The province of Benguet has been making a mark in the international market as a sourcing hub for premium agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, coffee, and other highland crops.
With more than half of its residents or 100,000 farmers toiling on more than 30,000-hectare farms scattered in vegetable-producing towns, Benguet is living up to its moniker as the “Salad Bowl of the Philippines.”
But the farmers from the province, including most areas in the Cordillera, has yet to realize their full market potential in the lucrative export industry. This difficulty contributes to the economic disadvantage of Cordilleran farmers as the region’s agriculture sector records the least contribution to their economy, despite employing 46 percent of the labor force or 348,000 of its total 766,000 abled bodies.
“The lack of drive from our farmers to export much of it has got to do with their local and limited mindset,” said Maricel Hernaez. “Many of our farmers in the Cordillera are producing crops with the idea of harvesting it only either for their own household consumption or for selling at the local vegetable trading post.”
A former overseas Filipino worker (OFW), Hernaez came back to the Philippines with a dream: to abolish the domestic-centric mindset of the Cordillera farmers and help them penetrate the international market.
Born and raised in a farming family in Cordillera, her life-mission sprung during her service as a domestic helper for five years in Singapore, where she has keenly followed the sky-rocketing prices and huge demand for highland fruits and vegetables.
“Grabe ang taas ng presyo ng gulay sa Singapore, for example nalang ‘yung isang malaking patatas minsan umaabot ng two dollars at pati ‘yung cabbage nasa mahigit one dollar ang 250 grams. Dito sa Pilipinas, nasa limang piso lang ang patatas na malalaki at yung cabbage, isang kilo na katumbas ng one dollar mo,” she shared. “Kung produkto lang naman ang paguusapan, competitive ang galing sa Pilipinas pagdating sa laki at kalidad.”
In her last working year as a domestic helper, Hernaez met up with the Philippine Trade and Investment Centre (PTIC) in Singapore to seek guidance on her plan to become a vegetable and fruit exporter. In March 2015, she came back to the Philippines and immediately established her company, GDME Fruits and Vegetables Trading, naming it after her parents: Gilbert Domerez (father) and Mercy Espara (mother).
“My parents who made a living through farming have inspired me to pursue this agenda,” she elated. “They are the foundation of my goal of nurture the country’s agri-export market by tapping the promising farming communities in Cordillera.”
A tall order
Having no land to call her own, Hernaez has been operating GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading for the past two years as its sole networking, monitoring, and marketing officer for grassroots farmers across the Cordillera region.
In her networking initiatives with the local farmers, it has always been a challenge for her to explain, innovate, and change some of their farming methods and even their products to suit the demand of the global market.
“Going one by one with the farmers, I always explain that we have the tools to compete with other countries. We are situated at a higher elevation with the perfect soil and climate. Most importantly, our farmers are hard-working,” she stressed. “But, I tell them we should comply with food standards and certifications. I also encourage them to plant the crops that are in-demand because if we plant crops that no one wants to buy then it will just go to waste.”
Without a formal academic background in agriculture, she has always been looking for fresh ideas and new ways on how to improve her technical know-how on the export industry by attending seminars and partnering with government agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
“I never missed opportunities where I can learn new things. Last May, I joined IFEX Philippines, together with our farmers, where we encountered people who are willing to help us grow,” Hernaez said. “We were also glad to meet foreign buyers that are really interested in our fruits and vegetable products.”
Now GDME Fruits and Vegetables Trading has partnered and has been consolidating the yield of more than 60 farmers in communities located in the municipalities of Kibungan, which is considered the “Little Alaska of the Philippines,” as well as in Mankayan, and Kabayan.
Among her community partners are the Bosingan Multi-Purpose Cooperative, Mankayan Young Farmers, Maria’s Farm, and the Bashoy Kabayan Multi-Purpose Cooperative.
