Tuesday , May 22, 2018

Special Report: The old and the restless

FARMERS are getting older, as the younger generation shuns one of the oldest livelihoods in the world.

As of the last census in 2014, which still included Negros Oriental, there were 923,450 farmers in Central Visayas.

Cebu, Bohol, Negros Oriental and Siquijor comprised Central Visayas before Executive Order 183 on May 29, 2015 created the Negros Island Region, removing Negros Oriental from Region 7.

The census shows that most farmers are between 30 and 60 years old.

According to the Department of Agriculture (DA) 7, farmers in their 40s made up 22 percent of the region’s farmers (207,372 farmers), while those in their 30s made up 20 percent (186,943).

Farmers aged 50 to 59 constituted 19 percent of the farmers (177,451). In fact, on the field, this is the age range Cebu City Agriculturist Joelito Baclayon usually sees.

“It’s true. Our farmers are really aging. Most of them are 57 years old and even older,” he said.

“In the Province, a good number of them are in their 60s. There are many farmers aged 60 to 65,” Cebu Provincial Agriculturist Roldan Saragena said.

Some 108,002 farmers are in their 60s or about 11.7 percent. And as if 60 was not old enough, there are 53,018 farmers in Central Visayas in their 70s (5.7 percent), 9,906 in their 80s (1.47 percent) and some 1,034 in their 90s.

How could these farmers still till the land or plow the field?

“You’d be surprised. I am 68 years old and I have no maintenance (medication),” shared Bienvenido Lagahid Jr., a farmer from one of Cebu City’s mountain barangays.

The life of a farmer, said Baclayon, is the actual practice of healthy living: exercise through plowing or planting, vitamin D from the sun, and healthy eating—if the farmers eat their own food.

Ernesto Gualiza, 61, said he was born a farmer. But then he started a family, and money in farming doesn’t come in every day. So he retired his hoe and started driving taxi cabs.

As aging multiplied his diseases, he stopped driving and went back to the mountain to farm.

“Then I recovered. I haven’t been ill since I returned to plowing,” said Gualiza. “Driving takes a toll on your eyes. Farming is great because you sweat.”

Lagahid and Gualiza were among those selling their produce in the newly opened Farmers Market on Junquera St. The two were chatting with Eliseo Cantaw, 58, and Boboy Montejo, 62, also farmers.

Half over 50

Cebu City Farmers Federation president Emilio Secretaria said majority of his 1,800 members are over 50 years old. This, even when regional statistics indicate that farmers over 50 years of age make up just 37.8 percent of the farming population.

Baclayon said in Cebu City, about 50 percent of farmers are over 50 years old, and 30 percent are aged 30 to 49, meaning those under 30 constitute only 20 percent of farmers.

In Central Visayas, farmers in their 20s made up only 13 percent of the farmers in the region (123,286), while teenagers were only six percent (55,636).

Food supply

The agriculture officials said food supply is not a problem in Cebu yet. But they acknowledge that if nothing is done about the dwindling farmer numbers, the country will face a crisis.

Based on constant prices of agriculture and fishery products, labor productivity declined 1.09 percent from 2010 to 2011, a Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) report on Central Visayas farm labor productivity showed.

In 2012, productivity recovered by 1.98 percent. But it slid again in 2013, by 0.39 percent. In 2014, it dropped 5.19 percent.

A report provided by DA 7 Director Angel Enriquez shows low production and productivity is the number one concern in Central Visayas. This is connected with the problem of aging farmers.

Heirs won’t farm

The main reason the farmer profile is aging is young people are not poised to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

The 2012 Census of Philippine Business Industry released in March 2015 shows a 2.5 percent decline in the total employment of agriculture, forestry and fishing establishments (with at least 20 workers) in the country to 124,548 in 2012 from 127,756 in 2010.

The country’s population, however, has increased an average of 1.7 percent yearly from 2010 to 2015, said the PSA.

In Central Visayas, agriculture production declined 0.13 percent in 2013.

PSA data also show that agricultural employment as a share of total employment in the country slid from 32.6 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in January 2016.

“Children of farmers could see how difficult the lives of their parents are. So why should they follow in their footsteps? They’d rather venture into jobs that are so much easier,” said Secretaria, who knows the situation well.

Unlike majority of the farmers he leads, Secretaria is relatively young at 32. And just like today’s youth, he did not want to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a farmer. In fact, he took up a computer course in college, hoping to find a call center job after graduation. But somehow, in the middle of studying, he realized he wanted to go back to farming.

“The youth have so many choices outside of farming. There are call center jobs, industrial jobs that could be learned from Tesda (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority), promodizer in malls,” he said.

Training options

Tesda Provincial Director Mark Ylanan said Cebu is mainly into construction, services and manufacturing. In Cebu City, there is a large demand for construction labor, prompting would-be farmers to go to the urban center and pick up nail and hammer.

