By Lina Sagaral Reyes
Special Correspondent .
CLAVERIA, Misamis Oriental – As its P392-million share of the tobacco excise taxes for 2016 is due for release, the Claveria local government embarks on a program to entice farmers to re-grow the crop.
Only about two-thirds, about 366, of the more than 1,117 contract growers for Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp. (PMFTC) in 2017 grew the Virginia-type tobacco in 2018, plunging production to a record low last year.
Yet, for producing most of the Brightleaf Virginia tobacco in 2015 in Misamis Oriental, Claveria got about P392.255 million, as disclosed by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Local Budget Memorandum issued in June this year.
To encourage growers to cultivate the crop again, some P39 million worth of farm inputs has been earmarked for farmers, set at P20,000 per hectare, said Pat Dumaluan, Claveria municipal agriculture officer, in a phone interview with Gold Star Daily.
Aside from fertilizers for crop diversification, the farmers’ development program also includes the provision of soil test kits, worth P1.5 million, and the application of lime to fields to counter the soil acidity in areas where fertilizers had been applied for long periods, Dumaluan added. The local government also allotted P5.8 million to buy two tractors that farmers can rent at affordable rates.
He added that his office and PMFTC will also train leaf-harvesters to enhance their capacity to classify leaves to meet the company’s leaf quality control standards.
Claveria Mayor Meraluna Salvacion Abrogar announced these plans during her State of the Municipality Address on July 20, noted Dumaluan.
“Many of the barangay chairmen committed to encouraging their constituents to grow tobacco once again when they heard the mayor talk about these plans,” he added.
“Menos pa gyud ang nagtanum karon sa tabako (Only a few have grown tobacco these days),” observed Dumaluan. But he hoped that many will take the challenge again so they can avail of the incentives to be offered by the local government.
The town’s Annual Investment Plan, as envisioned by the Local Development Council and approved by the Sangguniang Bayan this month showed that the remaining P342 million, which is the bulk of the excise tax windfall, will be used to build a 30.4-kilometer network of concrete farm-to-market roads.
Under Republic Act 7171, shares of local governments from the collection of excise tax on locally made Virginia-type cigarettes are to be used to advance the self-reliance of the tobacco farmers through livelihood projects particularly the development of an alternative farming system to advance farmers’ incomes and infrastructure projects such as farm-to-markets roads.
In 2015, the Brightleaf or Virginia-type of tobacco was grown in 1,231 hectares by 1,375 contract growers in Claveria, and the volume of production was 1,383,272 kilos, according to Ma. Mercedes Ayco, NTA tobacco production, and regulation officer for Mindanao.
The PMFTC had invested $50 million for establishing the production systems and on-site pressing of the crop in this town since 2012.
Meanwhile, PMFTC, in a recent statement sent to Gold Star Daily, belied reports from farmers that environmental and health impacts have prompted them to cultivate crops other than tobacco.
Reads part of the company statement: “… the farmers turned to other crops because PMFTC intensified its segregation process and recruited only farmers who were willing to comply with the Good Agricultural Practices.
“The poor leaf quality was a consequence of the lack of compliance that the company worked so hard to correct. The non-compliant farmers who did not want to adhere to our best practices immediately grew other crops.”
In response to complaints from farmers about unhealthy side effects to pesticides and the nicotine absorption from handling the fresh leaves, PMFTC said it “adheres to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to ensure a safe working environment for all tobacco farmers and workers.
“It strictly monitors (and) safeguards that all are compliant with these best practices. Information materials providing guidelines on GAP that include proper handling of pesticides are for all tobacco farmers regardless of gender.”
No Chicken Dung
On the other hand, a former contract grower who asked not to be named dismisses the risk from pesticides but perceives instead that tobacco itself, with its nicotine, as the more dangerous.
“If we consider pesticides alone, it is riskier to grow other crops such as tomatoes. We use a cocktail of insecticides for tomatoes and in higher dosages, spraying several times,’’ he said.
He also thinks that most farmers have stopped growing tobacco for PMFTC because they defied the company’s control over the technology, leaf classification, and pricing, all of which are perceived as unfavorable to farmers.
“When the graders classified most of the harvested leaves in my farm as immature when in fact they were already four days beyond the harvest date, I told them they can harvest the rest of the leaves themselves and I won’t ask them to pay me,’’ the former tobacco grower recalled.
Farmers were also banned from using chicken dung as fertilizer. “Of all things, chicken dung, when we farmers have used it for years and know how effective it is in giving us bigger and heavier leaves,’’ he added. He has gone back to planting Bt corn and vegetables. “I do not have plans of planting tobacco again. They’ve courted me, offering incentives but I am not biting anymore.’’
But Dr. Paul Gonzaga, professor of agronomy and soil science at the research, development and extension department of the University of Science and Technology in Southern Philippines, confirmed that “chicken dung is rich in nitrogen, and as such would result in robust leaves but the company (PMFTC) farm technicians would disallow farmers to use it because the thinner, nitrogen-deficient leaves are preferable. I think it has something to do with maintaining a certain flavor of the cigarettes,’’ he added.
The PMFTC provides farmers a China-sourced blend of fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (10-18-24) but unlike the mix commonly used by farmers here, it is low in nitrogen.
Dumaluan noted that the weather was also contributory to the low production. “Last year, the dry period lasted longer than expected, and when the rains came, it stayed longer than expected,” he recalled.
According to him, there was also a new plant disease that caused the leaves and stalks to rot. “It was a new virus that was not present in other farms in Ilocos. But eventually, the technicians found a remedy,’’ Dumaluan added.