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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Taiwan experts show farmers how to grow their yield, income

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There is a quiet revolution in Central Luzon.

But unlike uprisings of the past, this one is peaceful and led by farmers armed with digital technology, relevant information, and the belief that agriculture is the path to wealth.

“You only need doctors when you’re sick and lawyers when you have a court case, but you need farmers three times every day—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” says Marlene Bernadino, 56, the president of the Tabon San Jose Farmers Association, which has about 60 members in Pampanga province.

A doser is used with the greenhouse irrigation network to inject fertilizers in precise amounts directly into the soil of each plant container

Part of her optimism comes from the techniques and technologies she and other farmers have learned from a model farm set up by Taiwanese experts in horticulture on five hectares in Barangay Sapang Maragul, Tarlac City.

The Taiwan Technical Mission (TTM) demonstration farm, inaugurated in December 2023, is home to several buildings, including two fully automated, climate-controlled greenhouses, each covering 604 square meters, that can withstand a category 5 storm; a post-harvest building where composting is done; a warehouse for cultivators, harvesters, compost shredders and other farm equipment; and staff housing for the three agricultural experts from Taiwan who live on the premises, and work with a team of about 20 locals.

Marlene Bernardino, president of the Tabon San Jose Farmers Association, talks about the techniques she and other farmers have learned from the TTM

One of the greenhouses is dedicated to producing seedlings that can be quickly distributed after a natural disaster so farmers can recover quickly.

“The key to sustainability is profit,” says Y.C. Peng, project coordinator at the farm, who says their priority is to help farmers improve their income by reducing the amount of chemicals needed, rotating crops to improve soil health, and planting vegetables that are off-season to get a better price. “In costs, yield, and price, we want to help.”

Taiwan fully funds the farm through the International Cooperation Development Fund (ICDF) and operates in coordination with the Department of Agriculture (DA), in line with its Farm and Fisheries Clustering and Consolidation (F2C2) program. The demo farm in Tarlac is the 21st set up globally by Taiwan and the third in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia and Thailand. By Peng’s reckoning, Taiwan has already invested about P60 million in the farm.

The TTM works with farmer-beneficiaries such as Bernardino, whom the DA nominates.

For some farmers, the partnership has already paid off.

“Our production has increased,” says Jessica Bernardino, Marlene’s daughter, speaking in Filipino.

Y.C. Peng, an agricultural specialist and project coordinator at the farm, demonstrates how cherry tomatoes can be picked at one of the farm’s two greenhouses

“For example, for ampalaya, the average is about eight to 10 tons per hectare, but in our area, it has reached 15 tons per hectare.”

“When it comes to income, some farmers have already been able to repair their house, buy equipment, and supplement their budget for daily expenses,” she adds.

The planting calendar is key

A key to more efficient production is a planting or crop calendar that tells farmers what cultivation activities to do and when, based on several factors, including a 10-day weather forecast.

Peng emphasizes that farmers should be able to do digital recording with a basic online tool so that all cultivation activities and sales data are traceable.

“Older farmers can ask their children to use these tools and this can link the generations,” he adds. “Children will better appreciate what their parents do.”

For farmers, the swings in the climate are a major problem, Jessica says.

“The AWS from Taiwan is very helpful and allows us to monitor the weather, soil moisture, and wind strength in our area,” she says. Through monitoring, we know when we should fertilize, irrigate, and spray, the height of the planting bed, and when to adjust the waterway.”

AWS, short for automated weather station, consists of sensors for air temperature, humidity, illumination, wind speed and direction, soil temperature, soil humidity, and conductivity. Powered by a solar panel, the AWS automatically records data and uploads it through the internet.

The three-hectare Tabon farm, which the TTM uses as its main training site, needs only one AWS.

“Digitalization will really enhance agriculture in the next generation,” Peng says. “Although AWS is important, it is only the hardware part. The farmers’ mindset and the capability to use digital tools will be the key. That is the software.”

Another area where farmers get help is identifying and dealing with pests that can significantly damage a crop.

“When it comes to pests, we don’t spray right away,” Jessica says. “We have to find out what kind of insects should be killed… For example, there are two different types of fruit fly – melon fruit fly and mango fruit fly. It’s the melon fruit fly that attacks vegetables like ampalaya and patola.”

In meetings with the TTM every Saturday, farmers learn ways to cut the pathogen life cycle, how to treat the soil, and how to make their own seedlings that are compatible with their crop calendar.

In its first year, the TTM worked with 30 pioneer farmers in two clusters and provided seedlings to 40 other beneficiaries, Peng says. In its first three-year project that will last until 2025, it aims to help 45 pioneer farmers in three clusters so that they can see a 20 percent increase in their average income.

But training doesn’t end in the Philippines. Last year, the TTM sent seven delegates—including the Bernardinos and another member of their association, Marilou Encinares–to Taiwan to learn more about the business of farming.

“Tayo ang mga sosyal na farmers, nakapunta sa ibang bansa (We’re the privileged farmers who get to visit another country),” Encinares quips.

Looking to the future

The TTM Tarlac farm features two typhoon-resistant, automated greenhouse

The planting calendar also considers when it is most profitable to plant a particular vegetable.

“Planting off-season can get you a good price,” Peng says as he walks through an aisle of cherry tomatoes growing on the vine, next to several rows of bell peppers and regular tomatoes in the farm’s second greenhouse. Outside the greenhouse are multiple rows of okra, green and red.

Marlene notes that intercropping, the cultivation of two or more crops simultaneously on the same field—another practice the TTM encouraged—has been very profitable.

“When the price of one crop is down, the other crop can make up for the losses, and you maximize the use of the land,” she says.

In this season, the Bernardinos say, the association’s three-hectare farm grows ampalaya, pechay, mustasa, upo, okra, and patola.

In the past, Jessica adds, farmers would mostly plant vegetables that were quick to grow, like pechay and mustasa. These were easy to maintain and could be sold for cash in 15 to 20 days.

Today, with assistance from the TTM, some members are also growing various vegetables, including those that grow on the vine, like ampalaya and sitaw, especially when the price is high.

The focus on profits helps with another phenomenon—the tendency among some of the younger generations to move away from farming.

“In our area, it’s not such a problem to encourage young people to farm,” says Jessica, 35. “They are interested in farming because they can see that there is money in farming. I hope this will not be lost and will carry on to the next generation.”

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