BONGABON, Nueva Ecija — Fresh out of high school in 1985, Victor Layug started farming onions in the hopes that it would lift his family out of poverty.
But nearly four decades since, the same problems plaguing the onion industry remain mostly unsolved; rather, according to farmers like Layug, they have only worsened.
Despite onions being a predictable commodity, as it has a specific planting season in the calendar and regions suitable for its production are already identified, farmers still have to contend with layers of challenges year in and year out.
FIRST LAYER: RISING COST OF AGRICULTURAL INPUT
When Layug started farming 38 years ago, he said planting onions was more affordable. By end of harvest season, he would not just break even, but earn considerably.
“Buhat pa noong 1985, pagka-graduate ko ng high school, nag-umpisa na kaming mag sibuyas. Noong 1985, ang pataba noon halos P200 lang, ngayon inaabot ng P2,400. Ganoon kalaki ang diperensya,” he told ABS-CBN News in an interview here early this year.
(We started onion farming in 1985 after I graduated in high school. The price of fertilizers in 1985 stood at P200 only. Now, it's around P2,400. That's how big the difference is.)
Many farmers in Bongabon, including Layug, said that maximizing a hectare of land for onion farming nowadays would require around P300,000. This amount is a huge sum for agricultural workers, who only earn modest wages.
This situation, Layug said, usually plunges farmers in Bongabon, a town located north of the capital Manila, into debt before they can start planting their crops.
“Kung minsan nangungutang, kung minsan nagtitira ng sadyang pampuhunan namin, o nag-aalaga kami ng hayop ta’s kailangan ibenta para mamuhunan. Ang magsasaka kapag nalugi ng dalawang beses, ang unang ibibenta niyan sa unang beses, kalabaw. Sa susunod na pagkalugi, isasangla na [ang] lupa. Maaaring mawala na [ang] lupa sa pagkalugi,” he explained.
(Sometimes, we resort to getting loans and then leave a bit for capital; or we sell our animals to be able to raise for capital. If a farmer fails to recover an investment twice, he/she sells first a carabao, and then uses their land as loan mortgage next. They could lose their lands if they suffer financial loss from onion farming.)
Simply obtaining onion seeds can be costly for farmers like Layug. As the Philippines does not have native onion seeds, they have to be imported.
“Imported ‘yung seeds, not because ayaw nating mag-produce, but because ‘yung climate natin does not provide for seed production ng onion,” explained Jose Diego Roxas, spokesperson of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI). “Kung magpo-produce man tayo ng seeds dito, it will take so much investment, na hindi na worth it.”
(Our seeds are imported not because we don't want to produce our own, but because our climate does not provide for onion seed production... If ever we produce our own seeds here, it will take so much investment and will not be worth it.)
Farmers need at least 10 cans of seeds for every hectare of land. Aggravating that initial cost has been the rising price of fertilizer, which, as Layug recalls from his own experience, began in the late 2000s.
According to the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group, the cost of fertilizers shot up twice between 2000 and 2022: first in 2008 during the global financial crisis, and then in 2022 amid inflation driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The high price of agricultural input has forced some onion farmers in Bongabon to switch to planting cheaper crops like corn and lowland vegetables, or opt for a different means of livelihood altogether, according to the town’s mayor Ricardo Padilla.
The result: the “shrinking” of onion farms in Bongabon, which has long been regarded as the “onion capital” of the Philippines. Padilla said what was once an expansive farming area for onions has significantly shrunk.
“Medyo bumaba ‘yung hectares ng nataniman ng sibuyas. Dati kasi, ang Bongabon ay nakakapagtanim ng 2,800 (hectares) na (para sa) sibuyas. Pero dahil sa taas ng investment sa sibuyas, ‘yung mga farmers, pinili nila na magtanim ng iba. Ngayong taon na ito, bumaba ang taniman, naging 1,800 (hectares) na lang. Ang karamihan ng mga nagtatanim ng sibuyas ay hindi naman masyadong mayayaman, ordinaryong tao lang," the mayor explained in a separate interview.
