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‘ Salad Bowl’ farmer face ASEAN market challenges
Harley F. Palangchao

RESILIENT -- Vegetable farmers in the Cordillera, especially in Benguet, which is known as the country’s “Salad Bowl Capital” are becoming resilient to weather phenomenon such as the occurrence of early morning frost in high elevated farming areas. Benguet remains to be the top producer of majority of temperate vegetables distributed to various market outlets nationwide.
-- Harley Palangchao

 

 

It has been decades since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of the World Trade Organization (GATT-WTO) has come to effect. The Cordillera region, being highly agricultural, raised a lot of noise against it during the initial debates on the impact of becoming a signatory to the international agreement. But government assuaged peasants’ qualms by reassuring that safety nets would be put in place to ensure that the lack of technological advancement and government infrastructure support would not be reasons to make the region’s farmers underdogs in the trading game.

Still today, farmers remain embattled in market competition.

The more than 350,000 farmers in the Cordillera, especially those in Benguet where bulk of vegetables are produced, are anxious over trade agreements under the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) as even government’s long ago promised interventions to prepare farmers for GATT-WTO remain either insufficient or poor, if not forgotten.

ASEAN stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nation and its 10 nation members are in the process of integration to promote inter-governmental cooperation and to facilitate economic integration.

With agriculture as the main source of livelihood for the bigger population in the region, it becomes imperative for farmers, especially Benguet vegetable farmers, to keep abreast about the AEC.

This means that the socio-economic status of the close to 350,000 farmers in the region, including their families and other beneficiaries, now become dependent on how the national government and concerned regional line agencies respond to make them prepared for the ASEAN integration and the implementation of trade agreements under the multilateral trading system of GATT-WTO.

Benguet Province alone, which is considered the country’s “Salad Bowl” capital, has around 100,000 farmers including their assistants that toil the more than 30,000-hectare farms scattered in vegetable-producing towns.

This has prompted Congress to conduct a congressional inquiry on the impact of the implementation of the GATT-WTO to thousands of vegetable farmers in Benguet. In a hall packed with worried farmer groups during a recently held consultation in Benguet, a common consensus was raised that they remain to be at the losing end, as they claim that government has not effectively delivered the promised safety nets and interventions.

Proof that Cordilleran farmers remain economically disadvantaged is that agriculture has the least contribution to the region’s economy despite the fact that 46 percent or 348,000 of the total 766,000 employed individuals in the Cordillera belong to the agriculture and forestry sectors.

For instance, in 2015, the Philippine Statistics Authority-Cordillera reported that the Agriculture, Hunting, Forestry, and Fishing (AHFF) sectors contributed less to the Gross Regional Domestic Product (GRDP) compared to the industry and services sector. Specifically, locators at the Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA) in Baguio, which employs more than 20,000, contributed 3 percent of the total 3.2 percent GRDP growth rate in the region in 2014, constant as the greatest contributor to the GRDP in previous years.

There were efforts at the start when the GATT-WTO was fresh on the table, like the setting up of tramlines in the mountainous parts of Benguet and other parts of vegetable producing towns in the Cordillera.

But farmers are not able to use these fully. “Many of these installed tramlines in the localities are defective and many are not even operational,” according to the Regional Agriculture and Fishery Council-Cordillera.

No other than Benguet Rep. Ronald Cosalan, who joined the panel of the House Committee on Globalization and WTO, acknowledged that farmer groups like those in his province were not consulted about the salient provisions of the GATT-WTO, as the “high-level” discussions were not effectively transferred to the farmers.

Cosalan, together with Benguet Gov. Crescencio Pacalso, expressed deep concern on how the international and ASEAN trade agreements will affect their farmers as the province’s well-developed vegetable industry contributes more than 80 percent of semi-temperate vegetables in the country.

GETTING COMPETITIVE -- Some cutflowers in Benguet are adapting to the ASEAN integration by growing imported flower varieties, which are being sold to high-end clients, who do not need to import flowers used in special occasions. -- Harley Palangchao

 

 



Benguet as “Salad Bowl” Capital

The Philippine Statistics Authority-Cordillera report reflects that over 80 percent of the total 380 metric tons of broccoli, cabbage, carrot, habichelas, Chinese pechay, and white potato were grown in the region, particularly in Benguet Province and others in nearby Mountain Province and Ifugao from 2011 to 2015.

In the report released by the office, the region, particularly the province of Benguet, accounts for the bulk of the total production of broccoli, cabbage, carrot, habichuelas, Chinese pechay, and white potato from 2011 to 2015.

