“Go back to the province and plant kamote [sweet potato],” was what teachers usually told students who fared poorly in school or were better off going back to the provinces to literally plant kamote.
While that statement has a condescending tone up to now, it may soon become a call for more of the youth to take up farming because the country’s farmers are aging. And planting kamote, among others, is now being encouraged by the government to relieve pressure on domestic rice supplies.
Based on a study conducted by the Central Mindanao University (CMU), the average age of the Filipino farmer today is 55 years old. Dante Delima, an assistant secretary at the Department of Agriculture who is in charge of the agency’s Rice Program, pegged the average age of the Filipino farmer at 59.
The high average age of the country’s farming population shows that much of the youth have shunned tilling the soil as a profession or business undertaking.
Dr. Eduardo Bagtang, the president of the Kalinga-Apayao State College (KASC), told The Manila Times that much of the youth today shun farming because of its perceived hardships, and many farming families are part of the country’s poor sector.
“The reason ng iba, parents nila ay farmers. So why do they have to go back to the farming? Nakita nila sa farming ay mataas yung inputs, and they sell produce at low prices. [The reason is their parents are farmers. So why do they have to go back to the farming? They witnessed that in farming the cost of inputs is high, and they sell their produce at low prices],” he said.
Based on the latest poverty incidence report from the National Statistical Coordination Board, poverty incidence is highest among fishermen and farmers at 41.4 percent and 36.7 percent in 2009. In 2009, the poverty incidence was pegged at 26.5 percent.
The waning interest of the youth in taking up farming as a vocation has resulted in the drop of enrollees in agricultural courses, which are offered primarily in state universities and colleges.
“That discourages their [farmers’] sons and daughters to take agriculture [courses],” Bagtang said.
“In general and across the Philippines, yes. This is apparent in the decreasing enrollment in most colleges and universities that offer degree programs in agriculture. One probable reason is the availability of two-year courses that allow students to get employed with less expense on college education and with work that are semi white-collared jobs,” Dr. Maria Luisa Soliven, president of CMU, told The Manila Times.
Bagtang said that in their case, the KASC offering free tuition for agriculture courses has not helped in increasing student enrollees for that degree.
Four to five years ago, KASC’s enrollment for agriculture courses was around 400 to 500 students. In the last school year, it was about 300. KASC has a student population of about 5,000.
“They [students]want jobs that are urban in nature, into IT [information technology], arts and science, those that can land them in any office work,” Bagtang said.
He added that when school officials interviewed students on their disinterest in taking agriculture courses, one of the answers given is the lack of employment opportunities in the farming sector.
Bagtang’s view is somehow supported by the latest Labor Force Survey conducted by the National Statistics Office, which indicated that agriculture receives the lowest average daily basic wage and salary compared to non-agriculture sectors.
While the government knows about the problems that can be caused by the aging of the country’s population of farmers, its impact has not yet been quantified in numbers.
But Soliven offers a view: “If there will be fewer young people who will be interested to pursue careers in agriculture and related disciplines, then this could definitely aggravate food insecurity in the Philippines.”
Rex Bingabing, the executive director of the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech), said that aging Filipino farmers quitting has led to problems in some areas in the country, which could lead to a food crisis.
“In many areas, we are already experiencing the effects of this scenario. In places in Central Luzon, farm owners are already having difficulty in finding farm workers during the time of planting and harvest,” he said.
“This can be a potential problem since farm owners might decide to convert their lands into industrial or commercial areas if they would not profit anymore from agriculture and eventually compromise the sustainability of our food sufficiency,” Bingabing added.
While the government has yet to determine how many farmers are quitting because of old age, the preliminary results of the last Labor Force Survey (LFS) of the National Statistics Office (NSO) showed 624,000 workers losing their jobs during the period in review.
“The drop in the [country’s overall] employment rate is due to the decline in employment in the agriculture sector, with the number of agricultural workers falling from an estimated 12.468 million in April 2012 to 11.844 million in April 2013, or by about 624,000 workers,” it said.