(The number of hectares of land on which we plant onions has gone down. Before, 2,800 hectares of land here in Bongabon grow onions. But because of the high amount of investment for onions, the farmers opted to plant other products. This year, only 1,800 hectares were used for onions. Many onion farmers are not extremely rich.)
Bongabon, also home of the country’s onion festival, has ironically seen a considerable decrease in onion production because of such a high investment requirement — and more, including the feared armyworm which can wipe out an entire farm overnight.
SECOND LAYER: PESTS AND WEATHER-RELATED DISEASES
In Bongabon, the worst fear of farmers is a tiny insect locally known as “harabas,” or the armyworm.
Armyworms are so ferocious that even the most experienced farmers are wary of them. A single attack of the armyworm can result in an entire farm of onions disappearing within a day.
“Ang talagang problemang hinaharap niyan ay ‘yung tinatawag na armyworm. ‘Pag nadaanan, in one night, ubos ang sibuyas,” Padilla said.
(The armyworm is a serious problem. Once attacked, the entire onion plantation can be gone in one night.)
The pest is so troublesome that armyworm infestations in Nueva Ecija, Pangasinan, and Tarlac in 2016 were pointed out as among the reasons for the steep fall in the country’s onion production that year.
Aside from the dreaded “harabas,” farmers also have to contend with the weather. Onions, due to being sensitive to rain, are planted only during the dry season.
Rains cause some onion plants to rot. They trigger “anthracnose” and other fungi, which affect the output of farmers like Daniel Alfaro. During this year’s planting season, he lost at least 30 bags of onions due to the fungal disease.
Alfaro, who also serves as a consultant of Bongabon’s Municipal Agriculture Office, explained: “Ito ‘yung tinatawag natin na nag-‘spaghetti’ siya or twister. Kapag ‘yan ay nag-spaghetti na, ‘di na maglalaman ‘yan, nabubulok na ‘yung bulb niyan, ‘di na siya pi-puwede. Parang bacteria ito, kapag nabulok ito, lahat mahahawa ‘yan, lalo na kapag ikaw ay nag-irrigate na. Lahat ng madadaanan ng tubig mo, mahahawa.”
(This situation is called "spaghetti" or twister. Once this happens, the plant will be hollow and the bulb will just rot. It's just like bacteria that once one rots, all the rest will be the same especially once you irrigate. All that will be covered by your irrigation will rot.)
“Napakaganda ng dahon ng sibuyas, [pero] kapag tinamaan iyan ng tubig ulan, namamahay sa dahon ng sibuyas. Kung halimbawa ito ay aani ng 200 bags, nabawasan na ng 30-40 bags. Malaki [ang] epekto. Lalo ngayon, napakamahal ng input, labor. Lahat ng ilalagay mo, mahal,” he added.
(The onion leaves are very pretty. But once it gets rainwater, it might rot. So, if, for example, we're supposed to harvest 200 bags, there will be a loss of around 30-40 bags. That's how big the effect is. And that's important in light of the costly input, labor. All the inputs are expensive.)
The BPI said it has an entire division doing research to help farmers control pests. That research, however, has yet to be cascaded on a larger scale, so farmers have been generally supportive of the plan to create an Onion Research Institute, to help them weather problems such as pests and fungi brought by rains.
THIRD LAYER: COLD STORAGE FACILITIES
Crops that do reach harvest season will then have to be stored properly — yet another layer of challenge for Bongabon farmers who don’t have access to cold storage facilities.
These warehouses are designed to freeze onions at 0 degrees Celsius. If properly stored, onions get an extended shelf life of up to eight months.
Since onions are harvested only once a year, an ample amount needs to be stored in cold storage facilities to supply markets in the latter months of the year.
Cold storage, however, comes with a price. In Bongabon’s case, it’s P270 per bag for six months, higher than the 2022 rate of P210.
Some farmers, including Layug, cannot afford the additional cost of storage, on top of their agricultural input. He explained that they would rather sell their produce immediately after harvest, to recover their expenses and pay their debts.
“‘Yung katulad naming maliliit na magsasaka na may kalahating ektarya hanggang isang ektarya, walang kakayanan na mag-stock para umabot ng August o September ‘yung aming mga pananim. ‘Di namin kayang mag-storage. Sa haba ng panahon ng aming paghihintay, marami na kami nautang na gamit. Doon kami nahihirapan, kaya ‘di namin kaya mag-storage,” Layug said.