Cordillera is the consistent top producer of broccoli in the country with a share of 64.9 percent of the total 2,911.1 metric tons of broccoli in 2015.

Cabbage produced in Benguet has also made Cordillera the top producer of the said vegetable variety in 2015 contributing almost 97,306 metric tons out of the total 125,752 metric tons of cabbage in the said year.

The re’s more. In 2015 of the total 118,479.3 metric tons of nationwide white potato production, 101,828.5 metric tons were produced from the Cordillera, mostly from Benguet Province.

Cordillera also consistently topped the production of carrots, accounting to half of the total 14,756.3 metric tons nationwide production while it also produced 44,676 metric tons out of the national production of habichuelas pegged at 51,434 metric tons in the same year.

There was also a steady growth of Chinese pechay production in the Cordillera from 2011 to 2014 with the region producing 44,476 metric tons of the total national production of 51,434 metric tons in 2015.

Downtrend production

But while Cordillera remains the top producer of vegetables, production has been on a downtrend from 2011 to 2015, according to the Planning Monitoring and Evaluation Division of the Department of Agriculture-Cordillera.

From 103,135 metric tons of white potato production in 2011, it went down to 102,434 in 2012 while assorted highland vegetable production in 2011 and 2012 remained steady at an average of 223,000 metric tons.

White potato production dipped even more in 2013 at 100,728 metric tons, falling short of the DA target production of 112,608 metric tons. This slightly increased to 102,255 metric tons in 2014 but still below the DA target pegged at 115,423 metric tons for that year.

There was also a decrease in assorted highland vegetable varieties from 225,668 metric tons in 2014 to 221,451 metric tons in 2015, according to the DA-CAR report.

Illegal importation, not free

tariffs killing industry

The unabated smuggling of vegetables flooding the local markets, not the free tariff, is what farmers in Benguet fear the most.

Farmers in Benguet want the House Committee on Globalization and WTO to bring to the attention of concerned agencies like the Bureau of Customs (BOC) the reported use by enterprising importers of recycled import permits and shipping documents.

According to the December 2016 report of the BOC, the illegal entry of agricultural products causes heavy damage to the country’s agriculture sector and the government, with revenue losses amounting to P60 billion to 80B.

But there is good news after all. The BOC in December 2016 has submitted the draft implementing rules and guidelines of Republic Act 10845 or the Anti-Smuggling Act of 2016 to the Department of Finance for final review.

RA 10845 outlaws large-scale agriculture as economic sabotage, which is committed with the following acts: Importing or bringing goods into the Philippines without the required import permit; unauthorized use of import permits; using fake import permits or shipping documents; selling, lending, leasing, assigning, consenting or allowing the use of import permits; organizing or using dummy corporations or companies for the purpose of acquiring import permits; misclassification, undervaluation, or misdeclaration to evade payment of lawful duties and taxes; transporting or storing the agricultural product subject to economic sabotage and acting as broker of the violating importer.

Susan Balanza, chief of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation Division of the DA-Cordillera, acknowledged that smuggling is killing the vegetable industry as huge volumes of assorted vegetables that have not passed quarantine procedures are flooding the local markets at lower prices.

Making Agriculture and Fisheries

Modernization Act work for farmers

Cordillera leaders led by Benguet Gov. Pacalso shared the sentiment of farmers that making the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA), which was passed 19 years ago, work as planned will elevate the country’s agriculture sector and to be at par with other ASEAN nations.

With the DA getting a huge share from the country’s P3.35-trillion 2017 national budget, farmers are hopeful that the provisions of AFMA will be implemented in a bid to prepare them for the full ASEAN integration.

In 2015, no other than Sen. Cynthia Villar, head of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, acknowledged that the country’s agriculture sector is lagging behind other ASEAN countries due to apparent poor implementation of the AFMA.

AFMA, with a yearly P20B allocation, calls for the modernization of agriculture.

Despite the budget increase, the country is at the bottom in the list of rice-producing countries in Asia with at least 12,000 tractors operating in rice fields compared to Japan, which had two million two years ago. If modernization is made accessible for lowland areas, what about modernizing farming in the mountainous provinces of the Cordillera where the bulk of vegetables consumed nationwide are grown?

Balanza said the DA is gearing toward farm mechanization, saying 23 tractors will be deployed to farm and rice-producing areas, particularly in Tabuk City in Kalinga and Ifugao towns.

“Tractors would definitely cut the expenses of farmers in terms of labor cost and other expenses incurred by farmers,” she said. The tractors will be distributed to farmers’ groups toiling at least 200 hectares of rice and cornfields.

