An enduring challenge

Erwin P. Nicavera

THE bid to develop the organic agriculture industry of Negros Occidental has remained to be a struggling crusade for Negrenses over the years.

Tagged the organic leader of the Philippines, and even positioned as the organic bowl of Asia, the province, with its stakeholders, are still challenged on how to keep the industry alive and flourishing.

Latest reports of the Department of Agriculture in Negros Island Region (DA-NIR) showed that Negros Occidental currently has about 16,000 hectares of agricultural lands devoted to organic farming.

These farms are grown by almost 17,000 organic adaptors, mostly small farmers.

The prevailing number is still short by almost 4,000 hectares based on the mandated 20,000 hectares.

Based on the Republic Act 10060, or the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010, Negros Occidental should devote five percent of its almost 400,000-hectare agriculture area to organic farming.

This year, the DA is eyeing a 10 percent expansion, equivalent to an additional 1,600 hectares of organic farms.

The push for more agricultural areas devoted to organic farming in the province gained boost through the 1st NIR Organic Agriculture Congress held at the Provincial Capitol Social Hall in Bacolod City in July.

Joyce Wendam, regional director of DA-NIR, said the activity is mainly aimed at increasing the awareness of the Negrenses on the government’s efforts to further expand the region’s organic areas.

She said there is a need to work hard, propagate, and develop further the province’s organic areas to maintain its position as the country’s leader in organic agriculture.

“If we will not maximize our efforts, other provinces might move ahead of us,” Wendam said, adding that “while we are on top, the challenge is to further grow since other provinces are also doing their best.”

Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. recalled that from a small group, who started the organic movement in the province 12 years ago, the number of local organic farmers and producers has significantly increased.

Marañon noted that the global sales for organic commodities have rapidly surged to US$80 billion thus; there is really a huge market for the sector.

“This is the way to the future. Let us continue to expand and work together for the organic movement in our province,” he urged Negrenses, adding that organic agriculture is also a sustainable measure to address climate change.

Addressing certification woes

To encourage more expansion, farmers should be relieved from the burden of certifying their products as organic.

Jerry Dionson, representing the Negros Island Organic Producers Association (Niopa), said they have been struggling for quite some time in terms of having their commodities certified.

Of the 220 active members of Niopa, only Dionson and his three other farmers were able to acquire a group certification in 2015.

Forty-two other members with an area of about 82 hectares are up for a third party certification with the Negros Island Organic Certification Services (Nicert) this year.

“We have been working on grouping our members, as much as possible per district, to make the cost of certification cheaper for each farmer,” Dionson said.

He said that group certification process is “slower” than individual certification since a set of standards and guidelines should be strictly complied by each member.

“Aside from higher cost, we also have other predicaments like bulky documents, rigorous steps, and short validity period,” Dionson said, lamenting that although the national government provides certification subsidy “it is still difficult for us to avail mainly due to many requirements.”

The members of the Niopa are just among thousands of organic practitioners in the province who are struggling to obtain organic certification.

In response to this clamor, the DA is eyeing a Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) certification for all organic farmers in the province.

PGS is more viable especially for small organic farmers since the membership fee is only P100. However, it only covers products sold at local market.

For farmers to reach both domestic and export markets, they have to acquire third-party certification with total expenses of about P75,000.

The number of certified organic farmers in the province has remained minimal due to high third-party certification fee and short validity period of one year.

Since 2010, there were only nine individuals and groups whose products have been certified organic.

Some of them have even failed to renew their certification, Wendam said.

RA 10060 only included the third-party certification. The PGS provision with validity period of one year is still pending under the proposed amendment of the law.

PGS is the stepping stone towards obtaining a third-party certification. Meaning, organic farmers should be equipped first in saturating the local market before eventually venturing into exports, Wendam said.

Without certification, farmers practicing organic system of farming may already sell their products in the market, however, these cannot yet be labeled as organic.

Making market accessible

The government is aware that it cannot encourage farmers to increase production if there is no available market.

In fact, lack of access to market has been one the local organic agriculture industry’s challenges experienced by farmers like Rosario Villarena of the upland Barangay Patag in Silay City.

Villarena said they cannot solely rely on public markets in their area as local consumers still opt for non-organic products with cheaper in prices.

They have to tap buyers in nearby localities like Bacolod City where the demand for organic products is high.

“We, however, need to spend more in terms of transporting our products from the mountain down to the doors of our buyers,” she lamented.

Villarena and other farmers in Silay somehow saw the light when the City Agriculture Office unveiled earlier this month the P1.7-million Organic Trading Post, a project of the national government through the DA.

