Boosting Agricultural Development in Benguet Sustainable Milkfish Farming
Milkfish (Chanos chanos) is out- “National Fish” and the most important cultured foodfish in the Philippines. About 90 percent of our milkfish production comes from brackishwater ponds with the rest coming from fresh water pens/cages. In 2004, we produced 203,000 metric tons of milkfish with a value of P10.9 billion making our country the top producer in the world.
Although milkfish farming has been practiced in the Philippines for centuries, the production methods have remained at the extensive level for brackishwater pond culture with the use of fertilizers for producing the natural food of the fish. While the average productivity of less than 1 ton per hectare for our brackishwater ponds is relatively low compared to intensive culture in pens and cages that can yield as much as 30 tons per hectare, only the former is considered to be sustainable.
For milkfish farming to be sustainable, there is need for methods that will not only provide a good amount of profit for the farmer but also cause little or no damage to the environment on the long term. With the present production systems, only the extensive culture of milkfish in brackishwater ponds appears to be the most sustainable.
Sustainable milkfish farming in brackishwater ponds at the extensive level entails proper pond preparation, the right stocking density of fingerlings, maintenance of good water quality and production of natural food supply (without artificial feeding) and the appropriate time for harvest.
Proper pond preparation requires the drying of the ponds, particularly during the dry season, to eliminate predators (e.g., tarpon) and competitors (e.g., snails). During the rainy season when complete drying of the ponds is not possible, the use of plant-based toxicants such as teaseed cake and tubli (Derris elliptica) as well as the combination of ammonium sulfate (a chemical fertilizer) and lime to produce ammonia which is toxic to fishes and snails are recommended.
For enhancing the growth of natural food (lablab) of milkfish, the ponds are fertilized with in organic (chemical) fertilizers (e.g., urea and ammonium phosphate) and/or organic fertilizers (e.g., chicken manure and vermicompost) at recommended rates with a water depth of 10-20 centimeters for a period of at least two weeks prior to the stocking of fish. Depending on the carrying capacity (productivity) of the pond and the desired size of the fish at harvest, fingerlings either produced at the farm or purchased from a supplier are stocked at 1,000 to 2,000 per hectare.
To ensure the continuous supply of natural food needed for fish growth, the modular system of culture is recommended. This involves the transfer of the fish from one pond to another for the duration of the culture period (3-4 months). As food is consumed by the fish in the first pond for the initial 1-2 months of culture, the second adjacent pond is prepared for transfer of the fish in the third month of culture through tidal water flow (the fish swim against the current). At the last month of culture, the fish is moved to the third pond for growth until harvest.
Throughout the culture period, good water quality should be maintained in the ponds with the addition of clean water from a brackishwater source such as a river at high tide to keep the water depth at 30-40 centimeters. The pond gates should be in good repair to facilitate water flow and provided with screens to prevent the entry of predators.
The fish is harvested when it attains market sizes of 3-5 pieces to a kilo with farrngate prices of P65-75 per kilo. A return on investment of 40-60 percent can be expected by the diligent fishfarmer which means that for every peso he puts in, he can make a profit of P0.40-0.60.
Benguet is not only a tourist spot. With its humid temperature and mountainous location, it is also an ideal place for growing flowers and vegetables. Its governor; Nestor B. Fongwan, has always kept this in mind that’s why he sees to it that his administration underscores the improvement of agriculture for this is still the main source of livelihood in the province.
“The economy of Benguet is anchored to agriculture. Although the province has also wealth in mining, agriculture presents more opportunities to people,” Gov. Fongwan said.
On the average, around one million kilograms of vegetables are traded everyday and 5,000 people benefit from the trading. “That is why when agriculture collapses, the economy [also goes down],” he adds.
Gov. Fongwan also believes that conforming to the emerging market trends is necessary to succeed in agribusiness. “We need to improve the production style. We need to conform to the trend and satisfy the needs of the market because we cannot dictate the market, market dictates us,” the former mayor of La Trinidad said.
To improve the production style and conform to the trends, the local government of Benguet helps farmers in terms of production, especially right now in a time of globalization when illegal importation of commodities happens.
Gov. Fongwan recounts that in 2001, there was a shortage of commodities supplied in Metro Manila due to the temporary closure of the Halsema road, the main road that links La Trinidad to the northern part of Benguet.
The shortage, however, prompted the local traders to import commodities which eventually led to smuggling.
“We thought that when the Halsema highway opens again, the illegal importation would stop but it still continued,” he recounts. Worse, illegal importation also lessened the marketability of agricultural products of Benguet.
The local government officials of Benguet disclosed the problem to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and she asked what help can the palace give to the province. Gov. Fongwan suggested that perhaps they could help the farmers in adding value to their produce by assisting them in production and marketing. He ‘also recognized the need to enter the high-end market because it is penetrated by importation, and this was how the cold chain system came up.
A continuous refrigerated handling operation, the cold chain system maintains the freshness and quality of high value commodities from production area to the market and helps farmers meet the demand of the market for a year-round supply of fresh, quality vegetables.
“We explained to the President the cold chain system and how it will help us and she provided us with funds to start the operation. Then she asked the Department of Agriculture to assist us [because] we don’t know how to implement the cold chain system. Then through DA, the Bureau of Postharvest Research and Extension (BPRE) [helped us implement the system],” Gov. Fongwan said.
As part of the assistance from BPRE, the first cold storage, reefer trucks, and reefer vans were set up. Even now, Gov. Fongwan said, the BPRE is still help ing the province. Moreover, Benguet’s minimal processing and packaging facility, which are also part of the cold chain system, will operate soon.
But even if Benguet has potentials in agribusiness, Gov. Fongwan said the folk still do not know what to produce and in what part of the year they should increase the production, and hence, there is no balance between production and demand.
The solution that he has in mind is profiling the vegetables. “We need to know [what commodities each area is producing], how many times these are produced in a year, and how many people benefit from these,” he explained. “We need to know the demands so that the production won’t go beyond what is needed in the market.”
After profiling the vegetables, he said they will launch a crop production program to sustain the demand for vegetables. In this way, they will be able to meet the local demand for vegetables and eventually stop the traders from importing vegetables.