Former Sugar Administrator Is A Model Planter
As early as 4:30 in the morning, sugarcane planter and former Sugar Regulatory Administrator Nicolas A. Alonso discusses the day’s tasks with his partner Kabankalan District Chairman and Association President Luis “Nene” Azcona over coffee. The two are already in the sugarcane fields before sunrise giving out instructions to ensure that farm operations are running smoothly.
Alonso is one of very few sugarcane planters who live on their 350-hectare farm in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental during the workweek. “The best part is just to be in the farm, where you see for yourself what works and what doesn’t,” Alonso said. “The owner’s eye fattens the horse,” he added.
Armed with decades of experience as a planter and farm management specialist, and agricultural courses at the University of the Philippines Los Banos, he is one of the most progressive farmers in his district. In the last crop year, Alonso’s average yield was 103 tons cane per hectare, which he attributes mostly to his use of high yielding varieties of sugarcane (HYVs). VMC 86-550 and VMC 84-524, acclaimed top-yielders in Negros, are the only varieties planted in his farm.
His openness to new ideas and technologies sets him apart from more conservative planters. Frequent visits to model farms give him the opportunity to acquire new knowledge on best farming practices. Alonso is an active member of the Kabankalan-Ilog Planters’ Association and the United Federation of Sugar Planters (UNIFED).
As SRA Administrator from 1998 to 2001, Alonso was among key officials who initiated the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund sourced from out-quota tariff revenues of imported agricultural commodities covered by the minimum access volume scheme. ACEF funds projects of commodity groups to improve the productivity, efficiency and competitiveness of Philippine agriculture in the world trading arena. Of the P1.41 billion generated by the government, P600 million financed the sugar industry’s programs.
“To get everybody into the ACEF picture, we got the proportionate production of all producers per milling district, giving them a pro-rated amount on that basis,” Alonso explained. Farm mechanization, the establishment of nurseries and model farms, the rehabilitation of farm-to-mill roads, production of organic fertilizer, the,, construction of greenhouses and micropropagation laboratories, as well as the control of pests and diseases, all form part of the projects funded by the Sugar-ACEF.
The Kabankalan MDDC received P13 million for its proposed programs, coursing its proposal through the SRA and the Philippine Sugar Research Institute Foundation, Inc. (PHIL SURIN), the sugar industry’s research, development and extension arm funded by sugar producers. “Since SRA didn’t have an organization to take care of the proposal, we used PHILSURIN and the Mill District Development Councils as vehicles for the project.” Alonso said.
To accelerate the propagation of HYVs, the district leased 100 hectares of the KASUCO Workers’ Agricultural Cooperative, Inc.’s landholding and turned it into a nursery, starting the trend toward large-scale nurseries.
“Most of the funds went into nurseries because we knew that for productivity to move forward, one of the essential things is the fast dispersal of HYVs. I think the momentum was pushed five times more because we had the funds, with the government through SRA placing the money. Plus, we had PHILSURIN to back us up,” Alonso, now a full-time farmer, said.
The massive distribution of HYVs has played a major role in shoring up Philippine sugar productivity. From 1.63 million metric tons in 1999, production rose to 2.34 million metric tons in crop year 2003-2004, a hefty 43.55 percent increase.
A portion of the leased area was converted into a model sugarcane farm where the cooperative members may learn new sugarcane farming techniques. The production of bio-organic fertilizer will be the next venture. To date, 100 families depend on the ACEF-funded project in Kabankalan. “Things went faster because of the cooperation between the government and the private sector.”
Another priority project under ACEF is farm mechanization. “Part of the funds received went to 10 Ford 6610 tractors since Kabankalan is an area with a lot of small planters who cannot afford tractors for plowing and land preparation,” Alonso said.
One of the staunchest supporters of sugarcane R&D, Alonso believes that a research arm is vital to the industry’s viability. “PHILSURIN has made us more productive and more competitive. We feel the impact of R&D because we live right in the farm,” he said. However, he highlights the need to move toward a new direction — lowering the cost of production. “We have to address the problem of the increasing cost of fertilizer, labor, fuel and spare parts. We also have to shorten knife-to-knife (from the time cane is cut to the time it is milled) to achieve better recovery and production. Of course, PHILSURIN should still continue breeding and propagating new HYVs,” he said.
Model sugar planters like Nico Alonso have helped bring the Philippine sugar industry from sunset to a new sunrise.