It serves as a “bagsakan” for organic products of hundreds of farmer-members of four associations in Silay.

City Agriculturist Jason Benedicto said the trading post provides recipient-farmers “sure” income as the city government will be the one to purchase and sell their products.

All food establishments, especially restaurants, in the city were surveyed and tapped to source their raw materials from the trading post.

“As soon as we can expand production and increase supply, we will eventually saturate outside markets,” Benedicto said, adding that the local government will manage the operation of the trading post for one year and later turn it over to the farmer-associations.

The City Agriculture Office is also planning to purchase a truck, which will be utilized in transporting the products from farms to the trading post.

The DA-NIR and the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist (OPA) are also banking on establishment of organic trading post in 30 other local government units (LGUs) in the province to provide farmers the venue to market their products.

At present, only the cities of Silay and Victorias have trading posts.

Victorias’s facility was funded by the city government.

Wendam said more trading posts could significantly boost the farmers’ income but if it is difficult for LGUs to establish a structure requiring huge allocation, they can still come up with even a small space where organic products can be sold.

Earlier, the Agriculture department itself launched the “TienDA” Farmers and Fisherfolk Outlet at Bureau of Plant and Industry grounds in Malate, Manila.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said it is part of the agency’s advocacy to lessen the tiers and layers of middlemen, traders, and dicers operating in between the food producers and the consumers.

In Negros Occidental, the DA also initiated the Organic Market Day, which provided assisted organic farmers from various cities and municipalities the venue to sell their produce twice every month.

Matching the industry

Another strategy of the OPA is matching the production with the market demand to make the province's organic industry more stable.

Provincial Agriculturist Japhet Masculino said the OPA is conducting a survey among establishments like hotels, restaurants, other business institutions, and even hospitals to create a “profile” of their organic needs.

Masculino said through the survey, they can identify the farmers producing products with high market demand.

“Upon determining that what they are producing is not enough to meet the current market needs, we will push to increase its production through expansion of areas,” he added.

Part of the Provincial Government’s effort to enable farmers to sell their products is addressing mismatching in terms of production and market.

Masculino said that “like jobs, we should lessen production of commodities that have low market demand and increase those which we still have deficit."

Given its climate variability, Negros Occidental is capable of producing organic products in low, middle, and upland areas, Masculino said, adding that “we just have to match the market to the capability of the producers.”

Product development

The stiffer competition brought by the Asean economic integration has also challenged both the government and local producers to step up the efforts on further developing the products.

Aside from being certified, better packaging and design also helps Negrense producers position their products better in the market.

OPA continues to collaborate with other agencies like the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and Department of Science and Technology (DOST), among others, in the provision of trainings and other capability-building interventions like value-adding to organic farmer-producers in the province.

More competitive agripreneurs

The DA-NIR, through the Agribusiness Support for Promotion and Investment in Regional Exposition (Aspire), also works to help local farmers and fisherfolk, including organic practitioners, become more competitive agripreneurs.

On July 20, the DA has signed a tripartite agreement with the DTI and Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) for the implementation of Aspire.

The program, which initially covered four pilot regions this year such as Central Luzon, Bicol Region, Western Visayas and Soccsksargen, mainly aims to promote regional priority commodities and agri-fishery based products.

In 2018, it will be implemented in all provinces, including Negros Occidental.

“Aspire also aims to showcase the strong backward linkages with farmers and fisherfolk, and develop their capacity to optimize market opportunities," Wendam said.

The DA, through the program, will also advocate investment opportunities to encourage agri-business investment, and build strong partnership and convergence with other government and private sector industry groups, she said.

“We want our farmers not to stay only as farmers forever thus, one way of scaling them up is enabling them to become entrepreneurs,” the DA official added.

Farm diversification

To further boost the local organic agriculture sector, the government is also banking on establishing more high value technology demonstration projects in Negros Occidental by utilizing sugarcane farms as diversification model.

On August 15, the DA-NIR in collaboration with the City of Cadiz launched the High-Value Techno Demo Project in Barangay Sicaba in the northern Negros city.

It is the second techno demo project established in the province utilizing sugarcane farms for crop diversification, next to La Carlota City.

“The project aims to showcase technologies on vegetables, fruits and other high-value crops with focus on organic agriculture,” Wendam said, adding that farm diversification will supplement the income of sugarcane workers especially during “tiempos muertos” or off-milling season.

Under the project, a 5,000-square meter sugarcane area owned by a city official will be used as techno demo farm.

The allotted sugarcane area will be used for farm diversification, or the allocation of other areas for other high value crops. Good agricultural practices in the model farm will be replicated by the farmers in their respective sugarcane fields.