(Small-time farmers like us who only have half a hectare of land or one are not capable to stock to make our products last until August or September. We can't afford to store. With the lengthy period of waiting, our debts have piled up. That's the hard part for us, that's why we can't do storage.)
Only traders who have the financial means to buy onions from farmers and pay storage fees get the chance to store and sell them months later, Layug said.
In Bongabon, there is currently only one operating cold storage facility, and it is privately owned. Two more are being constructed, as of February. One will be owned by the local government of Bongabon; while the other, which is funded by the PH Rural Development Project, will be run by farmer cooperatives.
Other cold storage facilities are in the nearby Palayan City, which is less-than-an-hour travel by land.
The existing cold storage facility in Bongabon, operated by Teresa Ilagan and Company, was built in 1963 although it only started storing onions in the 1980s. It opens mid-February of each year, during the peak of harvest, and can store 210,000 bags of onions.
During seasons with good harvest, the warehouse is filled to the brim, according to Larry Santa Maria, who runs the day-to-day operations of the facility.
“Kapag ang production ay maganda, napupuno ito. Ngayon, hindi lang ito napupuno. Kapag nasira [ang] sibuyas, walang ikakarga, hindi mapupuno. Pero ‘pag maganda ang harvest, puno talaga to,” he said.
(If the production is good, this gets filled. Now, we're not full. If onions rot, there's nothing to store, so we don't get filled. But if the harvest is good, we are full.)
In the case of Teresa Ilagan and Company, the stored onions are pulled out in staggered batches to supply markets in Metro Manila.
“Based sa observation ko, ang paglalabas nila, staggered, base sa order ng market sa kanila. Hindi bultohan. Totally empty na [ang storage] by the end of October. Wala nang laman ‘yon. Base nga sa contract namin, hanggang 6 months lang kami, sa August. Ang extension, depending sa availability ng stocks,” Santa Maria said.
(Based on my observation, the release is staggered based on the order in the markets. The stocks are not released at once. Then, by the end of October, the facility is totally empty. Our contracts are only good for six months, or until August. Any extension depends on the availability of stocks.)
In the entire Philippines, there are 70 cold storage facilities, 10 of which are in Nueva Ecija. Most are in Metro Manila, totaling 27, while the rest are in other provinces: eight in Cavite; five each in Bulacan and Cebu; three in Davao del Sur; two each in Pangasinan, Misamis Oriental, Laguna, Rizal, and Occidental Mindoro; and one each in Pampanga and Tarlac.
That number, however, is not enough to store the onions that are simultaneously harvested in the same month, according to Cold Chain Association of the Philippines President Anthony Dizon.
“Ang design ng cold storage ng sibuyas, para sa sibuyas lang, ‘di mo puwedeng magamit sa ibang commodity. Ang aming sariling pagtaya, ang total capacity ng cold storage para sa sibuyas, nasa 100,000 tons all over the country. Kung local production ng sibuyas ay 200,000 tons na sabay-sabay aanihin, at ang storage capacity mo ay hindi aabot ng 200,000 tons, obviously magkakaroon ng shortage,” Dizon explained.
(Cold storage facilities for onions are designed solely for it and can't be used for other commodities. Based on our own estimates, the total capacity of cold storage for onions all over the country is currently 100,000 tons. If the local production reaches 200,000 tons and the harvest is done at once, there is a shortage if the storage capacity does not reach that level.)
The Department of Agriculture constructed one cold storage facility in 2022, and plans to build six more in Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Nueva Ecija, and Mindoro in 2023, according to the Philippine Chamber on Agriculture and Food, Inc. (PCAFI). However, agricultural stakeholders said these might still not even be enough to house the annual harvest.
FOURTH LAYER: ILL TIMING OF IMPORTATION
Aside from the lack of storage facilities, another pressing problem is the annual shortage of locally produced onions.
The Philippines is not self-sufficient when it comes to local onions, as Filipinos consume more than farmers produce, data from the Department of Agriculture show.
