Machines on PH farms: Catching up with ASEAN integration

Pia Ranada
While Asian neighbors started their mechanization programs on their farms in the 1960s or 1970s, the Philippines started only in 2010. Agri officials say we can still catch up

MACHINES IN FARMS. Mechanization is said to be one part of the solution to making Philippine agricultural products more competitive with those of its ASEAN neighbors

MANILA, Philippines – Are Philippine agriculture and Filipino farmers ready for ASEAN integration in 2015?

The sad reality is evident in the market shelves and the crop fields. Most Philippine crops, notably rice, still cost more than Thailand or Vietnam rice primarily because of high production cost. (READ: Alcala: PH not yet ready for ASEAN Economic Community)

Filipino farmers spend around P11 ($ 0.25) to produce one kilogram of rice while their Thai and Vietnamese counterparts spend the equivalent of P8.40 ($0.19) and P5.60 ($0.13), respectively, according to the Philippines’ Department of Agriculture (DA).

Rice fields in other Southeast Asian countries are better irrigated. Farmers receive subsidies to cover costs of buying fertilizer and seeds. Machines used for all levels of agricultural production decrease their production cost and lead to better harvest.

Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala identified cost of labor – the hiring of extra hands to harvest crops and prepare them for the market – as the biggest factor in jacking up production cost for rice farmers. (READ: PH agriculture: Why is it important?)

“Cost of labor is one of the biggest contributors to high cost of production, followed by cost of pricing and irrigation,” he said in a June 23 press conference. (READ: PH ‘well situated’ to take advantage of ASEAN integration)

Reducing the cost of labor is where mechanization comes in.

Catching up

Mechanization, or the use of machines in farming, can bring down the cost of labor particularly for labor-intensive crops like rice, sugar, and corn.

The DA hopes to bring down total production cost of rice to P8 ($0.18) or P8.50 ($0.19) by combining mechanization with improved irrigation and affordable loaning schemes for farmers.

But the Philippines is lagging behind in terms of mechanization. 

According to Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech) records, the country’s level of mechanization is at 1.23 horsepower per hectare (hp/ha).  

In the same year, Japan was at 18.87 hp/ha, Korea at 9.38, and India at 2.22. In 2009, our ASEAN neighbor Thailand registered a mechanization level of 4.20 hp/ha. 

Mechanization level is computed by dividing the total mechanical power available (based on the amount of sales of farming machines in the country) by the total production area. 

PhilMech Executive Director Rex Bingabing told Rappler the most common type of mechanization in the Philippines is mechanization for land preparation: the use of hand tractors and 4-wheel tractors to make land ready for planting crops.

But mechanization for transplanting (the planting of seeds) and post-harvest (making the harvested crops ready for the market) only began late 2010.

“To be honest, we are late,” said Bingabing.

“We could’ve started early 2000s. Just to give you an idea, Korea started their mechanization program late 1960s. We also began mechanizing in the ’70s but it wasn’t sustained. ASEAN integration is already 2015. The good news is, we can still catch up.”

The power of mechanization

By 2016, PhilMech and the rest of the DA hope to bring the country’s mechanization level to 3 or 3.5 hp/ha – a level comparable to Thailand’s. 

In the case of rice, there are many types of machines that can greatly reduce labor, save farmers costs in fertilizer and seeds, and improve yield. (READ: Many poor in PH? NSCB cites dismal agri sector)

The hand tractor and 4-wheel tractor prepare soil for planting by tilling it, a process which loosens the top layer of soil, mixes organic matter and nutrients evenly into the soil and destroys weeds. 

A mechanical transplanter plants rice seeds in consistent distances across a field. Experiments have shown that the optimum distance for planting rice seeds is 200 by 200 millimeters. 

Here is an example of a rice transplanter designed by PhilMech:

The rice combine harvester is a machine that cuts and gathers grain from the stalk of the rice plant (reaping) and separates the edible grain from the inedible chaff (threshing), all in one go. 

Here is an example of a mini combine harvester:

Machines like these can save farmers from hiring more laborers, which would lead to more savings.  

Hired laborers would usually have to be paid an amount equivalent to 14% of the harvest, said Bingabing. Some combine harvesters cost only the equivalent of 8% of the harvest, with diesel, rental cost, and operator already in the package. This effectively saves the farmer 6%. 

By ensuring the planting of seeds at consistent, optimum distances, machines like the mechanical transplanter also saves the farmer from having to pay for more inputs.

“Plant density becomes optimum. You don’t use too few seeds or too many. When you use too many seeds, you waste seeds. You also need to put more fertilizer. More seeds mean more absorption so you need more irrigation,” explained Bingabing. 

Mechanization also reduces post-harvest loss, which in manual harvesting can go as high as 4 to 4.5% loss of crops. This happens during reaping, when some grains or stalks fall and during threshing when even more grains fall.

Storing grains for too long lead to spoilage or else they are eaten by rats.

The use of a combine harvester lowers loss to 2.5% resulting in a 2% increase in grains that would have otherwise gone to waste. If you talk of hundreds of tons of palay, that number is substantial.

Post-harvest machines like dryers, seed cleaners and single-pass ricemills also improve the quality of agricultural products. 

Acceptance for ‘alien’ machines

Despite its perceived benefits, mechanization continues to be hounded by issues like the high cost of the machines and labor displacement – when hired farmers lose their livelihood because machines do a better job. 

Depending on the crop, there are also instances when manual labor would be more cost effective than machines. 

Farmers used to their manual methods also have to be persuaded to use machines that for them may seem alien and intimidating. Though a majority of Filipino farmers now use tractors for land preparation, only around 30% have adopted the combine harvester, said Bingabing.

But more and more farmers are now gaining access to farming machines, either from government programs or through the private sector. 

To increase adoption, PhilMech has a program for rice farmers in which 85% of the cost of a machine is shouldered by the DA. The remaining balance is shouldered by the farmers.

To avail of this counterpart scheme, farmers must meet certain requirements. First, only farmer cooperatives or associations are considered for the program. Individual farmers are not entertained. Second, depending on the type of machine, the farmers’ production area must be a certain size. Third, the cooperative must be able to provide the 15% of the payment. 

The agency, with its mandate to develop machines for Philippine agriculture, is set to launch 7 new machines by the end of September. These machines, to be assembled and marketed by local manufacturers, are for the farming of rice, cassava, onions, and corn. 

From 2014 to 2016, the DA aims to distribute more than 240,000 units of farm and post-harvest machineries to rice-producing areas in the country at a total estimated cost of around P9.5 billion ($216.6 million). – Rappler.com

Harvest car in rice field image from Shutterstock

Farmer transplanting rice image from Shutterstock

 

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.