Tesda has a project called Special Training for Entrepreneurship Program, where a trainee gets an allowance and a starter kit after the program. For example, individuals enrolled in dressmaking training get an allowance of at least P60 every day there is a class. At the end of a month of training, the graduate receives a sewing kit so he can start earning through sewing.

Ylanan said the most in-demand training program in Tesda is welding, which parallels the most in-demand labor force in Cebu related to construction. In three months, the trainees can already get a job in Cebu. They even get a chance to go abroad, as the skills training is accredited abroad.

“Cebu is experiencing a construction boom. Construction sites need electricians, plumbers and welders. When the construction is done, the buildings—mostly hotels and condominiums—may need front desk and housekeeping people,” said Ylanan.

Tesda also has a call center training program through the Call Center Academy, which is always full for good reason.

“Imagine, most farmers could not afford to send their children to school, but Tesda offers this call center course. In just a few months, the trainee gets a job in one of the more high-paying jobs in Cebu,” federation head Secretaria explained.

The same could not be said of farming.

Secretaria said it takes at least three months to grow crops. But the harvest is not always three months’ worth of funds. Farmers have to invest in transportation to ferry the goods from the mountain barangays to the urban center where these are sold. There are also middlemen to pay for.

Battle of the wages

PSA pegged the national agricultural wage at P252.97 per day. In Central Visayas, the last nominal wage rate was P216.07 based on the 2006 base year. When adjusted for inflation, the real wage rate is just P152.55. This is way below the current minimum wage in Cebu: P353 per day.

Entry-level pay for call center agents is reportedly around P12,000 a month or roughly P461 per day in a 26-day monthly work schedule.

In a DA gathering, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol called the Philippines a country of ironies.

“The country has a land so fertile that one Israeli agriculturist once said the Philippines could produce enough food to feed the world and seas so wide and islands so plentiful we could not even get the exact number. Yet the poorest sectors of society are in farming and fisheries,” he said.


Saragena blames society for the lack of interest in farming.

People look down on farmers, Saragena said: “When people see a big house, they say, ‘That must be owned by a seaman.’ It’s never, ‘That’s a farmer’s house.’ …Parents would never be proud to say their child is dating a farmer.”

Secretaria agreed. “A lot of the students are going to college. The common goal is to graduate and become professionals so they don’t have to farm.”

In essence, farmers’ children are trying to escape the life of a farmer.

They want to be lawyers or doctors or any other white-collar workers, said Baclayon.

Start ‘em young

Director Enriquez said the way to change the mindset of the people is through the children.

“Early on, we have been told that farming is not fun as in the Filipino folk song Planting Rice is Never Fun. Who would want to farm when it has been inculcated in our minds that planting is not a good thing?” said Enriquez. “It’s a sad fact that not everybody loves to cultivate. So we have to educate and train.”

In coordination with the Department of Education, the DA is trying to integrate farming in elementary education. As early as Grade One, children should already know the basics of gardening.

The joint project is called Gulayan sa Paaralan where children are introduced to gardening: they make a garden, plant vegetables and tend to it. It is a contest, but the project will allow the children to appreciate the food they eat.

“Most of them have never been exposed to farm-like activities, only Farmville,” said Enriquez of a popular farming simulation game available on mobile devices.

Baclayon said Cebu City schools are actively participating in the Gulayan sa Paaralan.

Sun.Star Cebu spoke with a group of students from Marie Ernestine School in Lapu-Lapu City doing their internship at the DA 7 compound. For a week, 17 Grade 10 students had been going to the DA 7 daily to work as farmers—they had potted, weeded, marcotted, planted, fertilized and watered plants, spending hours under the heat of the sun.

What had they learned from the experience so far?

“I learned that I don’t want to be a farmer,” said Charmyl Andrea Rosal, 15, amid laughter from her classmates.

“We were having a hard time just watering the plants,” said Karl Matthew Maguate, 16, who developed a lot of insight into a farmer’s daily activities.

“We learned to appreciate the food we eat,” said Jacob Lee, 16. “You need a lot of endurance to be a farmer.”

They now understood why the young don’t want to become farmers. “They must be looking for air-conditioned spaces,” said Jhana Luardo, 16, while Maguate quipped, “Or WiFi.”

Easy money

Secretary Piñol has outlined 10 steps to improve the agriculture and fisheries state of the country. The 10th step reads: “Re-introduction of basic agriculture in the primary and elementary grades of the Philippine schools system with emphasis on the value of the land, water and seas and the maximum but prudent utilization of these resources.”

“Children need to know and understand how essential farmers are in our lives,” said Baclayon.

In many cases, said Saragena, the youngsters follow in their parents’ footsteps but stop after one harvest.