Fresh from the highlands, they offer different varieties and cultivars of potato, radish, carrot, chayote, cucumber, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, tomato, romaine zucchini, sugar beets, bell pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, onion leeks, snow peas, and green beans. “In our farm, we are able to grow fruits in huge sizes. For instance, in our cabbages, we are cultivating the scorpio F1 hybrid and sugarloaf varieties. When fully grown, these varieties can reach an average net weight of two kilograms each, while your regular lowland cabbage varieties only reach one kilogram each. Ours is twice the size,” she said.
“In our farm, we are able to grow fruits in huge sizes. For instance, in our cabbages, we are cultivating the scorpio F1 hybrid and sugarloaf varieties. When fully grown, these varieties can reach an average net weight of two kilograms each, while your regular lowland cabbage varieties only reach one kilogram each. Ours is twice the size,” she said.
Her partner farmers are also cultivating strawberry, lemon, parsley, cilantro, kale, mint, basil, alfalfa, arugula, red radish, young corn, fennel leaves, and okra.
They also have some of the iconic Cordillera processed goods, such as sweet and sour chili sauce, strawberry jam, peanut butter, and kimchi.
Hernaez said an exporting farmer will be able to earn at least P15 more per kilo of their harvest and added some might even go double the price depending on their reception on our quality and demand.
“With these many products, we are targeting the demand in Singapore and other nearby ASEAN countries, as well as those in the Middle East,” she added. “We are also open to offers from other buyers across the globe that can be beneficial to the livelihood of our farmers.”
Cordillera farmers moving forward
While the high elevation augments the harvest, it also makes highland fruits and vegetables prone to risks of climate change, making its price highly volatile.
“We know there is a demand for our agricultural products, but the next step is how we can corner that demand? With our talks with people that we met on IFEX Philippines, we should be able to do it if we set our fruits and vegetables at stable prices and produce them at a sustainable rate. It’s a challenge for us here in the highland considering the ever-changing weather conditions,” said Hernaez.
Faced with this predicament, Hernaez is trying to hit two birds with one stone in creating a viable year-round crop rotation system: working on identifying the in-demand varieties crops that are a tolerant to extreme weather and are resistant to pests and diseases.
“With this method, we also can minimize the use of synthetic chemicals and inputs, or apply good farming practices which involve the balanced application of organic and chemical inputs,” she explained.
The former OFW also continues to widen her network to increase their agriculture supply and product selection, allowing small-scale farming communities to accommodate bulk orders from foreign buyers.
At the same time, she is helping Cordillera farmers secure the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification—an accreditation promoted by the Asean community and is unanimously recognized in the international market.
Out of the 78 GAP-certified farms in the Philippines, only four farms are from Cordillera.
According to the DA - Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Standards (DA-BAFS), GAP Certification ensures that a farm is not only in the quality of his crops, but in all aspects of farming.
The GAP standard requires a scrutiny of the history of the farm site and its prior use; the type of soil, and its compatibility with crops and seed sources; the judicious use of pesticides and fertilizers, whether chemical or organic; the sources of potable water for irrigation and washing of crops; the harvest and post-handling procedures; the health and hygiene of the farmer and handlers, and other factors.
“Gusto kong makita sa mga farmers if they can eat their products raw and fresh, ‘yun na kasi uso din because there are a lot of vegetarians. ‘Yung iba kasi they have a lot of pesticide to the point na hindi na pwede makain kasi maamoy or matapang yung chemicals. At least with GAP [certification], we can be one stop closer to this goal,” she said.
Aside from GAP certifications, GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading is also working to secure Halal certifications for the community farmers as they are targeting the demand for halal fruits and vegetables in the Middle East, particularly in Dubai and United Arab Emirates.
Though the Philippine National Standards for Halal (PNS 2067: 2008), Halal products are at par with international standards to enhance the competitiveness of local industries, and to ensure product quality and safety for the consumers.
“GDME Fruits and Vegetable Trading is committed to prime Cordilleran farmers to become export-ready in the global market so that they would grow together with the company and the booming Philippine food industry,” she said.