Kiko Pangilinan on how to empower small farmers

Kiko Pangilinan welcomes to his farm 77-year-old Mang Bernardo and other members of the Alfonso Producers Association in Cavite. —ALL PHOTOS FROM SWEET SPRING COUNTRY FARM FACEBOOK

Small farmers are “still the best hope” for feeding a fast-growing population, according to former senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, author of the Sagip Saka Act that is aimed at easing the lives of over 10 million Filipinos who produce the country’s food. 

Farming is arduous, as demonstrated by those who till the soil. It can also be fulfilling, as shown by the Roman emperor Diocletian who, after ruling for 21 years in the third century AD, retired to his hometown of Split (a city in today’s Croatia) to grow vegetables. 

Pangilinan himself, on those times when he steps away from politics—in 2013, after completing his second consecutive term at the Senate, and again in 2022, after falling short in his run for the vice presidency—keeps returning to the thing he loves most.

“I did not plan on becoming a farmer although I was exposed early on to organizations, movements, and advocacies that had direct contact with farmers and even carried their causes,” Pangilinan, now 59, told CoverStory,ph, recalling his college days at the University of the Philippines. 

In 2010, under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile offered Pangilinan the chairmanship of the committee on agriculture and food. “I did not immediately accept the offer as it was not the plan,” Pangilinan said. He had originally gunned for the Senate presidency; instead, he and his administration colleagues arrived at a consensus to elect Enrile to the post.

Biggest challenge

But the offer made sense, he told himself, given that the biggest challenge for the country had always involved agriculture and food security. “In fact,” he recalled, “when P-Noy (Aquino) and I were campaigning under the slogan ‘Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap—When there is no corruption, there is no poverty—in the 2010 elections, the biggest headlines at the time were the multimillion-peso fertilizer fund scam as well as the multibillion-peso swine scam. The [Janet] Napoles scam [involving the plunder of pork barrel funds] was not yet uncovered. All these scams involved funds that should have benefited the agricultural sector. I thought that I might as well walk the walk, and the next day, I told JPE that I’ll take the committee chairmanship.” 

Pangilinan chaired the committee until 2013. When, in 2014, Aquino appointed him presidential assistant for food security and agricultural modernization, he visited all kinds of farms in the country, including enterprises related to agriculture. “That was when I concluded that unless I went into farming myself, I would not completely understand what our farmers are going through,” he said.

The opportunity for Pangilinan to literally sink his hands in the soil came in 2013. A year earlier, he and his wife, the celebrity Sharon Cuneta, bought a 3-hectare property in Alfonso, Cavite, where they started growing chemical-free lettuce, herbs, and traditional vegetables. Cuneta named the property “Sweet Spring Country Farm,” after the spring running through it. 

The produce is sold mainly to hotels, resorts, and restaurants in Tagaytay City, which is a mere 15 minutes away from the farm.

“In June 2023, we celebrated our 11th year of harvesting,” Pangilinan said. “We impart our success story to other farms and small-scale farmers. We also help others succeed. We found ways to help 16 farming and fishing communities. We were able to facilitate the delivery of a transport truck for their produce.” 

Welcoming the Grade 6 students of Acacia Waldorf School and leading their educational farm tour

Sweet Spring Country Farm welcomes day-tour guests and accepts on-the-job trainees (OJT), or university students needing to complete 240 hours of training. “We do all these to convince everyone, especially the younger generation, to go into farming, and that there is money and fulfilment in this endeavor,” Pangilinan said.

Risky business

But he also reminds his guests and OJTs that, like any other enterprise, farming is a risky business. 

All-natural and chemical-free lettuce is the main product of Sweet Spring Country Farm.

“In the environment we are in right now—climate change—that risk is elevated,” he said. “We lost two greenhouses and a nursery, and our pavilion with anahaw roofing was blown off its foundation, when Supertyphoon ‘Glenda’ hit Cavite in July 2014. We had no electricity for 10 days. I lost all my seedlings; to a farmer, that’s critical because that’s how you bounce back right away. I lost close to P1 million worth of produce—almost all the lettuce, a thousand banana trees, all our pepper plants. To give you an idea of how bad that year was, this farm can produce around two tons of lettuce in a 45-day cycle (February to March 2014). But by August, a few weeks after the supertyphoon, we were only able to harvest 45 kilos of lettuce.” 

Pangilinan realized that unless there is immediate intervention to get farmers to bounce back, they will remain poor and uninspired. “And that brings me to the point that I always raise: Small-scale farmers are still the best hope for increasing land productivity and crop diversity to feed a fast-growing world. But they will remain poor, indebted, pretty much enslaved by an exploitative, oppressive and unjust system unless we start doing something,” he said. 

He recalled a conversation he had with three farmers—aged 87, 84 and 78—in San Simon, Pampanga: “I was amazed that the three have 186 years of combined farming experience, but they’re still poor and neck-deep in debt, when they should no longer be working.”

According to the three farmers, if they stop farming, they will not be able to take out loans because their produce is their collateral.

“They all live to borrow. If they do not, they have nothing with which to feed their families. It’s enslavement,” Pangilinan explained. “Right now, one of the farmers has just one hectare remaining to farm, from six. He had to sell a portion of his property every time he had to pay his debt.” 

Pangilinan laid out what must be done: “more meaningful assistance—not just doles—to capacitate and build the farmers’ ability, productivity and income.”

“They should not be condemned to just selling palay,” he said. “The government has been spending billions of pesos for postharvest facilities—like milling—that mostly benefit traders and seldom farmers. Why can’t these farmers be capacitated to also mill their palay?”

