MANILA, SEPTEMBER 9, 2013 (PHILSTAR) WILL SOON FLOURISH By Wilson Lee Flores ((POSTED IN MAY 2013) - The farm calls: Liberal Party stalwart and outgoing Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan is quietly preparing to leave politics to devote his time to his love for farming and his advocacy of helping farmers.

Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land’s inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery. — Wendell Berry


While the rest of the nation was focused on the exciting mid-term elections, the highlight of which was the closely-fought senatorial race, Liberal Party stalwart and outgoing Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan is quietly preparing to leave politics in order to devote his time to his love for farming and his advocacy of helping farmers.

Graduate of comparative literature from University of the Philippines (UP) and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, Pangilinan is outgoing chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and husband of showbiz “Megastar” Sharon Cuneta Pangilinan. The morning after the May 13 election, Senator Kiko Pangilinan gave Philippine STAR an interview while harvesting vegetables in his nearly three-hectare farm in Alfonso, Cavite. Here are excerpts:

PHILIPPINE STAR: What is the size of your farm, and how big should a farm be to be economically viable?

SENATOR KIKO PANGILINAN: This farm is less than three hectares, but the area planted is only 6,000 square meters for now. Any small farm can be viable, as long as you do multi-cropping and you have access to the markets.

How long have you been farming here and how are your earnings?

I started this farm in January last year. A farm can earn, but it’s a challenge, like you’re exposed to the elements such as the habagat (rainstorm season) last year. Our optimum yield here is one ton of herbs and lettuce, but in August last year we produced only five kilos because of the 45-day crop, because of the nonstop rains, so not much harvest. Farming is not easy, but with enough support especially in climate change mitigation, we can earn.

How many farmers and how much agriculture lands do we have in the Philippines?

There are over four million farmers in the Philippines and you have under 10 million hectares of agriculture lands. Many farmers plant one crop on average.

How much of our land is irrigated and how does this compare with our neighbors?

Of our 10 million hectares of agriculture lands in the Philippines, less than two million hectares are irrigated, while, mind you, Thailand has 20 million hectares of agriculture lands and less than five million hectares are irrigated. Vietnam is also big, even Myanmar is big but not all irrigated there.

That mango tree of yours has many fruits. Maybe mango farming is easier?

Mango has a lot of problems, especially if it rains when the flowering is at the first stage, then you lose na (already) your harvest; that’s how sensitive it is. That is a carabao mango tree.

What are those trees you’ve planted in between those plastic-covered plants?

Those are cacao trees in between plastic mulch, which we use to cover the vegetables from heavy rains, also to avoid unnecessary weeds, to minimize both insects and too much sunlight. Those plants under the plastic mulch are herbs like tanglad (lemongrass), sweet basil, tarragon. I also want to plant spearmint.

What kind of pigs are those you have there, they’re dark in color?

Those are native pigs.

Is that your farmhouse? It’s so simple.

Yes, that’s my simple farmhouse built of coconut lumber, bamboo, coconut leaves and covered with fishing net for protection and to make it last longer. Every farm book advises that the last priority as major expense is the non-revenue generating expense, such as your farmhouse. In fact, even start-up farms in the US, they bring their RV (recreational vehicle). Some just live in trailers, their methods are more modern. Farmers should not go into one-shot big expenses without revenue considerations.

Why did you choose to have your farm here in Alfonso, Cavite?

This farm is 1,300 feet above sea level. It’s nice here in upland Cavite, cool air and there are three seasons here — wet, dry and windy. This has a hilly, mountainous terrain. Alfonso, Maragondon, Amadeo, Tagaytay, Indang, Mendez, Magallanes and Silang are upland Cavite areas, while the lowlands are places like Imus, Bacoor and Dasmariñas. We live in a house in Silang, my family, and in the months of January, February to March, you could hear the winds moan.

(Writer’s note: Sharon Cuneta Pangilinan recently sold their house in Wack Wack and their family lives in their house in Silang, Cavite near their farm.)

Why did you call it SweetSpring Country Farm?

Its initials are SCF, that’s Sharon Cuneta’s farm (smiles).

What are those chickens there? What kind are they?

Those are free-range chickens. We netted 3,000 square meters for 178 chickens, they’re the Parawakan local breed.

Will you be open to the idea of making this farm into a tourist destination for foreign and local tourists?

Eventually, I envision this to be a demo farm. Right now, I’ve volunteered this farm as a farm field school for 50 local farmers in the area in partnership with the Department of Agriculture. Agri-tourism, we’re not yet ready now, but that’s the plan. By the way (pointing to a banana tree), did you know pala (all along) that after a banana stalk bears fruits, you cut it down, then feed it to the pigs, use it for composting or use it for handling and packaging material of your lettuce?

Going back to the situation of our farmers, how are they economically?

