From truck drivers to farmers, vegetable industry in northern Luzon hits roadblock

Text and photographs by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 24 2020 02:28 AM | Updated as of Apr 24 2020 10:57 PM

Roman Petila strains as he tightens the cargo strap around the truck that would carry some 12,000 to 13,000 tonnes of vegetables to Metro Manila.

Even if Petila doesn’t make his 6-hour deliveries to the Balintawak market, he and his family can survive off the crops in his hometown. He knows not everyone has that luxury, especially the city folk who depend on his and other farmers’ produce.

“Iniisip ko na lang pagkatapos ng COVID, makakatanggap pa rin ako ng biyahe kahit natatakot ako ngayon dahil hindi ako tumatanggi. Ang iniisip ko na lang sakripisyo itong pagbiyahe ko. Hindi bale, may mask naman,” Petila says.

(When we’re past this COVID-19, I’ll still be offered jobs to deliver because even though I’m terrified now I really don’t turn offers down. I look at these trips as just a sacrifice that I need to make. I have a mask anyway.)

It is a necessary sacrifice of sorts that he had been reluctant to take at first, at the onset of the Luzon lockdown that started in mid-March.

For a truck driver such as Petila who makes a living transporting vegetables from La Trinidad town, Benguet, the decision to head down to Metro Manila was not easy.

“Mahirap talaga. Sabi namin (sa mga buyers) dapat magdagdag kayo kasi buhay din namin ang sinasakripisyo namin du’n,” Petila says.

(It’s a tough job. We tell buyers to pay us money that’s worth the risk, because we’re putting our lives on the line.)

In the past month, half of all the truck drivers had refused to deliver vegetables fearing they’d contract the COVID-19. 

“Nabawasan ’yung mga nagdi-drive, ’yung iba kasi drivers natatakot talaga,” Petila says.

(There are fewer drivers now, some of them are really terrified.)

Today, his fully loaded 13,000-tonne wing van will make the 5, maybe 6-hour nonstop trip from La Trinidad to the Balintawak wholesale market in Manila. The trip means that he must stay on the road as efficiently as possible with no rest stops, which have been closed since the lockdown. He either has to eat a large meal or bring along packed food for his helper, and eat while they are on the road.

“Walang makain sa daanan, nag take-out na lang kami,” Petila says. “Ako kumain na ako dito, i-take-out ko na lang pahinante ko para habang tumatakbo kumakain.”

(There’s nowhere to eat when we’re on the road, so we just get take-out food. I eat here inside the truck. I take out food for my driving assistant so he just eats while we’re en route.)

Their sentiment is the same as other drivers plying the same route.

“Ayaw namin sana bumiyahe kasi parang katawan mo ang inaano mo d’yan, pero wala kami magawa kasi walang makakargahan ang ibang truck kaya sakripisyo ’yung ginagawa namin,” Petila says.

“Kahit kami nga gusto namin mag-lockdown (stay home) na para du’n na lang kami sa bahay.’

(We don’t want to be on the road as much as possible, because it’ll take a toll on our bodies, but we don’t have a choice. There aren’t a lot of trucks where you can load the goods. This is a sacrifice on our part. We really want to stay at home.)

The effects of the enhanced community quarantine on a critical supply chain could be debilitating to millions of people.

According to a Japan International Cooperation Agency report in 2015, citing data from the Benguet provincial government, Benguet is responsible for 80% of the vegetable supplies of Metro Manila.

More than half of the province’s workforce is involved in vegetable and cut-flower farming, the report added.

Based on a 2018 government report, cabbage, white potato and carrots are the top three crops produced by Benguet.

In the Cordillera region, Benguet is responsible for 90% of production of the aforementioned crops.

For everyone in the supply chain, restricting operations to meet lockdown requirements feels jarring.

Besides worrying about the economic fallout of this new normal, truck drivers are thinking about their health, too.

Petila cites his fear of a virus transmission that could potentially come from people he comes in contact with.

“Mahirap talaga. Pupunta ka du’n tapos mahawahan ka, kaya talagang sakripisyo,” he says. “Kaysa mag-stay ka rin sa bahay, ako na lang ang lumalabas ng bahay.”

(It’s tough. You go to Manila, then you become infected. It’s really a sacrifice. But instead of just staying at home, I’d rather go out and earn a living.)

The trip back to Benguet is equally grueling. Truckers sometimes need to pull over even at night to check if their vehicles are in shape. 

Julius Kimp-oy makes a stop to check the tires of his van. He and an assistant are on their way back to Benguet after delivering vegetables in Balintawak. They will drive through the night with a necessary stop en route. 

