice can give. “My own farm suffered tremendous losses due to natural disasters,” he writes. Coupled with his own family tragedies, “I found myself saying that life isn’t fair, and wishing that the universe spreads the difficulties, the hardships and the trials more evenly.” If someone widely seen as a man of privilege could feel that way, what more those who have absolutely nothing to draw on when the same trials befall them?

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In our country, agriculture has become to most a thankless job that pushes workers into even worse states of poverty. Farmers have always been the first and worst affected by damaging typhoons and other natural calamities. Farmers are already at a disadvantage to begin with, given our geography and position on the typhoon belt. Now frequent El Niño spells delay planting by more than an entire cropping season. Accustomed to the seasonality of their livelihood, farmers and their families are forced to get by with odd jobs in construction, pedicab driving, cooking, laundry, and recycling trash. Many send a family member to work menial jobs overseas, often at great risk to their health and humanity.

All these have made the young lose interest in taking over the livelihoods of their farmer-parents, drawn away to nonfarm occupations instead. We are not only losing farms from land conversion and climate change; more alarming perhaps is that we are also losing farmers to feed the next generation.

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All is not lost, however. I wrote recently of Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Dr. Romulo Davide’s farmer-scientist training program (FSTP) that has multiplied the incomes of small farmers in various parts of the country. Participants have been able to transform their lives from barely making ends meet to earning hundreds of thousands, even millions, of pesos yearly from their farms-turned-agri-enterprises. The key was to put superior production technology in their hands, letting them see firsthand the difference it could make, via direct experimentation with the new technologies right in their own fields. Farmer Leonito Manzanades is only one of many who upgraded from rickety nipa huts to concrete cottages, and more, after joining FSTP.

Beyond production technologies, information technology now also helps give farming stronger appeal to young people, here and overseas. Smartphone-based apps can let the farmer keep close track of various data on the farm, in the environment and in the market, and use the data to obtain the cheapest inputs, optimize yields, connect to ready buyers, and even mitigate risks from adverse weather. With such technology-enabled business models, small farms like Senator Kiko’s 1.7-hectare operation become exciting agri-enterprises, and in place of lowly small farmers, have a new class of true agri-entrepreneurs.

If we can make that the shape of things to come, the successor farmer generation I was worried about in my Tuesday column may yet be forthcoming, after all.

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TAGS: Cavite, Farm, Kiko Pangilinan, Tagsibol
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