MANILA -- Department of Agriculture Secretary William Dar sees a growing sense of optimism surrounding the country’s agriculture sector, which he described as a “sleeping giant” that needs to wake up from its slumber.

In a year-end press conference on Thursday, Dar expressed hope that the sector would continue on its growth trajectory after a major comeback in the third quarter of 2019 with a 2.87 percent production, reversing the -0.87-percent decline posted in the same period last year.

Dar said he expects the agriculture sector to attain a 2.5 percent to 3 percent production increase for the last quarter of the year.

“We are hopeful that this favorable condition will be sustained into the fourth quarter of the year to allow us to attain a full-year growth,” Dar said.

Dar, however, noted that there is still so much to do, stressing that a systematic development strategy must be pursued to awaken the sleeping giant in the Philippine agricultural sector.

“We really have to think outside the box. We have to invent, innovate, reshape if you want to unlock the sleeping giant of the agriculture sector,” he said.

“With the right policy and right strategies and mechanisms, this sleeping giant can become the force with which more contribution to the gross domestic product can happen,” he added.

“New Thinking for Agriculture”

With Dar at the helm, the DA has laid the groundwork for modernization and industrialization through the “New Thinking for Agriculture” toward the vision of a food-secure Philippines with prosperous farmers and fisherfolk.

The leadership’s battle cry is “Masaganang Ani, Mataas na Kita.”

The cornerstone of Dar’s strategy is composed of eight paradigms: modernization, industrialization, promotion of exports, farm consolidation, road map development, infrastructure development, higher budget and investments, and legislative support.

“We reviewed and aligned the entire DA family’s programming towards the updated framework to ensure that we in the DA family are synergized and coherent as we perform our respective tasks,” Dar said.

“The New Thinking employs agri-industrialization and ‘agripreneurship’ as strategies to modernize the country’s agriculture sector. Through these approaches, we hope to boost the sector’s productivity and competitiveness, creating employment and income opportunities in the Philippine countryside,” he added.

The department is focusing efforts on increasing productivity, lowering production cost, value-adding, and market matching.

To date, the DA has visited a total of 12 regions for consultation and distribution of farm machinery and equipment, seeds, and other interventions worth nearly PHP3 billion.

For the coming year, the DA will promote inclusive agribusiness that will transform food producers to entrepreneurs and encourage young Filipinos to take interest in farming activities.

“We will institutionalize a youth development program to enable younger generations to start-up businesses through the incubation of agricultural technologies,” Dar said.

“When they are ready, we will provide them financial assistance, payable in five years with zero interest,” he added.

RCEF toward Modernization

Dar said the implementation of the component activities of the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF), which is designed to help modernize Filipino rice farming amidst globalization, has been accelerated further during the final stretch of the year.

Some highlights of the progress of major components include the following: on seeds, 50 of 57 target provinces have received 465,000 bags (20kg/bag) of inbred rice seeds; on credit, some PHP301.379 million in loans were released to 164 individual farmers and three cooperatives with zero-interest, non-collateral credit; on mechanization, 2,938 units of machinery based on the assessed needs of 620 farmers’ cooperatives are set to be distributed later this month.

In addition, the draft of the Philippine Rice Industry Roadmap reflecting the industry's strategic plan has been completed and is undergoing review.

To further help local rice farmers, Dar said the PHP3-billion Rice Farmer Financial Assistance (RFFA) shall be disbursed to 600,000 rice farmers. This unconditional cash transfer program will help farmers tilling one-half hectare to two hectares of land.

Eventful 2019: Facing challenges head-on

Dar, who took over the department with barely five months in office, has faced the falling prices of palay and copra, the high price of rice, the onslaught of African swine fever (ASF) and Fall Army Worm, and the usual occurrence of typhoons.

“This period had truly been eventful and challenging for us… But we did not back down and confronted them head-on. In such a critical time, this leadership provided much-needed direction and focus,” Dar said.

Dar noted that the DA was able to temper the high price of rice by increasing the National Food Authority’s unloaded stocks in the market and shore up palay prices by securing the commitment of local government units to bankroll their own local procurement and by increasing palay support price by as much as PHP2 per kilo.

Dar also said the DA managed the outbreaks of ASF through decisive and strict biosecurity and elevated quarantine measures and monitoring in affected farms and nearby areas.

Laser-like Focus for 2020

“For 2020 and the remaining years of the Duterte Administration, we intend to lead DA with greater vigor and laser-like focus as we pursue our imperatives. The Filipino people, notably our smallholder farmers and fisherfolk, expect nothing less from us,” Dar said.

Dar underscored that the proposed DA budget for 2020 is PHP71.8 billion, which is 12 percent bigger than this year at PHP64.1 billion.

He noted that this budget puts forth measures designed to encourage small business initiatives, facilitate credit, and stimulate economic progress through the competition.

The Agriculture chief vowed to ensure the effective and proper implementation of various RCEF programs, particularly the finalization of the Philippine Rice Industry Roadmap; continued validation of the farmers’ registry; and completion of the National Food Authority streamlining.

The department will also intensify its advocacy on farm consolidation to enable small farmers to survive the unforgiving onslaught of the market and enhance its disease prevention and surveillance systems.

“Rest assured that these programs and plans of action will be guided by the principles of good governance, transparency, consultative engagement and most importantly, with a greater sense of urgency, as we continue to create a much better narrative for Philippine agriculture,” Dar said. (PNA)