How can we compete in the Asean Economic Community?
These are the startling realities of Philippine agriculture that sum it all.
The farmers and fisherfolk are among the poorest of the poor and the agriculture sector is losing its competitiveness.
Here are some hard data:
- We used to be a net exporter of agricultural products. Today, we are a net importer.
- We used to be the envy of our neighbors. That’s the reason why many of them sent their students to study in our agricultural universities in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, our own Filipino university-bound students don’t even think of taking up agriculture. Young people don’t see a future in agriculture.
We can cite a litany of reasons for this sad state of affairs for Philippine agriculture. Many of us are aware of these.
But rather than focus on the negatives that may lead us to despair, we’d rather ask ourselves: what can we do to improve Philippine agriculture?
The loss of competitiveness is the legacy of failed efforts of past Philippine administrations to develop agriculture.
The challenge today is to grow markets for Philippine agriculture products as this can lift the lives of millions of Filipinos who depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
Why is it that American and European farmers are rich? One may say, because they have large tracks of land. Yes, I agree with that.
But closer to home in Asia, why are the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean farmers millionaires?
Their average farm sizes are even smaller than the average Filipino farm.
The key to competitiveness in these countries is not the land but technology and management techniques that farmers have employed in their farms.
Just to illustrate this further. Why is it that the Israeli farmers are so productive with farms in the desert?
What seems to be the real competitive edge of the farmers in those countries I have mentioned is education and training.
Unfortunately for the Philippines, our typical farmer only got five years of elementary education, and given the quality of our education, it is a big question mark if at all these farmers are functionally literate.
The coming Asean economic integration is another challenge we need to prepare for.
Otherwise, we will just be flooded with agricultural products from our neighbors.
What are the things that we need to do?
The first requirement to be competitive is to invest in the developing our human capital.
We need to improve our basic education system. With respect to agricultural education, we need to bring back subjects like gardening in elementary, especially for schools in rural areas.
For many of these students, many of them will fall off the system before they finish Grade 6.
Thus, with some basic skills in agriculture, they will be more prepared to be productive citizens.
I think this is also one reason why agriculture’s enrollment in college is low because kids have not been exposed to it at an early age.
In high school, a specialized type of school needs to be put in place that give focus on the farm as a business.
A new law was signed by President Aquino in 2013 to establish Rural Farm Schools as part of the mandate of the Department of Education.
Fortunately, there are already some schools initiated by private groups in the country called the Family Farm Schools.
But more are needed to make an impact for the whole Philippines.
Second, we need to make strategic choices on the type of agricultural businesses that we can compete in.
Definitely, we cannot compete anymore in plantation crops like sugar cane, palm oil, coconut and corn.
Our farms are too small and fragmented to make these crops economically viable since they need economies of scale.
Thus, we need to find something where family farms are suited as a production model.
Thus, the niche that we should focus on is organic products.
Organics are a growing market and consumers are willing to pay a premium price.
Organic agriculture is also very suited for small family farms since they require intensive labor inputs in producing their own fertilizers and pesticides.
Organic agriculture lends well to integrated farming systems to include crops, livestock, and even aquaculture in one single farm unit.
But this type of farming system requires more sophistication on the part of the farmer since a lot more knowledge is needed than in a single-crop farm.
Fortunately, there is already a law promoting organic agriculture and private groups are very active in advocating and training for organic farming.
Third, such type of farms will require more “horsepower” to be more productive and less strenuous.
There is a need, therefore, for appropriate types of farm machinery and structures to make farming a family enterprise.
In this set-up, it is not just the farmer who is directly involved in the farming business but the wife and children as well, depending on their age level.
Gone are the days when farming is a back-breaking routine because the use of appropriate farm equipment and machinery will make farming easier.
I’m referring to inputs like tillers, planters, harvesters suited to small farms as well as plastic covered structures where high value vegetables can be grown using the drip irrigation system.
This will also make farming less dependent on the weather.
Fourth, a higher education program is needed to produce the farm supervisors, farm managers, and agripreneurs needed to make this type of agriculture work.
The demands of sophistication in terms of technology inputs, planning, implementation, and management are much higher than what we have today.
Unfortunately, our agricultural schools are too focused on producing the technologists, scientists, and bureaucrats that we failed to prepare the types of manpower needed for a more modern agriculture system.
Thus, the Farm Business Schools were initiated by the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) to address this problem.
The programs offered at the Farm Business Schools put more emphasis on hands-on training in actual work environments.
Offered as a two-year post-secondary course, its Diploma in Farm Business Management prepares young people to be farm supervisors and future farm managers.
Its Diploma in Entrepreneurship, with specializations say in Farm Business, Organic Agriculture, or Eco Farm Tourism, prepares its students to become agripreneurs.
These programs were patterned after Germany’s dual training system and France’s alternánce used in its Maison Familiale Rural.
Typically, students spend only 30 percent of their time in classroom learning with the remaining 70 percent spent working in functional farm enterprises.
While at the farm, they are mentored by the farm owner or farm supervisor.
In conclusion, if you notice, I did not put much of the solution in government because I truly believe that we in the private sector can take these steps to make Philippine agriculture work.
In the past, we always relied on government but all these years, we’ve seen the limits of government.
We can help push the government to do a bit more by lobbying and proposing programs.
But in the end, competitiveness and the development of Philippine agriculture will happen because of the work of the private sector.
(The author is a member of the MAP Agribusiness and Countryside Development Committee, the Program Manager for MAP’s Farm Business Schools Programs and the Dean of the MFI Farm Business School. Feedback at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous articles, please visit www.map.org.ph.)
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