The survey revealed that the number of employed Filipinos went down to an estimated 37.819 million in April this year, lower than last year’s 37.840 million, a decrease of about 21,000 workers, showing that the agriculture sector lost the most number of workers. This is ironic considering that the Aquino administration has been pouring in billions of pesos for irrigation and farm mechanization projects over the past three years.
If there is any consolation, it is that aging farmers are not unique to the Philippines.
Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit Jr., director of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) based in Los Banos, Laguna, said that attracting new blood into the agriculture sector of a number of Asian countries has become a human resource (HR) problem.
“The Philippines, with a modernizing farming sector, is already experiencing the problem of the youth preferring to look for jobs in the urban areas or abroad, leaving the country’s farms wanting for young blood. That is only one of several human resource development problems being experienced by the Philippine farming sector,” he said.
The challenges to agricultural human resources development were examined during the international symposium Human Resource Development in Agricultural Science: Towards Fostering Japanese Researchers to Play an Active Role in International Agricultural Research organized by the International Cooperation Center for Agricultural Education based in Nagoya University, Japan. Representatives from various agencies like SEARCA attended the symposium, which was held late last year.
During the forum, it was revealed that developing countries in Asia like Myanmar and developed ones like Japan are experiencing similar problems of aging farmers. An article in the website of The Economist (With fewer, bigger plots and fewer part-time farmers, agriculture could compete) placed the average of Japanese farmers in 2010 at 70 years old.
Japan, however, has the highest level of farm mechanization in Asia or 7 horsepower per hectare (hp/ha). The Philippines’ level is 1.23 hp/ha.
Some of the challenges related to agriculture HR issues discussed during the forum include: agriculture as a profession is not attractive to students; aging agriculture research/scientific and academic staff; low budget for research and training activities; outdated curricula not addressing agricultural HR development needs of the times; outmoded research and academic facilities; and agriculture graduates not well-equipped with knowledge, skills and attitudes to compete globally.
“If these problems are not addressed through the cooperation of government agencies and international institutions, Asia’s food security situation will be threatened, especially if we take into account the fact that climate change poses another serious challenge to farmers in the region,” Saguiguit said.
While Soliven believes that pushing farm mechanization and agribusiness can help attract more youth to farming, she also echoes the need to improve agricultural courses in the Philippines.
“The Philippine government should also invest in equipping the agricultural colleges and universities in the country with better and advance facilities for advance agricultural fields like agricultural biotechnology, plant and animal breeding, precision agriculture, crop genetic resources conservation, and more,” she said.
Soliven added that even the best universities in the Philippines are way behind in the enhancement of theoretical and applied agricultural sciences.
“Degree programs on agriculture can become more attractive if we develop and we educate the public that these are scientific, and agriculture is definitely highly scientific,” she further said.
There may also be a need to change the perception that students taking up agriculture are inferior.
“It is somehow a common perception among students that other disciplines [e.g. Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] look down on students who take BS Agriculture, as if they are second class citizens in colleges or universities,” Soliven added.
Perhaps that perception may be responsible for the attitude of some teachers telling their students to plant kamote when they do poorly in their studies.
But the consequence of perpetrating that wrong perception among the youth of today can lead to grave consequences for the Philippines, which also has to deal with other factors that can affect food production like loss of farm lands to rapid urbanization, smuggling of agricultural products, and climate change.
Then there is the country’s rapidly growing population, which is expected to put pressure on rice supplies in the next few years.
While the government is confident of the country achieving 100-percent self-sufficiency in rice, it is currently encouraging “smart eating,” or for Filipinos to consume other staples like white corn, banana and root crops to help reduce pressure on rice supply.
This means that more farmers are also being encouraged to plant root crops like cassava, taro and kamote.
“If Filipinos become smart eaters and do not only largely depend on rice for carbohydrates, then technically, there could be less food crisis in the country because we have many other sources of carbohydrates like banana, cassava, potato, taro, and many other crops,” Soliven said.
But with not much of the youth interested in farming, who would be the ones to plant kamote, among other crops?