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No Free Lunch

View from the farm

I have no faith that the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) will achieve what it is intended to do if we go the business-as-usual route,” wrote a reader-friend in reaction to a recent article I wrote. “What has the (earlier) Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (ACEF) achieved so far for our small farmers? … Instead of productivity interventions, the focus of the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the local government units is on farm-to-market roads (I have an uncharitable thought as to why).” The common joke, indeed, is that these favored projects are better termed “farm-to-pocket roads.”

The other problem holding back productivity improvement in our small farms is overcentralized decision-making in the agricultural bureaucracy — as if the agriculture secretary had all the answers to our farmers’ problems. A favorite anecdote concerns an upland barangay (village) in Zamboanga del Norte that I visited some 10 years ago. When I asked the barangay captain, a farmer, what he would ask government if entitled to one request, his reply was: “Carabaos, so we could till our land.” His barangay, located in a plateau up a difficult mountain trail, was noticeably devoid of productive crops, with mostly large areas of grassland punctuated by a handful of coconut and fruit trees.

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I asked what the government had been giving them, and his answer was: fertilizers. “What do you do with the fertilizers?” I pressed on. “We have no use for them here because we can’t even till our land, so we sell them,” he said. When I mildly reprimanded the municipal agricultural officer for not telling her bosses what the actual needs in the barangay were, she told me exasperatedly, “Sir, I’ve told them year after year what my farmers here need, but they’ve already made up their minds in Manila to give them fertilizers.”

And what readily came to mind was the infamous fertilizer scam that was exposed around then, involving hundreds of millions of pesos in pocketed funds.

My reader-friend wrote that she decided to retire to her hometown in Northern Leyte after deciding she’d had enough of Metro Manila traffic and pollution. She narrated her balikbayan  brother’s experience with rice farming in their community, after retiring from a lucrative real estate and construction business overseas. “My brother owns  rice land that is a little over one hectare, cultivated by a farmer-lessee. Harvest from that property has averaged around 45 cavans in the 10 years that he has owned it, with a maximum and minimum production of 60 and 30 respectively. That 30 was last year’s, because  sea water seeped into part of the paddies and burned the newly planted seedlings. The poor lessee did not even earn enough to pay off the loans he incurred to buy seeds, fertilizer, pesticide and the like. But for this most recent planting cycle, output rose to more than 130 cavans — more than double the maximum output in past years, and that of an adjacent farm.”

Her brother had stepped in and determined that the low output was caused by inappropriate seeds, wrong and insufficient fertilizer and pesticide, a defective secondary irrigation canal and others. She asks: “Where was the DA and the municipal farm extension worker in all these? The answer: nowhere. My brother initially went to their office for answers to some of his technical questions, but eventually determined that it was futile. Even the DA Regional Rice Experimental Station initially denied that it had stock of saline-resistant rice seeds. It took confirmation from a PhilRice officer in Los Baños that the regional office has it, for the latter to release it to my brother.”

Now she is convinced that in the face of more open rice trade, doubling our rice productivity can be done, as her brother showed can be done in his small farm, if only our farm extension officers would do their jobs well—and, I add, if our agriculture officials would listen more closely to what’s needed on the ground, and respond accordingly.

But if the P10-billion RCEF will be spent on centrally-conceived programs and procurements of dubious nature, as with ACEF before, then our poor, vulnerable farmers are in for a very rough ride, indeed.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, RCEF, Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund, rice farming
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