[OPINION] Why farm mechanization won’t help our farmers

Justin Umali
[OPINION] Why farm mechanization won’t help our farmers
The Department of Agriculture's efforts fail to attack the root of peasant poverty: landlessness

It’s no secret that our farmers are currently facing a crisis – the farmgate price of palay hit an all-time low (official reports peg it at P15.94/kilo, but farmers say it’s actually P8 or P9/kilo), while farming expenditures have risen to over P50,000 per hectare. Basic economics dictate that our farmers are farming at a loss, and are reaping debt instead of produce. (READ: Hacienda Luisita: The struggle continues

The Department of Agriculture (DA), as part of its mandate, is currently trying to solve this. But the roundabout way Sec Piñol is going about it ultimately doesn’t work in the farmers’ favor – the solution, the DA says, is increasing farm output yield.

It sounds like a reasonable solution at first. The government isn’t keen on setting a floor price for palay sales, so their solution is to have farmers sell more of their product. Current average yield stands at anywhere from 3 to 4 metric tons per hectare (3 to 4 thousand kilograms of palay). Increasing the yield to 6 metric tons means an increase in gross sales from P24,000 to P48,000 (or P47,820 to P95,640, if you follow the PSA data).

The DA is tackling this problem by providing multiple solutions: mechanization programs, free seeds and irrigation, and training seminars for farmers. All of which are undoubtedly good ideas. But it’s when you look deeper that you realize that this plan isn’t exactly as flawless as you might hope.

In a semi-feudal society like the Philippines, land is not equally distributed among the more than 75 million Filipinos who work in agriculture. An overwhelming majority of people who work the land do not own it; oftentimes they’re not even tenant farmers, but farm workers who get paid a wage. (READ: The landless and the landlords of Bondoc Peninsula)

In such a system, any efforts to modernize agriculture, although welcome, will fall short of a long-term solution. Tenant farmers spend thousands in labor, transport, water, pesticide, fertilizer, and other costs not because the techniques are outdated, but because the economic system pushes them to do so. Mechanization programs will only result in tenant farmers renting out more tractors and less carabaos. Free irrigation does nothing when access to water is still held by a few private corporations. (READ: 4 things to know about the Mendiola Massacre

Farm workers, who rely on seasonal work to get a sliver of pay, don’t benefit from these initiatives because at the end of the day, they are still paid in fixed wages for their work. Farm workers have nothing outside the planting and the harvest seasons. No amount of training in modern farming technique will change this fact.

At the end of the day, the DA’s efforts, though well-intentioned, fail to attack the root of peasant poverty: landlessness. And while that particular problem falls under the scope of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and not the DA, that doesn’t mean the DA shouldn’t focus on solutions that work within the semi-feudal context that farmers live in. (READ: [OPINION] Is agrarian reform a dying issue?)

Should Sec. Piñol decide to listen to the farmers, they will readily tell him what they need. Not mechanization or training, though those are certainly useful, and not interest-free loans. 

What they need are economic protections for their products, subsidies for farming, and a price floor to ensure palay is a livable crop to farm. Most importantly, farmers are asking for genuine agrarian reform that will break the concentration of land ownership and put it in the hands of the vast majority of Filipinos who actually need it.

Until these needs are met, the farmer’s crisis will continue. One way or the other, though, all crises must end. – Rappler.com

Justin Umali is a writer and an activist from Laguna. He is a regular contributor for Esquire Philippines, and currently President of Kabataan Partylist Laguna.

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