“They plant, harvest in three months then buy a motorcycle and become a habal-habal driver. At least, in the business of motorcycles-for-hire, they don’t have to wait three months to earn money. They earn money every day,” he said.

In the case of construction workers, at the end of every week, they go home with their salary. A week easily beats three months of hard work before earning something.

Gusto sila’g sayon (They want things easy),” farmer Montejo admitted. None of his three children are farming. The oldest, Ronelo, 29, is the personification of why there are no young farmers: he works in a call center. Middle child Ronelyn, 23, works in City Hall; the youngest is still a student.

Gualiza said his adult children are also looking for regular income. His eldest, Boyet, 32, works in Saudi Arabia, while daughter Lovely Mae works in a shop.

Government help

But with substantial assistance from government, farmers have the potential to earn regularly and well.

Agriculture officials believe government assistance should be improved if the country wants to entice more farmers to come in.

Filipino farmers get a subsidy, just like the farmers in Japan. But Secretaria said it’s hard to create a flourishing farm when the city hands out only 30 seedlings per farmer.

In Japan, farmers get equipment subsidy and help in marketing. Perhaps this explains why its farmers have among the biggest houses in that country.

“The professionals (there) have only a one-bedroom apartment unit; some only rent rooms. But farmers have big houses,” said Saragena, who looks at Japan as a great model for a rice-producing country like the Philippines. Japan has more than 100 percent rice sufficiency; the Philippines has 97 percent. Cebu Province has only three percent rice self-sufficiency.

Cooperatives in Japan also dictate what farmers should plant, so farmers plant only what is demanded by the market.

“In the Philippines, or at least in Cebu, a farmer plants tomatoes. When he successfully buys a multi-cab, his neighbors would think, ‘Tomato is a good business.’ Then everyone in the neighborhood starts planting tomatoes. What happens to the prices of tomatoes?” asked Saragena.

This is why Piñol wants to create a National Color-Coded Agriculture and Fisheries map to identify the appropriate farm products grown or raised in a particular area based on geography, climate and soil type. This will help prevent overproduction of one product and underproduction of others.

The map will be coupled with a National Food Consumption Quantification Survey, which will help determine the kind and volume of food and commodities Filipinos need.

Piñol also wants the Philippine Crop Insurance Corp. to insure the farmers in high-risk areas, as risk is another reason fewer youth want to pursue farming.

Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) demonstrated how risky farming is. The 2013 typhoon destroyed farms in northern Cebu and other parts of the Visayas.

Some of those farms took six months to cultivate and propagate, and in just one day, everything was gone—crops and animals were dead.

“You invest money to buy good quality seeds plus the labor, then natural calamities will take it away in just a day. Who would want to take that kind of risk?” asked Saragena.

Paradigm shift

Enriquez said to keep farming attractive, there should be a paradigm shift from regular agri-fishery courses to agricultural entrepreneurship.

“Let’s teach the farmers not only to plant crops and raise animals but also how to make a profitable business out of farming,” said Enriquez.

DA is also encouraging every family to be a farmer in its own way.

Every family should be food sufficient. Instead of planting cutflowers in the garden or backyard, families can grow plants that could produce fruits, she said.

DA regional technical director Marina Hermosa showed off DA’s Purple Bell Sweet Pepper, which she said, serves two purposes at home: the plant looks good, and it makes food taste better.

According to the 2014 Cebu Agricultural Profile, rice sufficiency in Cebu “is not attainable due to the limitation in size of the production area.”

Saragena says Cebu’s soil is also not suited for rice production, and Cebu is better suited for corn, kamote (sweet potato), monggo, mango, fish and pork production.

But Cebu City Agriculturist Baclayon disagrees: “Soil doesn’t matter. We have technology, and we have some of the best agricultural schools in the country like the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, Mindanao State University and Cebu Technological University.”

This is why Cebu City is trying its hand in urban farming, not necessarily for rice production but for medium-sized vegetables.

Baclayon said Cebu City has an experimental station at the Osmeña Shrine in Oprra for urban farming, and a showcase in City Hall in the next few months for green building designs, where the roof deck is transformed into a garden.

DA’s Enriquez also believes Cebu can be rice sufficient with a better attitude from farmers. She said some farmers who want things easy, prefer to plant kamote because one can just throw it anywhere and it grows. But with the right technology, she believes Cebu can grow rice.

Central Visayas is the lowest rice producer among the country’s 16 regions, making up 1.79 percent of rice production, the 2015 Agriculture Statistics of the PSA show. It produced 2.11 percent of the country’s corn, 4.7 percent of the country’s carabao and 5.9 percent of the country’s chicken.

Secretary Piñol targets rice self-sufficiency for every region within two years.

Central Visayas today, without Negros Oriental, hosts six percent of the Philippine population, showing how far the region still has to go to meet rice self-sufficiency.

The aging of its farmers compounds the problem.

(First of two parts)