CAR Farmers Grit Amidst Crisis

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Atok—”Staying the course,” or remaining firm while solidly backing each other, typify the highland farmers even as this present crisis crippled their individual aspirations and cast uncertainty on their overall health.

Broad and varied, have been the impacts of coronavirus on Benguet farming system, particularly it being most disruptive, but such setback has welded them more determined, adjust and hang tough, a grain of character forming part of the physical substance keeping the agricultural machinery humming for this North Luzon province’s economic backbone.

Considered a new type of crisis for the farming sector in the highland provinces that compose the Cordilllera Administrative Region (CAR), it came at a time when commodity production for 2020 has generally outpaced demand that lent to fluctuating vegetable prices despite wide market coverage.

Before the pandemic, farmers in CAR normally harvest an estimated 1.2 million kilos daily or even over 3 million kilos, as the farmers proved in 2019, they chalked up a record 3.5 million kilos a day harvest of assorted vegetables, explained Augusta Balanoy of the Benguet Farmers Cooperative.

Then the crisis struck and down went the farmers. Market nosedived.

“Since March, during the declaration of ECQ, there was insufficient market outlets because of the closure of hotels and restaurants, travel restriction and other IATF guidelines which resulted to low demand of vegetables and eventually, falling prices,” stated a report submitted to Herald Express through this column.

It was a consolidated action report by Maria Edina K. Picpican, who currently manages the Topdac Multi-Purpose Cooperative, Cherry L. Sano, head of Atok Municipal Agricultural Office and Joseph T. Dino, chief of the Topdac Multi-Purpose Coop.

Picpican was the one who exerted efforts in having consulted with coop chief Dino, Atok agricultural officer Sano and other responders for the exclusive report for Herald Express.

When Covid-19 exploded, it immediately shackled Benguet farmers having hefty production on the fields but nowhere to deliver and as a result, hitting them with sledgehammer loss both in agricultural input and output.

Understanding the overall picture of the Benguet agricultural scene in a totally different adverse condition can best be gleaned  in the Atok experience that holds  similarity for all adjacent areas in the Benguet.

The Atok report, noting about vegetable production, explained: “There may be oversupply of vegetables because the market is not NORMAL. It is affected by closure, lockdowns, travel restrictions and all. The production side is normal but the marketing is not, which resulted to the current situation – that seemed oversupply is the problem.”

Vegetables prices crashing down, farmers angled their priorities: “Most farmers still bring their vegetables to La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post. Or to their buyers, even with current low price (especially for cabbage, sayote and Chinese cabbage for the past two months). Though other had it donated, (during ECQ), there are those who did not harvest and left their crops in the fields,” the Atok report noted.

Nonetheless, smallholder farmers in Benguet as well as in other CAR provinces, are weathering the consequences of the pandemic by becoming innovative and finding new business strategies, or strengthening formerly old normal patterns   to regain competitiveness despite lockdown measures and transport restrictions.

This shift in strategic approach can be seen in the farming sector and exemplified in barangay Topdac, Atok, Benguet. Topdac has estimated population of 2639 persons, as of latest census.

As the crisis continued to unfold and its sectoral growth dragged down, “Atok farmers shifted to multi-cropping,” said the three Atok officials familiar with changes adopted by farmer stakeholders in the municipality.

Apparently, Atok farmers knew well that multi-cropping can be a food-based production approach that can improve the province’s community resilience posed by crisis in general, and the pandemic in particular.

At the same time while engaging in multi-cropping, “Some farmers strengthened market linkage to high-end markets,” the note said, referring to exclusive retail distribution by the farmers.

Marketing strategy being a long-term and forward-looking approach at this crisis time, the Atok farmers, for example, just like other highland farmers, laid out target markets for the best opportunities that matched what they can offer to a shuttered business.

Picpican, Sano and Dino all pointed out that Atok farmers, at this point in time, “As usual, bring their products to   La Trinidad Vegetable Post (LTVP), Benguet Agri-Pinoy Trading Center (BAPTC) or Baguio City Market (BCM). Although there are those who participate in the KADIWA Program of DA.”

For Benguet as well as other highland farmers reeling from disastrous loss, and from an economic viewpoint, they have developed a deep connection with the lands that they till, all to familiar with that hardship that come with cultivating it, yet knowing it gives them hope for a better future by giving them the opportunity to provide for their families.

And on this score, Picpican, Dino and Sano all echoed, “Farmers still choose to plant despite what this pandemic brought.”

Such innovation in Topdac may well be considered as parallel or similar with what other farmers in the highland provinces are pursuing, to ensure food security, create solidarity networks among farmers and ensure information flow that can build alliance among them, as they market their produce in an altogether altered business environment.

Cognizant of the adverse impact of the pandemic to Philippine economy and society, the government, through the Department of Agriculture – CAR (DA-CAR) established mechanisms that kicked off provisions of assistance, subsidies and other forms of socioeconomic relief.

As the Topdac officials said, “Through the help of the government, farmers had the hope of going on with farming.”

DA-CAR assistance, these officials stated, “came through Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC) SURE loan program for the financial assistance.  It is noted that Atok is one of the municipalities that received the biggest amount of SURE Loan Program. Though it is an assistance program primarily for the cut-flower growers, most farmers have used the Php 25,000.00 to buy inputs for vegetable production with the hope of a good harvest and a good price.”

Other government inputs included what the officials revealed as, “Other assistance is the market linkage through KADIWA Program, and now the upgraded version which is the E-KADIWA program. (There are three beneficiaries from Atok).”

“Seed assistance was also given in support to the Plant, Plant, Plant Program and the Urban Gardening. Seeds from DA-CAR were equally distributed to the different barangays through the barangay officials,” the officials said.

Steep fall in vegetable price is always a farmer’s worry.  But its extreme drop during the pandemic has caught all farmers in a vise-grip. As explained by Picpican, Sano and Dino, “Coronavirus had a great impact in our agricultural activities. It brought bankruptcy. Many were affected of having lessened and even no income because of falling prices and no buyers. There are insufficient market outlets.”

Despite such circumstance, farmers exhibited that generosity of spending to transport their products and donating these.

Charitable giving during a crisis can be said as common. Yet, it had been seen that the highland farmers exceeded expectations arising from an impulse to help others virtually unknown to them that stem from a recognition of social bonds despite the pandemic challenging their movements towards other persons.

Covid-19 will have a long-term consequence for the highland agriculture sector.  The most telling consequence is the uncertainty of marketing and prices suitably levelling off at affordable rates in the future.

“Since March, closures of hotels, restaurants, travel restrictions and other IATF guidelines resulted to low demands of vegetables, eventually killing prices,” the Atok officials observed.

Agriculture requires people. Whether its seeding time, re-planting, watering, harvesting or transporting, people are vital in many aspects of agri operation.  And travel restriction has become one of the challenges facing farmers.

Farmers, generally, are used to adapting unexpected circumstance which may come in form of typhoons, flood or pest infestation, not to mention climate change. Overcoming these obstacles goes with the job.

But the range of challenges brought about by Covid-19 make it clear innovative efforts should be within future plans to enhance agricultural resiliency that can be drawn and put to good use during unprecedented times.

As in the case of Covid-19, nobody saw it coming, or predicted it would emerge. Then it hit everybody, directly and indirectly.

On the Highland farmer’s side, it has tested their resilience, their ability to cope with the turbulence with unpredictable developments coming and going even as the government tries its best to “flatten the curve.”

Presently, the farmers of Atok, the rest of Benguet and others in the highland provinces have shown their mettle they can keep their steady hands along the agricultural lands. For nobody has, on record, ever said that they will quit farming.