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Bucket list for the new Department of Agriculture secretary

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Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

By the time this column goes into print, President Rodrigo Duterte may have announced his choice of the new secretary of Agriculture. If not, the following individuals merit serious consideration: They are all very knowledgeable about technical agriculture, have blemish-free records and had extensive commendable management and administrative experience, here and abroad.

Dr. William D. Dar, a horticulturist, was Department of Agriculture (DA) secretary briefly for President Joseph Estrada. He was so highly regarded in the international community, he served for an unprecedented three terms as Director General of the International Center for Research in the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in India.

Dr. Rolando T. Dy is our most eminent agribusiness guru and founding head of the Food and Agribusiness Center at the University of the Asia and the Pacific. Dr. Segfred Serrano, an agricultural economist and policy analyst, was our longest-serving Undersecretary of Agriculture. If finally given the chance to be his own man, he should do well.

Dr. Luis Rey I. Velasco, with a doctorate in entomology, was director of the National Crop Protection Center, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Chancellor at UP Los Baños.

We can not go wrong with any one of them. They have the full support of the agricultural science community.

To say that the agriculture sector can do better is most charitable. Agriculture had been dragging down our economy for the last three decades and our small farmers and fisherfolk remain impoverished. For sure the new DA secretary will have his hands full. There are just so many fires to douse, and many others to lit.

Lest he be overwhelmed here’s a bucket list for the secretary to do telescoped into three main strategic institutional directions;

  • Linking the farmers to the markets,
  • Empowering the rural cooperatives, the irrigators associations, and the agrarian reform beneficiaries’ associations, and;
  • Re-energizing the local government units (LGUs) and mobilizing the state universities and colleges (SUCs)

Linking the farmers to the markets

The bane of most farmers are low farm gate prices. With low margins, it does not pay to borrow and invest. For the banks, it does not make sense to lend money to losers.

The reasons for depressed farm gate prices are three-fold: 1) most farm produce are seasonal leading to cyclical surpluses, low prices and wastes, 2) the produce of individual farms come in small volumes and it costs a lot to assemble them, and 3) the produce of small farmers, do not always meet the quality and timeliness demanded by the market.

The obvious solution as they do in Thailand is encouraging contract growing arrangements between organized small growers with food and beverage processors, supermarkets and exporters. In most contract growing arrangements, the INTEGRATORS provide the growers with seeds, other inputs, technology, credit and assured market. All the farmers have to do is produce to specifications.

Contract growing is the working business model for our export winners, banana and pineapple, with poultry broilers, and with tobacco. Lately, we have been reading more and more examples of processors, exporters and supermarkets dealing directly with farmers. We should institutionalize these business arrangements with the rest of agriculture, forestry and fisheries whenever possible.

The most difficult part as far as the corporate integrators are concerned is the organization (and discipline) among the small growers. This is where government, both local and national, can come in — organizing and empowering the rural cooperatives, irrigators associations (IAs) and the agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBAs).

The new rice tariffication act and the impending release of the coconut levy funds constitute two great opportunities to further empower farmers associations, by coursing inputs, subsidies and extension efforts through them.

The P10-billion subsidy for farm machines, improved seeds and targeted farmer training and extension under rice tariffication will be better spent if these initiatives were channeled through organized farmer groups.

The same is true for the P100-billion coconut levy funds which is proposed to be expended over a 25-year period. The bulk of that fund should be coursed through organized coconut growers who will replant as well as own and manage village-level integrated coconut processing plants which will produce coconut water, activated charcoal, virgin coconut oil, coconut flour and coconut fiber growing media and geotextiles.

Empowering the rural
cooperatives, irrigators
associations and the agrarian
reform beneficiaries’ associations

The key constraint holding back our agriculture is our small, fragmented farm holdings which lack economies of scale to operate. Since land consolidation anytime soon is unlikely because of tradition and inheritance laws, made worse by the ownership limits imposed by agrarian reform, the obvious way forward is to operate these small farms into larger management units by organizing the farmers to come together.

Over the years, we have invested so much effort in organizing farmers into rural cooperatives, irrigators associations and into agrarian reform beneficiaries’ associations. These farmers associations continue to be relevant and we should persevere in empowering them.

Many of previous efforts to organizing cooperatives have failed for lack of management and business leadership and robust financial controls. Government support therefore should focus on providing training in entrepreneurship and financial management. Government should employ/outsource business managers who will coach the cooperatives, irrigators associations and agrarian reform beneficiaries on how to profitably run their business.

Some of these expertise could be provided by organized business as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) portfolios.

Re-energizing the LGUs
and mobilizing the SUCs

Ultimately the success of rural development programs rests to a large extent on the competence and dedication of the extension workers who deal directly with the farmers. With the Local Government Act, the administration and supervision of agricultural technicians had been devolved to the LGUs. While before the rural agents receive instruction, compensation and material support from the DA, now they are fully dependent upon the LGUs for resources and the accident of priorities of the local executives, many of whom unfortunately have little interest in agriculture.

The cities and larger towns have adequate funds for social services and rural development for their respective jurisdictions. But the 3rd to the 6th class municipalities where most of agriculture is found have limited funds. Agriculture is often short-changed, the agricultural technicians are underpaid and are allocated precious little operating funds to move around.

Energizing the provincial and municipal agriculture offices (PAOs and MAOs) and their technicians therefore ought to be a priority for the DA.

The cities and larger towns, financially can take care of their respective agricultural offices and personnel but they can benefit from central coordination and further training. For the small towns, the DA should top up the salaries of the extension agents to match those obtained by government employees with comparable job descriptions and qualifications.

The Department through the DA Regional Offices should likewise provide counterpart operating funds and vehicles and communication equipment to make the local government-employed technicians effective.

Additionally, it has been observed by experts that the towns are often too small for purposes of planning and coordination. Thus, the farmers will be better served if planning and coordination were organized at the provincial level. Since the MAOs have no direct reporting links with the PAOs, the funding and resources subsidies from the national government should be coursed through the PAOs as incentive for more purposeful coordination.

Finally, the SUCs which are strategically located in the regions have well-trained agriculture faculty who could be mobilized for specialists and farmers training as well as for direct extension work. However, the annual appropriations of the SUCs hardly provide for research, much less extension.

The SUCs, at least one for every region, should be encouraged by Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to establish dedicated agriculture extension offices to link with the DA Regional Offices and the provinces in the regions. The budget and plantilla of those dedicated extension offices should be endorsed by the DA Regional Director for proper coordination. Similarly, the DA should provide supplemental budgetary support to the SUC dedicated agriculture extension offices.

*****
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).

For any feedback, email eqjavier@yahoo.com.

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