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Recalibration from rice mono-cropping to relay cropping and crop diversification


Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Our farmers, rice farmers included, are not productive and remain poor because of their small fragmented landholdings. The previous columns elaborated on ways of overcoming this constraint by consolidating the small farms into larger management units by: 1) contract growing, 2) through cooperatives and irrigators associations, and 3) by lifting the limits to farm land ownership imposed by agrarian reform. The third way unfortunately is not forthcoming anytime soon because of the adverse political implications.

Another approach, complementary to the above, is by effectively multiplying the physical land area by relay cropping i.e. growing two or more crops in succession on the same piece of land within the year.

In the temperate zones, crops cannot be grown during winter but in the tropics we can raise crops all-year round provided there is enough water. Thus with irrigation, short-maturing crops, zero tillage and transplanting of pre-grown seedlings, we can grow as many as 3-4 crops a year on the same piece of land. Therefore, instead of just 10 million physical hectares of farm land, we can harvest as much as 30-40 million hectares of crops every year.

In order to compensate for the loss of income of rice farmers with the lifting of limits to cheap imported rice, the rice tariffication act (RTA) provided free farm machines, seeds, subsidized credit, more farmers training and extension support.

Yes they are all important but the law glossed over what to train the farmers for and what the main thrust of extension ought to be beyond raising the productivity of the rice crop.

The incomes from a 30-day crop of pechay or mustard; a 75-day crop of sweet or glutinous corn, and a full-season of tomato, chili pepper, eggplant, melons, onions or garlic most often far exceed the margins from rice.

Therefore, far more potentially impactful beyond raising the yield and reducing the cost of producing palay are the higher incomes, additional jobs, and value-adding from a second, third or even a fourth crop after rice.

Agronomic requirements
of relay cropping

Key is the availability of water in the volume and timing required by plants. The large irrigation systems (the national (NIS) and communal irrigation systems [CIS]) under the supervision of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) provide relatively cheap water which can be stored in the rice fields through the system of paddies. However, this water impounding technique while ideal for palay whose roots thrive under anaerobic conditions is ill-suited for all other crops which cannot tolerate water-logging.

Thus our recommendation is to embed small irrigation units like farm reservoirs and shallow tube wells into the large NIS and CIS systems to enable the rice farmers to have full control over the volume and timing of water delivery with which to profitably grow the non-rice relay crops. This realignment of mandate of NIA will enable us to realize the full potential of the P800 billion we have invested so far in irrigation.

The second requirement is for seeds of improved varieties of short maturing crops. Fortunately, we have plenty of these. Palay takes 110-120 days to mature. Many fruit vegetables like tomato, eggplant, chili pepper and okra start fruiting in 60-70 days. Fresh, green corn (sweet or glutinous) must be harvested in 70-75 days. Pechay and mustard need only 30 days.

The third requirement is the abbreviation of the crop cycle from one crop to the next by sowing the seeds directly into the stubble of the previous crop (zero tillage). Plowing or harrowing is normally necessary to set back the weeds from the previous crops. The turnaround for land preparation results in the “loss” of easily 3-4 weeks of growing period. However with selective herbicides, disturbing the soil to control weeds is no longer necessary.

Fourth, high value crops like tomato, eggplant, chili pepper and melons can be grown in small recyclable plastic bags or trays in the nursery and transplanted as seedlings. Transplanting of seedlings saves another 2-3 weeks of growing period and gives the crop a headstart over the weeds.

Planting for the market

These high value crops after rice have a common liability – they are highly perishable. It is imperative that the crops are assured of market even before they are planted. Whether as fresh produce or for processing, great attention must be devoted to post-harvest handling, storage, and transport to maintain quality and minimize post-harvest losses.

Not just rice productivity
but also crop diversification

The RTA by narrowly focusing its remedial measures on rice competitiveness unfortunately misses the bigger picture of a more productive countryside with crops other than rice.

The Rice Competiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) appropriates P1 billion per year for more farmers training and enhanced extension support. It is not too late to interpret this to mean equal if not increased, attention for farmers training and extension support for relay cropping and crop diversification after rice.

Since Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) which gets the lion share for extension does not have agronomic nor market expertise, additional resources must be sourced to support the Bureau of Plant Industry, the Agricultural Training Institute and the Department of Agriculture Marketing unit to promote relay cropping and crop diversification.

Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP).

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