The DA will provide inputs like seeds, fertilizers and farm tools, among others, while the local government unit (LGU) will extend technical assistance, including trainings on various organic production technologies for the farmers.

The agency also tapped the private sector as “consolidators” to help the farmers in marketing their products.

The DA has already launched five techno demo projects in the province this year, some are utilizing non-sugarcane areas. Before the year ends, it targets to establish 12 techno demo farms, including another sugarcane area in Bago City.

Climate-resilient farm community

Going organic is believed to be one measure to address the worsening effects of climate change.

Alicia Ilaga, director of Systems-Wide Climate Change Office (SWCCO), said the country’s agriculture sector is vulnerable to possible adverse effects of climate change thus; there is a need to help farm communities become more resilient.

This was underscored by Ilaga during the launching of the country’s first Amia Organic Village in Pontevedra town, Negros Occidental recently.

The village is part of the 10 Adaptation and Mitigating Initiatives in Agriculture (Amia) Villages to be launched this year.

Ilaga said these are model villages for building climate-resilient farming communities aimed at providing sustainable livelihood to farmers and fisherfolk mainly through making the community ready and resilient to climate change.

The project includes components like creation of Localized Climate Information Service Center that will conduct local weather observation, climate-risks and impact management, farm-weather advisory creation, and community dissemination of weather and climate-suggested management.

“Through the village, we will be able to identify the specific climate challenge in the area and that necessary and appropriate services and measures will be implemented,” she said.

The concentration of Amia Village in the town is organic, given the province’s strong development programs on organic agriculture.

It initially covers 50-hectare farms in villages General Malvar and San Isidro comprising a total of 50 farmers of different organic crops as initial beneficiaries.

A field school will also be established within the village to hold regular classes to the farmers, including demonstrations of various climate-resilient production technologies including the use of flood and drought-resilient seeds, integrated farming system, and crop diversification.

Pontevedra Mayor Jose Benito Alonso said the project is a big boost to the agriculture sector of the town.

“We hope that having climate-resilient communities would help our farmer-families improve their livelihood, contributing to reduction of poverty in our locality.”

The DA initially allocated P4.9 million for the implementation of the project. Ilaga said they target to replicate the project in all barangays of Pontevedra this year, and eventually in the whole province.

Exploring other opportunities

Agriculture, especially organic, has also emerged as an essential part of other industries like tourism.

The Department of Tourism (DOT) noted that a slump in the agriculture sector of Negros Occidental will also affect its tourism industry.

DOT Western Visayas Administrative Officer Artemio Ticar, designated tourism area development head for Negros Occidental, said the province’s flourishing agriculture sector, especially organic, is one of its tourism strengths.

He said health and wellness is now one of the major concerns of tourists, especially foreigners, aside from other tourism offerings like natural attractions.

Cristine Mansinares, provincial supervising tourism operations officer, said agri-tourism is currently one of the emerging sectors which the province, given its potential, may take advantage.

Mansinares said developing farm tourism is an area which the provincial government will focus on to reach its target 15 percent increase in tourist arrivals this year.

Among the agri-tourism sites in the province include the Peñalosa Farm in Victorias City, May’s Organic Garden in Bacolod City, and Rapha Valley in Salvador Benedicto.

“Through this community-based tourism promotion initiative, farmers will run the tourism activities in the area,” Mansinares said, adding that “agriculture is one solution that could address industry needs if we do it the right way.”

Earlier this month, the Negros Occidental Tourism Division and DOT 6 conducted a Farm Tourism Orientation at the Provincial Capitol Social Hall in Bacolod City.

The activity, which was attended by over 50 stakeholders, sought to familiarize tourism stakeholders on agri-tourism and encourage farm owners to consider opening their properties to tourism.

Mansinares said farm tourism promotes an inclusive local economic development, adding that learning organic farming practices, farm wastes recycling, farm camps, and fishing, among others are some of the offerings which a farm tourism site can provide.

“This industry can really help small farmers increase their profit and also promote organic agriculture, one of the flagship programs of the provincial government,” she added.

The Negrense spirit

For Negrenses, the bid to sustain the flourishing organic agriculture of the province remains an enduring and constant challenge.

Amid the recent dissolution of the NIR, which would somehow need adjustments in the agriculture sector of the province, the Negrense spirit and positive disposition remain strong.

Dionson, who is again vying for this year’s National Organic Agriculture Achievers’ Award for small farmer category, said the recognition is a testament that Negrense farmers, despite many challenges, are still capable of excelling.

“God has given us the land to till, we just need to grow and sustain that dedication to preserve and make it sustainable,” he said, adding that “we made it before, we can make it again.”