The trips typically go on for 11 to 12 hours back and forth, with an additional hour or two counting the loading in Benguet and unloading in Manila of goods. 

Kimp-oy leaves Benguet around noon and reaches Manila late in the afternoon.

“Sa isang bukas na kami bumibiyahe, may pahinga kami ng isang araw,” he says. “Kailangan kasi, pang ano (gastos) sa pamilya. OK na ’yun one day ang pahinga.”

(We stay in Manila for a day to rest, then leave the next day. We do what we do, because my family needs the money. One day’s rest should be OK.)

‘Hit or miss’

Abigail Lucuban, who lives in the mountains of Tublay town in Benguet, tends to a hillside garden.

Next to her family’s cabbage farm, bolting lettuce remains unharvested, a phenomenon which means the produce is now wasted. The Lucubans have a small garden consisting of about 10 to 12 rows of cabbage, and lettuce waiting in season in front of their home. Her husband had gone to the market to buy supplies for the next planting cycle. 

“Hindi na pwede mabenta ’yan kasi nagka-flower na,” she says. “Pero naka harvest na.” 

(Flowers have grown, so you can’t sell the lettuce now, but we’ve harvested a few already.) 

In order for lettuce to be sold, it must be harvested just before they produce flowers. Once the lettuce passes this stage, it will taste bitter. Because of this, the Lucubans might have just lost their chance to make money out of a couple of lettuce plots. 

This usually happens when they don’t get orders for these crops. Recently, local authorities advised them to go out and sell their produce every other day, which means some of the crops go unharvested. 

“Tsamba tsamba lang ang kita,” Abigail says, as she recalls her husband saying the produce goes to waste anyway if they aren’t sold.

(Making money, it’s hit or miss.)

If the Lucubans are lucky, they could be bringing all their products to La Trinidad where they could sell them.

A parking lot in town has been transformed into a market of some sort, where farmers, wary of the effects of the Luzon-wide lockdown to their livelihood, hope to find buyers.

There is a parking space turned trading post where farmers now take their trucks to sell their vegetables, a setup needed to augment the influx of farmers looking for buyers. 

For farmers, opportunities to sell are now scarce because the lockdown prohibits people from going out in public. It’s bizarre to see rows of trucks loaded to the top with vegetables harvested from all over Benguet and neighboring provinces. 

Felimon Gudio, a Benguet farmer, was able to sell his products but he’s anxious nonetheless.

“Bankrap ang mga farmer ngayon,” he says, “kasi hindi lumabas ang gastos.”

“Marami ’yan, puno ng farmers dito, d’yan nagpipila ’yung mga gulay,” Gudio says, pointing to the trucks carrying the produce 

(You can say farmers are now bankrupt because we’re not turning in a profit. The queue for farmers looking to sell their vegetables, it’s a long one.)

This has been the case lately with the Luzon-wide lockdown. No industry has been spared from what's being referred to as the new normal. 

“Wala na ’yan,” Gudio says, pointing to the vegetables. “Mura na, nasisira pa, hindi nabibili.”
(They’re worthless now. They’re cheap, they’re rotting, and nobody wants to buy them anymore.) 

He says he needs to take out a loan he can use to start a new farming cycle. He says the day's profit would go to paying off debts, but the meager earnings brought about by fewer buyers and subsequently lower prices make that impossible.

“Pero kahit ’yung mabebenta, hindi makakabayad sa inutang. Kasi ang binenta namin ngayon hindi makakabayad sa utang,” Gudio says. 
 “Kasi (sa) pinag-utangan namin, utang namin ’yun kailangan bayaran."

(Even if we do sell our vegetables, it won’t be enough to cover our debts. We owe people money, and we need to pay them.)

Gudio says farmers with big families feel the brunt of the abrupt change in trading.

“Dati dati ang presyo ng carrots noon P30 hanggang P20 per kilo. Ngayon P5,” he says, referring to the steep drop in prices.

“Karamihan dito sa amin, mas marami sa tatlo, mga pito (ang mga anak),” he says. 

“’Pag pito ang anak mo tapos ang presyo ng carrots mo ay lima, gutom na ’yung iba, lalo na ’pag may nag-aaral na.”

(A lot of the farmers here, they have more than three kids, seven even. If you have seven kids, not all of them can eat because you bring home money that’s enough to feed only five of them. That’s not counting the fact that they go to school, too. Some of them will starve.)

‘Wala nang masaing

Later on, the drivers would ride their trucks and strap in to make the trip back down to Manila. Some of the trucks will go to specific wholesale market places such as Divisoria, Cavite and Balintawak. 

Petila and Kimp-oy will make another trip down to Balintawak this time filled with new orders of vegetables.

