By SHERWIN DE VERA
This is the first of Northern Dispatch’s three part feature on the tobacco industry for the start of cropping season. Read the second article.
CANDON CITY — In their childhood, Julius Coloma and Cesar Galleta, both farmers from Baluarte, a village in Salcedo, Ilocos Sur nurtured Virginia tobacco. They learned the art and earned the patience of growing the touted “green gold” of Ilocandia early in life.
They recalled that they and their siblings, barely into their teens, are already part in ensuring the plants’ health and quality. While the crop needs several insecticides, their fathers reduced expenses by tasking them to handpick insect pests.
During harvest, children also have a role in preparing tobacco for curing. The Ilocanos call this task “agdaing” which involves the picking and skewering the leaves before loading them in the curing barn.
“Sometimes we are given a few cents but most of the time it was part of our household chores, a task that comes naturally for the family members of a tobacco farmer,” Julius said, laughing.
While Cesar recalled that after the rice cropping season, his parents relied mainly on the loans offered by cowboys to provide for their family needs.
Cowboys are intermediaries for trading centers, today, the government’s tobacco regulatory agency and companies refer to them as field representatives.
The two friends said the crop is beyond compare to other plants cultivated by their parents. They agree tobacco made a great impact in their childhood, besides being involved in tending the plant, tobacco was a lifeline for their families during those periods.
Like father, like son
Julius is now 44 years old, a father of three with a wife working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. Even before getting married, tobacco was also his crop after the rice season, earning enough to invest in water pumps, hoses, and other farm tools. Like his parents then, the crop is also the lifeline of his family.
He shared that tobacco has always provided cash. His earnings planting the crop is not enough but it is better than nothing he said.
“With tobacco, the company provides for the cash and materials. It is not enough but you can always run to cowboys for added cash both for production and day-to-day expenses,” he narrated.
He admitted the readily available loans, sure market and his familiarity with raising the crop kept him from trying other substitutes.
His friend Cesar, now 43 with five kids, agreed.
“We know the plant well because we grew up with it,” adding “planting the crop sustained us then and now.”
He said he uses the bulk of his loans and earnings from tobacco for his children’s education.
Both of them plant tobacco under the contract growing or growership program of Continental Leaf Tobacco Philippines, Inc. (Conleaf).
According to the National Tobacco Administration, more than half of the country’s tobacco farmers are into different forms of contract growing. Under the contract, agribusiness and the government provide the needs for growing the crop while the farmers provide the land, labor, supervision.
The company also requires the farmers to comply with their guidelines on crop management, volume, and quality. Violating the terms terminates the contract but not the loans granted to them.
For 18 years, NTA’s mission was to get most if not all farmers into growership agreements. Originally a project to promote credit for tobacco farmers, it later changed into the Total Tobacco Contract Growing System where the agency providing part of the production needs and technical aid.
The cost-sharing agreement further expanded and eventually included local government units that provided cash and material support from their tobacco excise tax share.
Julius used to plant the crop under the contract farming of another company but transferred to Conleaf six years ago. He said Conleaf’s high buying price for the lower grades of tobacco and fewer grades prompted his transfer.
“It is also more convenient because they also deliver the materials like fertilizers and fetch the leaves here in the village,” he added.
Cesar, who has been in the program longer than his friend explained that he turned to growership for the readily available production loan, technical aid and assured market.
The company’s buying method is also a reason, citing his experience that Conleaf buys sortido (unsorted or mixed grade) leaves harvested and cured in the same period reaching P92 a kilo.
“It is a lot less tasking for us and reduces our expenses when they buy our unsorted leaves,” he said.
Despite the spread and opportunities of the contract growing system, both admitted that many of them still seek loans from cowboys for their day-to-day needs while waiting for the harvest and in emergency cases.
Childhood experience with tobacco growing is not the only thing the two share. Cesar and Julius also have a similar complaint about the price, the growership scheme, and the government’s treatment of farmers.
“I feel that the current price for our product is no longer enough to compensate our expenses and sacrifice,” said Julius.
He added that many of their village mates are shifting to other crops because of the slow and minimal increase in the crop’s price.
His friend nodded in agreement.
They also believe that better contract terms that include benefits for farmers like health insurance and more support for their curing barns and equipment. Both are also keen on putting provision to excuse their loans during calamities.
“These are important demands the NTA and tobacco companies should consider,” said Cesar.
The two also pointed out the minimal support they receive from tobacco excise tax shares of local governments. They said the fertilizers they received is not even enough to cushion the rising costs of production.
“Prices of diesel for our pumps, fertilizers, pesticides, and labor are rising rapidly, yet the price of our products and support from the government remains low,” lamented Julius.
His friend added that “its disillusionment that is driving away farmers away from tobacco — the low price, meager government assistance despite the billions of tobacco funds, the inaction of NTA to our demands.”
Leap of faith
This year, Julius will try again his luck but not with the cash crop that he has grown accustomed with.
“I believe the price remains low, we deserve better,” he said.
It is his first time to forgo planting the crop that he has grown familiar to. It is a “great gamble” he said since they still have to pay loans that his wife used for her overseas employment.
After a lifetime of planting tobacco, Julius found his courage to plant a different crop. He said he lingered long enough with tobacco.
“It is time to try other offers by the government, I will plant corn this year,” he said.
For the past six years, the province has aggressively run initiatives to increase the volume and improve the quality of corn production. For this, Ilocos Sur, with several towns, consistently received the National Quality Corn Achievers Award since 2015.
He said corn is attractive for those who want to shift because the crop demands less labor and expenses, and the provincial government provides free corn seeds and two sacks of fertilizers. Also, he claimed his neighbors sold their corn harvest for a good price for the past two years.
But unlike Julius, his neighbor and friend Cesar will stick it out with tobacco.
Cesar said that throughout his life, he witnessed several farmers shifting to other crops but returned to tobacco “when there is a significant price increase.”
“When Conleaf started buying ‘rejects’ leaves at a higher price compared to other companies, many of those who shifted to peanuts again planted part of their farm with tobacco,” he told.
Conleaf’s main buyer of low-grade tobacco leaves is Mighty Corporation. In its press releases, Mighty boasted of supporting tobacco planters “by buying a large volume of low-grade tobacco leaves at great prices.”
But that was before the government’s tax fraud case against the corporation halted its steady rise in the industry. Last year, the local cigarette manufacturer was forced to sell its assets to Japan Tobacco International for P46.8 billion to settle its P30 billion unpaid excise taxes.
Despite the significant change in the situation, he expressed optimism that this cropping year’s price will be better.
Asked where his optimism is coming, he said “because right now, many are shifting to corn and peanuts, there will be less tobacco to buy.” # nordis.net