In Pangilinan’s view, this is mainly why the agricultural sector can’t get out of its age-old predicament:  Farmers don’t benefit from the skyrocketing retail prices of their produce. The food cartels remain unaccountable despite causing recurrent spikes in the prices of onion, sugar, and other agricultural products, even rice.

Republic Act No. 11321 

“If you mobilize the stakeholders and get them to participate in restructuring and reformulating a new system that focuses more on capacitating the farmers and increasing their incomes, we will have a chance to improve the sector in, say, six years,” said Pangilinan, who authored the Sagip Saka Act (Republic Act No. 11321) that was signed into law by then President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019.

The law seeks to alleviate the difficulties of over 10 million Filipino food producers by authorizing all government offices and local government units (LGUs) to directly buy goods and produce from accredited farmer and fisher cooperatives, thus bypassing the complicated and time-consuming bidding process.

Sagip Saka was tested during the pandemic lockdown. Pangilinan recalled “one best example”—a multipurpose cooperative of about 2,000 rice farmers in Naga City. Before the lockdown, the cooperative earned around P7 million from its usual buyers. But in 2020, at the height of the lockdown when LGUs’ movements were restricted, 13 of them decided to buy directly from the cooperative. “By October, the cooperative’s sales were already hitting P62 million. That’s almost a ninefold increase, and I’m sure they hit 10 times more by December of that year,” he said.

It was the members who said their cooperative prospered because of Sagip Saka. “Sabi nga nila, yumaman ang cooperatiba dahil sa batas na ito,” Pangilinan said. “In fact, one member was able to set up a sari-sari store through the share the family got from the cooperative’s earnings.” 

But even without an emergency, Pangilinan pointed out, Sagip Saka exempts both national government agencies and LGUs from the Procurement Law when they purchase agricultural products directly from accredited farmer cooperatives and organizations. It also exempts groups and individuals from paying the donor’s tax when making donations such as capital outlay for farm equipment, postharvest facilities, and agriculture infrastructure, among others, to accredited farmer organizations. 

“Imagine if Sagip Saka is implemented in more areas nationwide,” the former lawmaker said. “The government, both national and local, can become the single biggest buyer of food from these farmers and fishers.” 

He cited examples: “What if the Department of Health and its hospitals nationwide, the jails, the armed forces and national police, including their camps, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) that provides billions of pesos worth of rice to disaster areas, and the Department of Education with its nationwide feeding program decide to directly buy from farmer and fisher cooperatives?”

“But here’s the thing,” he lamented. “Sagip Saka was signed into law in April 2019 with its implementing rules and regulations signed in October 2019. There was lack of information dissemination and some government agencies and farmer cooperatives don’t know that the law exists.” 

Ignorance of the law

Pangilinan’s suspicion of ignorance of Sagip Saka was proven right when, then still a senator, he presided over a 2022 budget hearing. He asked the DSWD officials present to report on the rice, fish, chicken, pork, and vegetables needed for their hot meals program.

He recalled: “Before the Covid lockdown, their budget for the hot meals was about P6.2 billion, but during the lockdown, the budget was reduced to P3.5 billion. They explained this was due to restrictions. I asked for their list of purchases, further inquiring why the bulk came from traders and not cooperatives. They told me about a supposed presidential decree and so forth

“I asked them why they did not use RA 11321, as there is a special provision in the General Appropriations Act for 2021 stating that they can purchase directly from and negotiate with cooperatives. They said they did not know about this law.”

Pangilinan also cited the cooperative Nagkakaisang Magsasaka ng Isabela (NMI), which was put together by the provincial government. In 2019, the NMI was able to secure a P200-million loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), which it used to buy 10 million kilos of palay.

“They milled it and got 6 million kilos of rice out of it. But the lockdown happened the following year, and they were on the verge of losing money. Curiously, it was DBP that reminded them of this law that allows the government to directly buy from cooperatives like them,” he said. 

In the end, the NMI was able to sell its rice to the LGUs of Isabela and even those of the provinces of Cavite and Batangas, as well as Quezon City and the other cities of Makati and Taguig. “It, saved the cooperative and they earned millions in the process,” said Pangilinan, who has since found and been told that the weak and uneven implementation of Sagip Saka is due not only to lack of information but also to his being with the opposition. 

“As a farmer, I know the advantage of not having to deal with middlemen,” he said. “I can sell my produce at a fair price that my buyers still find affordable. So ultimately, and this is my last point: If we are to move forward in agriculture, we have to hand-hold our farmers. Sagip Saka is actually that: hand-holding, capacity-building, creating, increasing incomes. When you do that, after three to five years you will have clusters of empowered farming and fishing communities, and that’s the way to go.” 

Among the poorest

A year since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assumed the presidency, he has yet to relinquish the agriculture portfolio and to name a full-time agriculture secretary. 

The lot of small famers, and fishers, remains dismal: “Farmers remain among the poorest due to the persistent absence of genuine land reform and rural industrialization. Farmers became even poorer as a result of importation and liberalization of agriculture,” Rafael Mariano, chair emeritus of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, was quoted as saying by CNN Philippines last March, 

The biggest challenge has always been in agriculture and food security, according to Pangilinan, shown in his office. —PHOTO BY TINTIN ANG-BUBAN

When asked if he would seek public office again, Pangilinan said cryptically that Filipinos should not give up on the future of their country and their children. 

“The 2022 campaign was amazing, as seen by the outpouring of volunteerism and support. For me, it was unprecedented,” he said of when he campaigned as running mate of presidential candidate Leni Robredo. He described the result of the 2022 elections as “really like ‘talong panalo‘”—a victory in defeat. “Still,” he said, “like in the game of basketball, this is just the first quarter.  We may have been overwhelmed in the first quarter, but this isn’t over.”

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