Balanza said that with the mountainous terrains, better and more irrigation systems, tramlines and farm-to-market roads remain the most feasible interventions the government can initiate to improve the production and farm inputs of vegetable farmers.

“Basically, the AFMA is in the works and our agency continues to review the law so that we can suggest projects and programs that that will help farmers improve productivity and cope with the demands of the regional ASEAN integration,” Balanza said.

Making BAPTC operational

key to making farmers competitive

The close to P700-M Benguet Agri Pinoy Trading Center (BAPTC) built on a 5.5-hectare government property in the capital town of La Trinidad, Benguet is considered the biggest and one of its kind trading center in the country. It was conceived to be the key to empowering vegetable farmers by helping them gain access to local and global markets.

But there is resistance among farmers to adapt to the new system, having been used to transacting business at the old La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post. Hence, two years after its preliminary launching, it is not yet fully operational because of the fear of concerned parties that they may incur huge losses.

The previous management of BAPTC has emphasized that providing trainings for farmers on good agricultural practices (GAP) will prepare them to be competitive in regional ASEAN integration but such plan has been done with a very limited number of farmers.

One of the requirements for farmers to export products is to have a GAP-compliant certification.

The Benguet State University, a prestigious agriculture-based institution with breakthroughs in research and development, has committed to help train farmers on GAP while it also aims to further strengthen partnerships with farmer groups and government agencies in improving yield and marketing skills of farmers.

The GAP, which still employs the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides but in calculated and controlled amounts, was introduced by the Japanese through the programs of Japan Agricultural Exchange Council (JAEC) as a transitional tool for conventional farmers to organic farming. Under GAP, farmers are required to focus on the prevention or reduction of hazards in the farm. These include physical, biological, microbial and chemical hazards in the farm and its vicinity. Farmers are also required to have a facility for packaging and sorting in the farm. Signages on the type of crops and facilities are also required along with first aid kits within the farms.

Aside from training on GAP, farmers, including agriculture students, will be trained on postharvest handling and processing, and entrepreneurship and BSU considers BAPTC as one of the venues to enhance its Research and Development services by providing technical assistance to farmers, traders, and consumers.

BAPTC also has 10 cold storage rooms capable of storing 28 tons of goods to extend the shelf life of the perishable semi-temperate vegetables. This will save farmers huge possible losses in times when they are not able to immediately transport their crops to the markets.

Balanza said that while close to 90 farmer organizations with more than 20,000 members have already signified their support for the full operation of BAPTC, there remains the need to convince other stakeholders to move from the old trading post to BAPTC. She acknowledged the need for a continuing information education campaign on the value of the BAPTC and why farmers and traders need it very soon to cope up with ASEAN integration.

“In fact, BAPTC is the product of numerous request in the past for an extension of the old trading post. That’s why the BAPTC was envisioned not only as a trading center but also as a training and processing facility to empower the farmers, the traders and other stakeholders in the agriculture sector,” Balanza added.

Some, if not most of the traders, at the old trading post have standing debts to the so-called disposers. To address the problem of seasonal indebtedness, the DA through its Agriculture Credit Policy Council has also set up a booth at the old trading post in a bid to assist and provide farmers avail of loans.

One of the reasons why many farmers and traders are hesitant to transfer to BAPTC is that many of them are dependent on disposers, who act as middlemen and also provide farmers with loans. But previous BAPTC officials said the dependence of farmers and traders on disposers will be lessened, as programs for farmers on finances as well as personal loans will be facilitated once they become active members in the BAPTC.

Huge investments in infrastructure

to propel vegetable industry

While the requests for more tramlines and irrigation and other government interventions are to be carried out by the Duterte administration, Benguet farmers will soon enjoy faster and easier transport of products from their farms to the markets as more than P14B for infrastructure has been allocated for the province from 2011 to 2017.

“With these huge allocations on roads, bridges and infrastructure, we are confident that farmers in Benguet will be able to compete in terms of faster delivery of their products as travel time from their farms to the market will be greatly reduced. Likewise, better roads and infrastructures will further enhance economic activities in vegetable producing towns of our province,” said Cosalan.

The fulfillment of these promises remains to be seen and it is the ardent hope of farmers that the national government will make good on these declarations to further improve production, cut postharvest expenses, make access to capital or loans easy, and have safety nets against smuggling.A series of trainings will certainly help farmers level up in their farming methods.

The fate and future of the close to 350,000 vegetable farmers in the country’s Salad Bowl capital and the other millions of Filipino farmers are now in the hands of the Duterte administration.

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