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Bongabon’s brave stand amid onion industry’s sad plight

April 21, 2010

Bongabon’s brave stand amid onion industry’s sad plight


April 14, 2010, 2:47pm

BONGABON, Nueva Ecija — Residents of the country’s onion-growing capital last week began making their annual Sibuyasan Festival in a subdued and apprehensive mood. The town’s farmers are facing the most difficult situation in their history. But two ladies – Mayor Amelia Gamilla and municipal agriculturist Lucena Ceña – are helping them not to lose heart. The two leaders headed the celebration and highlighted it with the graduation of 143 farmers from a training course that taught onion growers to reduce production costs and considerably increase yield by planting hybrid varieties to enable them to compete with legally and illegally brought-in onions.

“We have faced critical problems in the past,” the mayor told the graduates and other farmers gathered at the Bongabon Multi-purpose Hall, “but these were all caused by nature – typhoons, floods, pest infestations, and the like, and we were able to recover from them. But it’s entirely different this time because our problem at present, sad to say, is man-made.”

Just before the graduation program started, the hall had been abuzz with news that smuggled onions had come in via Dingalan port in neighboring Aurora province and, adding insult to injury, the illegal shipment had allegedly been deposited in a Nueva Ecija warehouse. Meanwhile, in Bongabon and other onion-producing towns, harvests are peaking. Consequently, onion farmgate price is at an all-time low.

Mayor Gamilla assured her audience that she shares their feelings on the situation. “I know how you all feel because I am from an onion farmer’s family,” she said. “My mother was one of the first to grow onion here in Bongabon. When importations began hurting us three years ago, I was among onion industry leaders who held dialogues with officials of the Department of Agriculture, Department of Trade and Industry, and the Bureau of Customs. The result was we got the assurance that importation would be allowed only when local supplies were low but never when our farmers were harvesting onion.

“That’s the reason we had good years in 2007 and 2008,” continued the mayor. “In 2008, our town posted a record-breaking annual income of nearly P82 million, causing our being upgraded to second class municipality. In 2009, however, our man-made problem began to be the monster now trying to strangle us.”

“Teaching our farmers new technology with hybrid cultivars and cost-efficient cultural practices is the first weapon that Mayor Gamilla and I decided to equip our onion growers with,” said municipal agriculturist Ceña. “The DA and agronomists of a private agribusiness firm helped us. The growers tried planting the Rio Tinto and Juni hybrid red onion varieties supplied by the company, and they got excellent results with these.”

The two lady leaders plan to implement a second initiative to help their industry survive. This involves the construction of what the farmers call “hangers” for storing their harvests while waiting for better market prices. “Actually, we are encouraging the farmers to return to the traditional practice of storing their onions in roofed structures with open sides and slatted floors, where good ventilation will enable them to hold on to their produce for up to two-and-a-half months longer, instead of immediately selling the same to traders at a low price,” said Cena.

“Some farmers have started doing this but on a small scale, as they lack the means to build big sheds. They also cannot afford to avail themselves of cold storage facilities that lack the capacity to accommodate all the harvests, although onions can be stored in such facilities for up to eight months. With the “hangers” system, the growers’ losses due to their stored onions’ weight reduction and some rotting bulbs will still be much lower than if they pay for cold storage. When there are no more onions to store, the “hangers” can also be used for drying palay and other crops.

Mayor Gamilla, who is about to complete her second term of office, plans to provide funds to the town’s 14 onion growers’ cooperatives for the construction of two-storey “hanger” buildings, one of which municipal agriculturist Ceña estimates will hold up to 2,000 onion sacks and cost P700,000 to build. “We cannot just sit helpless and hopeless,” said Mayor Gamilla. “Everyone in an onion farmer’s family, including schoolchildren who help weed and harvest the fields during their free days, earns something from the crop. We cannot let our industry, our primary means of livelihood, die.”

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