It’s sad that the farmers’ have P23,000 a year in annual average income, and the average educational attainment of farmers nationwide is fourth grade. Talagang pinabayaan sila (Truly, they’ve been neglected) by the political elite.

Shouldn’t government support farmers with such things as adequate crop insurance?

We have, and we put in an additional P1 billion to last year’s budget for crop insurance.

Going back to economic viability of your farm?

They say it will take two or three years before you can turn in a profit. We have entered into a service agreement with Ernest Escaler’s Gourmet Farms, wherein they will buy our products. They will help us set up the farm, and we sell to them.

Has President Aquino visited your farm yet?

Not yet.

We all know that President Noynoy is honest and sincere. Your reactions to critics’ claims about his work ethic?

In the three years that we’ve been in the Senate, P-Noy was staying there up to past midnight. And I wouldn’t have pushed him to run for president, if he’s not hardworking and good. I was the first nationally elected Liberal Party official and the first senator to publicly endorse him to run for president in 2009.

This farm seems ideal for political meetings and seminars.

Politics and farming don’t mix, hindi bagay pag hinalo mo ang politika at farming (it’s not ideal if you mix politics and farming).

You also have lots of coconut trees here. How are our coconut farmers?

There are more coconut lands and coconut farmers in the Philippines than rice lands and rice farmers.

How are their lives, the coconut farmers?

Hirap, lahat naman hirap basta farmer (Difficult, all our farmers have difficult lives) because the average size of each farm is one and a half hectares.

What is the ideal size?

Ah, economies of scale, at least 10 to 15 hectares, which would mean that 20 to 30 farming families need to cluster together to get 10 to 15 hectares.

Is there something wrong with the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP)?

In a way, but CARP is not only about land distribution. There’s a need for support services, better access to markets, credit and technology. That’s the trouble with previous administrations, they fell into that kind of mindset that agrarian reform is only about land distribution, on how many hectares of lands are distributed. Without support services, you end up with farmers selling their lands and becoming landless farmers. There are two million landless farmers in the Philippines, some estimates say over a million.

With our rich arable lands, shouldn’t we in the Philippines be exporting foods to China and other countries instead of us being the world’s biggest rice importer?

Yes, we’re a net importer of agriculture products, over a billion dollars a year, while Vietnam is a net agriculture exporter worth US$5 billion to $6 billion, while Thailand has almost US$30 billion of agriculture exports. If they can do it, I believe we can too!

You also have a carabao over there?

Yes, my wife Sharon named it “Berky.”

Why Berky?

I don’t know, when she saw it, she immediately said: “Oh, Berky.”

What are the other animals you have on your farm?

Native pigs, free-range chickens, rabbits and carabao.

How much is that carabao, how old is Berky?

We bought it for P30,000, it’s four years old.

Was ex-Senator Juan Flavier also an advocate of farming, because he worked in the rural barrios?

We were together for six years in the Senate. Flavier used to be doctor to the barrios, but he wasn’t into agriculture, but more on rural health concerns. He realized that poverty is so acute… Do you know that 70 percent of Philippine poverty is rural, and 70 percent of the poorest are the fisher folks?

What’s your reaction to the old song Planting Rice is Never Fun?

That’s from the American colonial era. Well, we should give farmers support and we should put fun into farming. The problems of our farmers are part of our colonial past, because the Spanish colonizers only saw the Philippines as a source for exploitation of natural resources, as a source of raw materials only. After the Spanish and American colonizers left, the domestic political elite took over and the system never changed.

Is it true in Taiwan, Japan and other societies, their farmers are quite rich and various governments in fact even subsidize agriculture?

Yes, it’s true, some societies indeed have governments that heavily subsidize their farmers, because farming is the most emotional (industry). There’s a psychological and almost irrational attitude towards food, so it is very political and food security is their top priority. In China, their CCTV even has one TV channel just dedicated entirely to agriculture. In Thailand, the king says the farmers are the backbone of the nation.

In the Philippines, unfortunately, we have yet to call a spade a spade. Our farmers here are the most neglected, the most abused — born out of an oppressive colonial past that has yet to be corrected. Of course, I’m optimistic now, because the President has identified three main engines of Philippine economic growth: infrastructures, agriculture and tourism. We should help uplift the lives of our farmers.

Is being a farmer your childhood dream?

No, to be an astronaut was my childhood dream, because 1969 was the first landing on the moon by astronaut Neil Armstrong, I was then five or six years old. I remember it happened on July 29, a month before my birthday on August 24. I saw the moon landing on television, so that was my childhood dream. Pero imbes na sa buwan napuntahan ko, sa Senado, tapos ngayon sa farm, balik sa lupa (But instead of going to the moon, it was to the Senate, then now to the farm, back to the earth)! (Laughs)

After the Senate, you really look forward to devoting your time to farming here?

Yes. Did you know that during the agricultural era, depression wasn’t uso (not prevalent), because the best cures for depression are sunlight and exercise? (Smiles)

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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