With a population of over 100 million, the Philippines needs more than 300,000 metric tons of onions to meet the demand, said Danny Fausto of the PCAFI. However, from January to September 2022, the country’s total onion production was estimated at only 229,246.9 metric tons.
To fill the gap, the government imports onions, mostly from China and the Netherlands, during the last quarter of the year, as local supply only lasts until around September.
But with leadership changes in the Agriculture department in 2022, the agency decided to rely on local production.
“Historically, nagi-import tayo ng sibuyas kasi alam natin na merong times na mababa ang production. This time around, we decided to do otherwise - hindi magi-import and rely on the local production. Dahil doon, tumaas ang presyo,” Roxas, the plant industry bureau’s spokesperson, said.
(Historically, we import onions because we know there are times our production is low. This time around, we decided to do otherwise, which is not to import and just rely on the local production. And so, because of this, the price went up.)
The government resumed importing in January 2023, when price of onions skyrocketed to as high as P600 per kilo. (The price of local red onion ranged from P200-240 per kilo on Jan. 3, 2022, based on the monitoring by the DA.)
Bongabon farmers and residents slammed the decision, calling it ill-timed as the imports arrived at the onset of local harvest.
When news about importation came out, farmgate price of onions dipped. And when the imported onions arrived, the price of local onions gradually decreased.
For the likes of Geronimo Rocafort, whose life-long livelihood has been farming onions, the move to import the commodity had a huge impact on what was supposed to be his family’s earnings.
“Dalawang taon nang hindi maganda ang kita. Ngayon sana, umaasa ang farmer na kumita nang maganda-ganda. Tapos nag-angkat — bagsak ang presyo namin,” Rocafort said.
(We've had no good earnings for two years already. So the farmer hoped that this time, he or she will have one. But the importation was implemented, so our prices went down.)
Rocafort is not alone in lamenting the government decision to import onions. Bongabon farmers all had to grapple with the plunging value of their local produce.
The DA has time and again defended the import move as a market-corrective measure to temper the retail price of onions for consumers.
The government allowed the importation of around 21,000 metric tons, although only around 3,500 metric tons arrived last January 23, the BPI reported.
For the farmers, though, this was still a big-enough volume that drastically affected their livelihood.
FIFTH LAYER: TOO MANY MIDDLEMEN
From the farm to markets and eventually the kitchen, onions go through many steps before being served on the table — and the price increases with each.
Farmers spend money for labor, as they hire farm workers to separate onion bulbs from the plant.
Through agents, farmers then sell their harvest to “buying stations,” which are owned by small-time traders. Here, onions are bought by traders at prevailing farmgate prices.
“Ang nag-di-determine ay ‘yung market,” explained Greg Pesa, who owns a buying station. “Iyong binibigay sa’ming presyo, ‘yun lang din ang nagiging basehan namin, kung magkano kayang bilhin sa palengke. ‘Pag sinabi ng ahente na ganitong presyo, sasabihin namin sa mga suki sa Divisoria, ‘Kaya niyo ba ‘yung ganitong presyo?’”
(It's the market that determines the price... Whatever price is given us, that's our basis, how much it can be sold in the market. If the agent sets a certain price, we tell our contacts in Divisoria, 'Can you afford this price?')
Another buying station owner, Guillermo Pesa, expounded: “Itatawag muna sa hinuhulugan kung magkano [ang] kuha. Itatawag muna sa Divisoria, ganu’n. Kaya alam na agad [ang] ipipresyo. Kasi kukunin nila ang labor at truck, hakot sa bukid, aawasin lahat sa presyo.”
(We first ask the market vendors, like those in Divisoria, how much they can they get the onions at. So they already know how much they can sell it to consumers after taking into consideration the labor and transportation fees.)
Onions are then sorted. Good ones are separated from the rejects, which are sold at lower prices. Traders at buying stations have the option to bring the produce directly to a “bagsakan” — the likes of Divisoria or Balintawak — or store them at cold storage facilities.
At this point, the onions have gone through several middlemen — a factor in the price increase of the commodity, according to DA spokesperson Kristine Evangelista.
Without these steps, onions could be sold at much lower prices. This is evident in the structure of the government agency’s Kadiwa program, where farmer cooperatives can sell directly without middlemen.
