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ESSAY: In the land of green, harvest comes from the sea

STA. MARIA, Bulacan—YELLOW puffs led the sway of green rice stalks on the Bardos family’s 3-hectare land on a windy afternoon.

The signs point to a season of good harvest but the family’s youngest, Cherry Mae, remains wistful like the veteran farmers in this northern Philippine village.

“It won’t be enough. It has never been enough,” she almost whispers to the wind, confirming local experts’ view that Philippine agriculture has been losing out to overseas work as a source of farming families’ incomes.

The Bardos family is one of a few families here who have seen their fathers or mothers drop the plow and grab on suitcases to work in a foreign land. In the Bardos’s case, it was Jeric and he chose to work on water as a seafarer.

Since then, Cherry Mae has been seeing green but not from the land that Jeric and other farmers left behind. Every month, she receives green bucks at an average of P17,000 (roughly US$395.35 at P43=US$1). This also means Cherry Mae has at her disposal US$13.18, or P566.67 a day, nearly twice what an ordinary factory worker receives as gross salary.

That amount used to be more when Cherry was still dissecting frogs or memorizing scientific names of muscles in medical school because of additional remittances from mother Myrna, then an entertainer in Japan.

In this first-class farming municipality of Sta. Maria, that means big bucks.

For the Philippine Rice Research Institute, the Bordes case only confirms their study that farming has become less the reason for the doubling of farmers’ incomes in the past decade.

According to PhilRice’s study titled “The Changing Image of the Filipino Rice Farmer,” total gross incomes of these farmers rose from P68,974.85 during the period 1996-1997 to P127,799.95 in 2006-2007.

Income from rice farming, over the ten-year period, rose by P25,367.32 but income from non-farming sources P27,386.59, showed the PhilRice findings that spanned 10 years and covered 30 provinces.

By percentage share, however, income from rice farming plummeted from 60.64 percent in 1996-1997 to 52.58 percent in 2006-2007. Non-farming income, for its part, rose from 29.63 percent in 1996-1997 to 37.42 percent in 2006-2007.

Farmers’ adoption of both farming and non-farming income sources also led to an increase in the number of the farmers who clambered from the poverty threshold, from 46 percent in 1996-1997 to 57 percent in 2006-2007.

“The share of non-farming activities as sources of income had steadily been rising… as rice and rice-based farmers are now engaged in other business such as rubber production, wood craft, welding, and work overseas,” PhilRice said in a press release.

Plows

CHERRY Mae points to the fields bordering their land, which they call basak in the vernacular and which conjoins a twin 3-hectare rice field of her aunt Tata, Jeric’s sister.

Other farming families, like her aunt’s, have tried their luck to be like the Bardoses, who live on a two-floor bungalow filled with a television set, refrigerators, and other appliances.

In a municipality like Sta. Maria, that is a stature not uncommon as rice-farming families like the Bardoses who adopted overseas migration to diversify their incomes not only show that farmers’ socio-economic statuses are improving, but going elsewhere is a means to cope with a struggling agricultural sector.

Tata, for one, currently works as a head nurse in a hospital in Saudi Arabia while her family manages the land near the Bardos’s.

NOB. 15. Another farming family is that of Siso Hermogenes’s. The 50-year-old Siso harvests only once a year, in the weeks between November and December.

With not enough farming income, his wife tried out to work as a domestic worker in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates but only lasted there for eight days and returned home after the eldest son, at 15 years old, died.

Without overseas migration, Hermogenes relies not just on some P30,000 earned per harvest but also from planting vegetables.

“If you only plant rice, and you did not make any harvest, there’ll be no income and you have to wait for another year to earn.”

In the case of the Bardos family, had Jeric not become a seafarer, Cherry Mae and a younger sister would have stopped going to school.

Given the seasonality of incomes from rice farming, we rely on the remittances from our father, she said.

Cherry said they have earned something last harvest season in April but the income from farming is almost the same as Jeric’s monthly remittance.

She says her father, who’s still in his mid-40s, is unlikely to retire anytime soon.

“It is not surprising that remittances have helped improve the standard of living of the poor, and of farmers,” says agricultural economist Dr. Thelma Paris of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

“But the big question is how to make our agricultural sector more productive,” adds the Los Baños, Laguna-based economist.

Closed

PARIS’S question echoes the World Bank-Philippine office’s observation that agriculture’s contribution to poverty reduction has been weaker, especially in the last 28 years.

“Improved productivity is critical for agriculture growth. In countries such as the Philippines, where the ‘land frontier’ has virtually closed, sustained growth of agricultural output can only come about through increases in productivity,” the World Bank observes in its report “Fostering More Inclusive Growth.”

That goal, however, continues to grow farther as the country’s agricultural sector has contracted by 2.59 percent in the first half of the year. The palay sub-sector, to note, contracted by 10.24 percent.

Agriculture’s contribution to the macro-economy has been declining these past few years [see Figure 1] while the agricultural sector’s growth in 2009 (0.37 percent) was the lowest since 2002 [see Table 1].

The DA attributed the ongoing negative growth of the agriculture sector to the El Niño phenomenon from March to May.

For an agricultural municipality like Sta. Maria, this hasn’t helped. Some 26.66 square kilometers of rice land of the total 29.02 sq. km. of Sta. Maria’s agricultural land area is rain-fed and only 2.36 sq. km. is served by irrigation facilities.

Cherry told the OFW Journalism Consortium that they venture into copra planting as well as occasional fishing at the Sta. Maria River when there is no rain.

Organized farmers are also lamenting the Aquino government’s move to abolish the P8-billion palay procurement subsidy as an additional burden in these times of drought.

In a statement, the National Confederation of Irrigators Association (NCIA) called attention on the plan of the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to have a zero palay procurement subsidy in the budget of the National Food Authority (NFA) next year.

“[This] will put local farmers at the mercy of profit-hungry palay traders, who can now dictate the buying price of palay without fear of government intervention.”

The NCIA statement explained that “at present, the government, through the NFA, pegs the government support price of palay at P17/kilo.”

“Farmers usually sell their palay harvest to NFA whenever the buying price of private traders is below the government support price. Last harvest season, traders bought palay at P14 to P15/kilo or two pesos lower than the buying price of NFA.”

But despite the hardships of farming, Cherry Mae is still seeing green amid the yellow buds across their family’s basak.

It has been 13 years, two years short of her father Jeric’s 15-year overseas stint, that she and her mother have taken care of their farm.

That’s 3,952 days of waking up early, overseeing the plowing, bending to the knees to sow rice seeds, and waiting –waiting for the grass to turn out golden yellow crops.

Cherry Mae and her mother’s hopes remain perennial gold would come not by working in a foreign land. —(with reports from Isagani de la Paz, OFW Journalism Consortium)

Reporting from her hometown of Sta. Maria, Gabrielle Lara Baniqued is a third year Journalism student of the University of Santo Tomas and is a daughter of a seafarer.

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