PH agriculture: 10 years behind and trying to catch up

Rice that the Philippines imports from Vietnam and Cambodia sells for P19 a kilogram.

“Can you compete with that?,” Dante Delima, Department of Agriculture assistant secretary, challenges around 2,000 farmers at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in Nueva Ecija for the PhilRice field day.

The sad fact is they cannot. A farmer in the crowd had just been asking the National Food Authority to raise the price it buys rice to P20 a kilo from P18 a kilo.

To be able to compete, Delima says, the Philippines needs to upgrade the agriculture sector, which is at least 10 years behind other rice producers in the region. “Agriculture has changed, and we are so behind in terms of technology,” he says.

The departments of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform are counting on lowering costs and raising production to make Philippine rice-growing more competitive. It hopes to do this by mechanizing farms and with hardier hybrid rice variants that produce more grains.

One of PhilRice’s big-ticket farm machines is a mini-combine that runs on a 12-horsepower diesel engine developed by the institute’s Rice Engineering and Mechanization Division. The mini-combines can harvest and clean palay from one hectare of rice land a day, saving on labor.

According to PhilRice, the mini-combines have been distributed to each of the country’s 17 regions. They cost around P650,000 and farmers and cooperatives can have them made to order.

This mini-combine can help Filipino farmers do more with fewer farm hands.

Many of PhilRice REMD’s machines are more affordable, though. A ride-on attachment for hand tractors, or kuligligs, can help farmers prepare their land for planting sells for around P15,000. A plastic drum seeder sells for P6,500 and can seed rice or other crops in straight rows with less effort.

PhilRice also has post-harvest machines like mini rice mills and flour mills to cut down on processing costs. It has also developed stoves for cooking with rice husks and lower energy costs for farmers.

The farm machines could sell for much cheaper if produced locally, but Arnold Juliano of the REMD says there are few fabricators in other provinces who can make the machines. The designs can be used by local fabricators, though, who qualify for accreditation by PhilRice.

A Nueva Ecija manufacturer has already been accredited to make and sell the ride-on attachment for hand tractors, Juliano says. Simpler designs, like the rice-husk stove, are given away so farmers can make them themselves.

As a testament to Filipino ingenuity, farmers inspecting the PhilRice machines were already discussing how to innovate and improve on the machines within minutes of getting to the field day.

Farming experts (being farmers) studying an attachment for the “kuliglig” hand tractor.

Better Seeds

PhilRice has also been testing rice variants that could give better yields and can resist climate change. South Korea, through the Korean Project for International Agriculture Center (Kopia). The idea is to find good rice breeds to make the Philippines self-sufficient in rice by 2013.

Lee Sang-Guei, a Korean doctor with the project, says a particular breed of japonica rice is promising but is still undergoing field tests. Kopia has been in the Philippines since 2000 and is supposed to stay until 2013. Lee says, however, that they may stay for much longer than that.

He says PhilRice staff are very good but do not yet have specialists to breed rice hybrids themselves. Korean rice specialists are already training PhilRice staff, though, he says.

PhilRice already has breeder seeds of its own, though, adapted to local conditions. The Tubigan/Mabango is a variant for irrigated paddies while the Sahod-Ulan is for rain-fed rice fields. It also has Salinas, for salty water, and Bahain, for flood-prone areas.

PhilRice is also testing its Katihan (upland rice), Malagkit (glutinous), Lubugin (for deep water), and Malalamig na Lugar (for cool, elevated regions).

Hybrid rice from South Korea.

These are tested and distributed by PhilRice’s centers in Nueva Ecija, Ilocos Norte, Isabela, Laguna, Negros, Agusan, and Midsayap. The seeds come with training programs from PhilRice, including the proper way to use fertilizer.

“Studies have shown that the most effective way is a mix of organic and chemical fertilizers,” Dr. Eufemio Rasco Jr., PhilRice director, advises the audience. “We need to combine what we have learned from traditional planting methods with new technology.”

Delima says that with the farm machines and better rice variants, Filipino farmers will soon be just as competitive as their counterparts in the region. That, and the billions that the government is pouring into irrigation projects will make for better production, he says. “When irrigation is good, and the seeds are good, farmers will make more money.”

Emphasis on irrigation projects has also cost farmers, though, if at least in the short term. The government has cut off seed subsidies, saying consultation with farmers’ groups  found that farmers need more money to pay for irrigation than for seeds.

DA and the Department of Agrarian Reform are also working together to give agrarian-reform beneficiaries better support to keep them from renting out or selling off land distributed to them.

“We need to do more than just give land and to distribute farm machines,” Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio delos Reyes says. Aside from land, trucks, and farm equipment, the government will also offer business development so farmers will have better bargaining power with rice dealers. This will be done through smaller scale public-private partnerships (PPPs) with farmers’ cooperatives and associations.

Even with farm mechanization, better seeds, and government support, Filipino rice farmers may still find it difficult to grow rice cheaper than the Vietnamese and Cambodians do. The government’s plan seems to be for Filipino farmers not to have to.

A shorter, better edited version of this post was published on Yahoo! PH here. Sometimes, the website I work for doesn’t use my stories as submitted, probably for cause. I’ll post them here, just so.

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