At Kadiwa centers, produce can be sold at 20 percent less than the retail price in markets, Evangelista said.
In Bongabon, sans middlemen, onions are sold during harvest at P10-20 per kilo.
SIXTH LAYER: LOSSES AND SMALL INCOME OF FARMERS
Farmers do not have the power to set the price of onions, and in most harvest cycles, they even incur financial losses. The retail price of onions is also not directly proportional to a farmer’s income, Rocafort pointed out.
The onion farmer said they consider themselves lucky if they get to earn P100,000 at the end of harvest season. This might seem as a fair and reasonable amount, but that’s already their total profit for the entire year.
“Sa aming kalagayan ngayon, mas marami ang hindi kumita, karamihan nalugi. Dito sa 2,000 square meters na ito, nalugi ako dito ng halos P40,000. Ang problema namin, kapag kami ang nalugi, napipilitan namin isangla o ibenta ang mga ari-arian namin para mabayaran ang utang. ‘Pag naisanla namin ‘yung lupa, wala na kaming pagtataniman,” Rocafort said.
(With the situation now, majority of us experience financial losses. I lost P40,000 from my 2,000 square meter-plantation. It's a problem for us because if we suffer losses, we are forced to pawn or sell our properties to pay off our debts. If our lands are used as loan mortgage, then we can't farm anymore.)
Due to repeated instances of losing income, Layug understands why his children are aiming for a job other than farming onions like him. He himself has had to find other sources of income, including dairy production.
“Hindi na po nangarap ‘yung mga anak kong magtuloy sa pagtatanim ng sibuyas o pagsasaka, at ang kinukuha na nila ay hindi na paga-agrikultura,” said Layug.
(My children have not aspired anymore to continue on with our onion farming livelihood. The courses they are taking are not related to agriculture.)
Rocafort agreed: “Sana naman magkaroon ng pagkakataon ang mga magsasaka na magkaroon ng marangal at masayang pamilya.”
(I hope farmers will have the opportunity to have dignified and happy families.)
THE ONION ROADMAP
The Onion Roadmap of the Philippines indicates that the government aims to increase onion production to achieve self-sufficiency in 5 years from 2021, specifically targeting 279,270 metric tons by 2025.
Various interventions are being planned, such as increasing the size of land devoted to onion farming and introducing higher-yielding varieties, as well as more advanced technology.
Among the steps so far taken by the BPI is distributing free seeds to help farmers cope with rising costs.
"At present, ang plano talaga as we’ve been doing is giving away input like seeds na high-yielding variety, subsidies, and all that. Meron ding kino-construct na cold storage facilities, again, to minimize ‘yung losses ng ating farmers. Iyon ang solutions — dadagdagan ang cold storage, ili-link ang farmers not just to our markets, but also to our institutional buyers,” Roxas, the BPI spokesperson, said.
(At present, the plan, as we've been doing, is really giving away input like seeds of high-yielding variety, subsidies, and all that. Cold storage facilities are also been constructed, again, to minimize farmers' losses. Those are the solutions - adding cold storage, linking farmers not just to our markets but also to our institutional buyers.)
Until those plans are put in place, onion farmers said the future remains bleak.
Layug said he fears that lack of action from the government will lead to their layers of problems becoming a cycle, every growing and harvest season.
Worse, that cycle might just mean losing more farmers — not just in Nueva Ecija but in other onion-producing provinces like Ilocos, Mindoro, and Isabela — with the possibility of the Philippines becoming import-dependent.
“Pangamba ko po, baka dumating ang araw na wala nang magtanim ng sibuyas at [ang] mangyari, puro inangkat na po ang ating produkto,” Layug said.
(I fear that the day will come when no more Filipinos will go into onion farming and, as a result, all our products here are imported.)
“Ayaw namin sapitin na ang sibuyas, puro importasyon.”
(We don't want all our onions to be imported.)
Editor's note: This special report by ABS-CBN News Digital won the Best Online Story at the 16th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards. The agriculture journalism awards is held annually and recognizes members of the media covering the agriculture sector.
Read: ABS-CBN story on onion farmers' woes bags 'Bright Leaf' award