Jun 142013

Many of our businessmen are keen on manufacturing, or import/export, or IT, or BPO. Only a few would give a second thought to the country’s agriculture sector, to the advances that we have gained over the last few years. Maybe because they are not trumpeted for the most part, but also because we tend to take agri news with a big ho-hum.

What we know for a fact is that we have lagged behind our neighbors in this sector.  Where we used to be the lead producer of rice and sugar, we are now a net importer of rice and other countries have now challenged us too in sugar production. Countries like Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and Korea have overtaken us simply because they have embraced technology far earlier than us, and their governments have taken the initiative of empowering their farmers initially through subsidies, but later through production and marketing support while we continue to wallow in bureaucracy,  corruption and blissful ignorance.

But take a second look now at what is going on in the country’s agriculture sector. For one, we have taken the first big step in mechanizing. In the late ’90s, mechanization of our farms stood at a low .52 – .56 HP/hectare.  That means, the total horse power used is only about one half horsepower per hectare. In 2012, Philmech, the lead agency under the Department of Agriculture (DA) tasked with farm mechanization, took a survey and came out with brighter results: 1.26 HP/ha. That is a considerable leap, though we are still several leaps away from say, Thailand whose mechanization level now stands at four HP/ha. A few years ago, this figure stood at less than two HP/ha., and look how fast they are improving. Japan, Korea and China are of course the dominant countries here, with a mechanization level of over seven HP/ha.

Several years back, the small farmer would not even buy a hand tractor because of the prohibitive cost, and a rice harvester machine was alien to them. Manufacturers were also not bringing in new machineries because there was no demand.

Now, many of our small farmers have updated to hand tractors and even four-wheel tractors and have seen how mechanization works for them. Philmech’s mechanization program has introduced them to transplanters, for instance, where one transplanter can cover one hectare in less than eight hours with only operators manning the mechanized transplanter. On a “mano-mano” basis, one would need maybe 20 people to plant rice in a one-hectare area. For a combined harvester where the harvested palay comes out already threshed, thus by-passing one operation, one can cover three hectares using only two or three operators. These we gathered from Mr. Rex Bingabing, Philmech executive director who gave us a lot of inputs on this subject.

Even the government gains by improving our farm production. In 2010, our rice importation stood at 2.4 million metric tons; in 2012, this was down to 500,000 MT.  This year, the DA’s target for rice importation is 180,000 MT.  It looks like DA Sec. Proceso Alcala’s promise will see fruition after all, and we can put our dollars to better use.

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The Farm Mechanization Program does not come cheap, and understandably so. Last year, the budget was more than P2 billion, and for 2013, they expect to spend about the same amount. The program will run up to 2016, and the total budget allocated for it is P12 billion. This includes, apart from the farm machineries which we import, budgets for training on the proper operation and maintenance of the machines as well as constant monitoring of all the facilities to ensure optimized utilization.

 A hefty budget indeed, but if it can push our productivity and improve our competitiveness, it is money well spent. Where before, the Department of Agriculture’s subsidies to farmers were largely in the form of seedlings and fertilizers every planting season, these farmers can now own valuable machineries and implements which will last them years.  Add to this the fact that the small farmers will now no longer be limited by the traders—where before they used to sell wet palay to the traders, they now can sell their produce as milled rice which they can even store in consideration of market prices. Wet palay needs to be sold immediately or it will rot.

Aside from the hand tractors, four-wheel tractors, mechanized transplanter, and combined harvester, there are post-harvest facilities as well like threshers and mechanized dryers.

Interested farmers or entrepreneurs can apply with any of the regional field units of the Department of Agriculture deployed all over the country, though we heard that the lines are now very long.  They should have all the guidelines for this program, or the Philmech staff can also give assistance. However, a farmer cannot apply for the program on his own — farmers are advised to form their own associations or cooperatives, or join existing farmer organizations in order to avail of this program’s benefits because there is a minimum land area required. All they have to do is present a letter of intent and a board resolution from the association or cooperative.

Under this scheme, 85 percent of the total cost of the machineries is shouldered by the government; the farmers’ counterpart is a mere 15 percent, but this small percentage of equity means a lot more. With this equity, the small farmers tend to adopt a sense of ownership which they would not have if the machineries were given to them outright. The empowered farmer is more careful, more productive and ultimately more competitive.

As a rejoinder to this, Philmech is now closely coordinating with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to develop locally-fabricated farm machineries so we do not need to import heavily until the end of the program which is still another three years. This vital partnership with DOST could mean lower-priced transplanters, tractors, harvesters and dryers for our farmers, and our country’s manufacturing sector could benefit well from this too. 

Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.

For comments (email) businessleisure-star@stv.com.ph

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