Home Newspaper Don’t starve our farmers

Don’t starve our farmers

Jun Ledesma  l  LETTERS FROM DAVAO

DEAR Sec. William Dar sir.  You do not solve the problem of rice farmers by asking the local government units to buy their palay (unmilled rice). Neither will you be able to solve their plight by extending them palliative monetary dole-outs. You should not pass the buck to the LGUs. That is not their mandate. It is your office fiat. Bypassing the responsibility to the LGUs, it is obvious that you do not know the problem that beset our farmers and your office is bereft of solutions on how to address their plight. By giving dole-outs you are encouraging mendicancy.

Farmers are not asking for alms. Neither do they need the oft-repeated “modernization and mechanization” program from the Department of Agriculture which does not come anyway. What they need is the reasonable price of their freshly harvested play and if you can solve that you are on the way to improve their productivity and to hit your target.

I wonder whether you know the implication of why I say “freshly harvested palay”. I surmise you knew, since you are a technocrat,  and given that premise, I expect that this should be your primordial concern.  However, for the sake of our President Rodrigo R. Duterte, his cabinet members and Sen. Cynthia Villar who is the author of tarrification law, here’s a brief on why freshly harvested and threshed paddy palay spells the fate of the farmers.

Having been born to a farmer and grew up past my teens in our modest farm in Midsayap, Cotabato,  I have seen the travails of my father and of our neighbors. Our barrio was a farming community. I do not pretend to have any technical or academic knowledge about how they grow rice at IRRI but I know how to cultivate farms, plant and grow rice and I have seen the frustrations and simple joys of farmers.

Freshly harvested and threshed paddy palay viability could only last three to five days depending on the weather condition during or soon after harvest. After this period, because of its moisture content, the quality of palay will start to deteriorate. In Ilonggo, we call this condition “sinaputan” and maybe rancid in English. Afraid their palay will go to the hogs and poultry feeds, farmers are forced to sell their harvest at the buyers’ price.  The first five days, therefore, is the most crucial period in a rice farmer’s life.

Farmers plant rice simultaneously for this is generally influenced by the weather and distribution of irrigation water. As a consequence, they also harvest their crops at the same time. During the off-season, the price of palay is high but come harvest time this plummets like what is happening presently. Farmers are at the mercy of traders and it is even worse these days because traders now have an additional weapon to threaten farmers – they can always import rice on account of Villar’s law.  For now, traders have hoarded rice and the National Food Authority has thousands of tons of rice in its bodega.

The Department of Agriculture must help our farmers. There is a proven solution and this is not mine. None of it. It’s Marcos’. The problem of some people in and out of the bureaucracy is that they abhor the idea of Ferdinand Marcos which many of them helped to overthrow and whose ashes they still burn. But let me refresh Secretary Dar and remind President Duterte this.

The situational condition our farmers are mired today is the same as before Marcos took over the helm of government. Knowing how Filipino-Chinese traders (they were in control before) shortchanging the farmers then, Marcos set up the National Grains Authority in many strategic places in rice-producing provinces in Mindanao. NGA took over from the Rice and Corn Board (RCB) and Rice and Corn Administration (RCA) which were subsequently mothballed.  NGA stations had adequate facilities among these are “solar” dryers which were simply a wide expanse of concrete drying facility around the station, silos that were to complement solar dryers during rainy weather. Silos air-dry palay to reduce moisture content.  Each NGA station has a modern rice mill that yields a lesser volume of broken rice kernels.  And most importantly –funds to buy farmers freshly harvested paddy palay always higher than what the rice traders are willing to purchase. In time the buying price of palay started to increase and when it reached a certain profit point, NGA slowed down its purchasing activity and just run its rice mills.

It is important to remember that alongside the establishment of NGA, Marcos ordered the Philippine National Bank to open its vault to extend loans to farmers. I distinctly remembered the program “Bank on Wheels” and “Masagana 99” programs. The PNB Manager, Mr. Marquez,  and the Municipal Agriculturist, Mr. Zalde,  would visit my father on his farm. The former with his MacArthur jeep and the later with a three-wheeled motorcycle with a big cargo compartment loaded with samples of pesticides, fertilizers, and reading materials. My father was the model farmer in the undivided Cotabato and so whenever there are new farming developments like the coming of new hybrid rice and certified seeds they would always call for a meeting with other farmers in adjoining barrios in our simple home. In each meeting farmers are taught by PNB how to apply for a loan.

It was also during the first two years of Marcos that several irrigation systems were constructed, the first being in our town, Midsayap, then Kabacan, Norala, Mlang, among others. Irrigation plus good price of palay led to bumper crops and for the first time, the Philippines started to export rice!

NGA was later renamed into National Food Authority to cover other agricultural and marine resources. Sadly just like the rest of Marcos projects, NFA started to lose its core function when Cory Aquino took over. It went to the dogs when the son, Benigno Aquino III placed NFA under the Office of the President and placed it under Kiko Pangilinan when he appointed him DA Secretary along with the Philippine Coconut Authority. What do you expect from someone who cannot even distinguish palay from cogon? Remember Kiko was given an allocation of P900-million by his boss to address the kukulisap infestation in the coconut farms in Zamboanga. Well, the pests just die of old age, so the joke in Basilan goes but the coconut farmers never heard of how Kiko used the funds.

The fault of the Duterte administration was to keep NFA under the office of the President with my good friend then Cabinet Sec. Jun Evasco in-charged. NFA by its mandate and function should be under the Department of Agriculture. Secretary Dar should be on top of this agency as he should know the state of supply (rice production) and demand for rice.

But what had been done cannot quickly be undone. The bodegas of the rice cartel are full to the rafters. But did this reduce the price of rice? In the meantime, I presuppose that the government had collected billions of pesos on account of tarrification. It stands to reason that since our farmers had been affected they should be the one to be benefited. Use that money to buy the fresh harvest of palay from the farmers’ gate at prices which are fair and just. Improve the post-harvest facilities of NFA by retrofitting the NFA rice mills, rehab the more than 150 silos laying idle on account of the Aquino’s vendetta against Marcos. In addition, maybe Secretary Dar may come up with a strategy wherein farmers may bring their freshly harvested palay to NFA for drying and storage and issue them quedan. When the price of rice in the market shall appreciate, the quedan holder will just advise NFA to mill and unload its stock and receive the net value of his production after deducting the equivalent of moisture content.  If DA Secretary Dar needs help he can always run to Finance Sec. Sonny Dominguez to design a quedan system appropriate for rice.  

Forget mechanization or this gobbledygook about modernization program.  Our farmers know what to do.  But the DA could do something more than just providing NFA funds to buy farmers produce. Since premium varieties are fetching good prices in the market, why not the DA provide them certified seeds for these exotic varieties instead? There are traders who are willing to even advance the seeds for as long as they will also buy the produce.  Bridge them.

 

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