Despite the three o’clock afternoon heat on Christmas eve, Celo, 60, was standing by the roadside in Bongabon town in Nueva Ecija. It was the day buyers would arrive for his onion harvest just in time for the holidays.
“Minsan isang buyer lang ang darating, tapos sa kanya ko na ibibigay. Hindi naman pwedeng patagalan pa yung sibuyas kasi masisira na,” he said, constantly checking the bottom of the red net bags which contain around 10 kilos of red onions. Last year, harvest he tilled sold for P700 per kilo on the market, but Celo sold P1,650 per bag.
The onion crisis since 2022 left local farmers as the primary casualty, forced to sell their produce at a low value and having to pay for way more than what they earn. As the new year begins, the current administration’s lagging policies for agriculture continue to fail farmers.
Nueva Ecija produces around 141,479 metric tons of onions annually, the highest yield in the country. Majority of this figure comes from Bongabon, the Philippine “onion basket,” where red and yellow onions, and shallots are grown.
In the second quarter of 2023, national production increased to 84,900 metric tons, which is 3.4 percent higher than the previous year. But it was at the same time that retail prices of onions skyrocketed.
The Philippines saw in 2016 a sudden increase in onion retail price when it jumped by more than P25. By December 2022, price peaked at P700 per kilo. And while it slightly went down in 2023, prices would still range from P250 to P300 until last month. Amid all this increase, farmgate prices, since 2011, only averaged at P48 per kilo for red and yellow varieties (see sidebars).
So for farmers, it comes as odd when President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was then serving as the agriculture secretary, allowed importation to match the allegedly unattainable domestic demand. Importation was supposed to be a temporary measure. And yet until last month, onions from abroad kept coming, forcing local farmers to sell at a loss.
But something more sinister is at play with the exorbitant price of onions. Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) Chairperson Emeritus Rafael Mariano said that the hike is because of hoarding of onions in cold storage by big-time traders.
“Ilalabas o ibebenta lang ng mga traders ang sibuyas sa higit na mataas na presyo sa panahon na mataas ang demand. Matagal nang ganito ang kalakaran at alam na alam ito ng mga taga Department of Agriculture,” Mariano said during the first wave of price hike.
And so for most farmers, there is not much room to improve their livelihoods.
Cost of Farming
Celo, like most farmers in the country, does not own the land he has been tilling since 1987.
“Dito na ako lumaki, dito na ako nabuhay,” he said. “Mahirap kumita ng pera sa pagsasaka. Tsaka kahit naman may pambili ka, hindi naman ibebenta ng may-ari ng lupa yung lupa kasi yun din ang negosyo nila.”
Tenants like Celo usually pay 10 percent or more of the earnings to their landlord. Add this to the needed money for irrigation, farmhands, starter bulbs, and sprays, the half-hectare farm that Celo tills does not provide enough. Irrigation, for one, costs around P11,000 throughout the season, as farmers have to organize the watering themselves.
But this is not just the situation for onion farming. This is true for more than 75 percent of farm workers in the country who earn measly pay, as they are without their own land to till. Together with Celo, four farm workers were present that afternoon, expecting their pay for the week to buy things for Christmas.
Onion farming lasts for four months, while the land needs to rest for two to three months. Farmers take other jobs or tills in other farms to have money during the off-season. They also have to factor in the storms and droughts that affect the Philippines.
Farmers usually send their harvest to cold storage facilities until a competitive offer is made. But Celo said a cold storage would just slash his take-home pay more, forcing him to sell for less than P2,000 per bag.
“Gagaan kasi yung sibuyas kapag nagtagal kaya tininda ko na, pero ang mas mahalaga eh mahal din kasi magpa-storage sa Palayan,” he said, referring to Palayan City where the closest cold storage facility is situated. From Bongabon, it was a half-hour drive, which adds to the transportation expenses.
The promise of genuine agrarian reform in the Philippines has also yet to be realized, with farmers advocating for such change facing threats to their lives and livelihoods. To this day, the Genuine Agrarian Reform Act remains in limbo in Congress for 15 years now.
Additionally, the lack of support for farmers such as free public cold storage hampers competitive pricing of their produce. Hoarding and cartels are also rampant in the country, leading to the commodity crises, which KMP said are possibly protected by officials from the Department of Agriculture and other agencies themselves.
“Mahirap magpa-aral lalo na kung magsasaka ka. Ma-swerte pa nga ako, kasi nakakaupa ako, eh yung iba nakikitanim lang, P300 lang yun kada araw,” Celo said. “Kahit gusto kong mas mataas ibigay, wala talaga kasi ang liit lang ng balik.”
Agricultural advocacy groups have been calling out Marcos’s failing policies since 2022.
“Sibuyas pa lang ito. Marami pang ibang agricultural crops gaya ng bigas, bawang, at iba pa na kaya namang itanim at likhain ng mga magsasakang Pilipino subalit napakataas ng import dependency rate natin,” KMP said in a statement last year, responding to Congress’ flip-flopping deliberation on onion prices.
Under the 2024 national budget, the agricultural sector is allotted P10 million to remedy the effects of importation on the domestic industry, but the inflow of onion itself will not change. The execution of land reform, meanwhile, will only have P57 million.
For farmers like Celo, the government has been lagging in helping them so far, but he is hopeful that by 2024, something better will be in store.
“Bagong taon, bagong pag-asa. Sana next year, mas maayos na yung taniman, yung amin na talaga tapos hindi na namin kailangan mapilitang magbenta para lang may makain kahit sobrang baba ng presyo,” he said. ●
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