They are two of about a hundred drivers who will make these trips from the north making their living on the farm produce in the towns of La Trinidad and Kabayan in Benguet.

“Kawawa ’yung na-lockdown kasi ’yung mga may gulay na iha-harvest ngayon kasi kapag next month mo pa harvestin ’yan wala na masisira na,” Petila says.

(Those who were about to harvest their crops during this lockdown, I feel for them. If they harvest next month, they’ll have rotted at that point.)

A lot of drivers had previously chosen not to make deliveries, it would have been the easy choice, since it was really scary but vegetable buyers might overlook them on future deliveries if they didn’t make these deliveries. They have food lane passes anyway. The food lane passes are given by the Department of Agriculture to help make their trips faster through the many checkpoints along the route to their destination.

“Problema namin sa checkpoint, hindi kasi nila pinapadaan pagka walang ganyan,” Petila says, referring to the hassles truckers encounter when they don’t have the pass.

He is fortunate to have this pass because he can breeze through the checkpoints with ease, but it won’t be easy for others who don’t have one.

The food lane passes required by authorities was earlier mentioned by Police Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, head of Joint Task Force Corona Virus Shield, when he pointed out that too many passes hamper the delivery of cargo. The issued food, commodity, work and emergency passes are not really needed because the basic requirement is an ID.

Petila says he gets text messages from other truckers looking for work. He says they can’t rely on charity alone; they need to find a job, any job, to put food on the table. 

“Ngayon, maraming nagte-text sa akin na kung maaari daw may bakante magpa-extra na pahinante,” he says.

“Kasi wala na daw sila maisasaing. Kapag umasa ka sa relief, wala talaga.”

The supply of highland vegetables and fruits, such as lettuce, carrots, potatoes and strawberries, starts from farms like these in Tublay town, Benguet.

The cool temperature in the Cordillera region, especially in Benguet province, is conducive to growing highland crops.

Benguet alone is said to supply 80% of the market, the majority of which goes to the supermarkets and public markets in Metro Manila.

Small farms, such as this by Abigail Lucuban, are owned or managed by families.

From the farms, the harvest is brought to temporary trading posts in Trinidad like this one in Barangay Puguis.

Temporary trading posts were set up to accommodate the number of trucks at any one time, because they still have to undergo precautionary measures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trucks being handled by vegetable farmers line up to sell produce at the temporary trading post in Barangay Puguis, La Trinidad.

The process of selling vegetables has become more tedious, but it is considered necessary in order to keep the produce safe.

Drivers, loaders and everyone involved in the process are required to wear protective masks and gloves before they handle the produce.

At the Benguet Agri-Pinoy Vegetable Trading Center (BAPTC) in La Trinidad, Benguet, vegetables are packed in plastics for inspection.

Vegetables are usually checked in batches for their quality before being transported to markets.

A driver assistant wears gloves while waiting for the inspection to finish.

Cargo handlers wear gloves while loading the produce onto the trucks.

With the produce inspected, packed and loaded, the 6-hour journey to Balintawak starts.

Vegetable dealers are now required to display a pass exempting them from the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine.

Trucks pass through the first checkpoint at the border of La Trinidad and Baguio City before they are allowed to proceed.

Trucks are inspected making sure only the produce and the authorized persons are in the vehicle. Due to the ECQ, many residents are not allowed to leave their municipalities and provinces.

Truckers wear masks during the entire trip from Benguet to Balintawak.

At the checkpoint, government personnel spray disinfectant on the trucks.

A truck being driven by Roman Petila navigates Marcos Highway on its way to Manila.

The trip non-stop between Baguio and Balintawak would take between 5 and 6 hours one way.

The truck nears its destination at the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX).

A special lane to exit the NLEX is set up for cargo trucks carrying food essentials.

Roman Petila arrives at the Balintawak wholesale market and proceeds to unload their delivery of vegetables. He makes this daily trip to supply food at markets despite the added measures that make the whole process more tedious.

Petila continues to make deliveries despite the risks posed by the coronavirus as he interacts with many people, from supply farms in Benguet to the market in Balintawak.

The produce are unloaded at the Balintawak wholesale market.

Authorities last week stopped the sale of produce at retail stalls at the Balintawak market after it was observed that physical distancing was not being practiced.

For now, the Balintawak market is allowed to operate only its wholesale section, which supplies vegetables to other, smaller markets.

Despite the drastic reduction in supply because of the limited number of trucks plying the route, there are those who persist in operating under the regulated supply chain.

Even though the supply chain is limited, food supplies at Balintawak market keep coming in. At the same time, certain sectors such as farm hands and retailers remain employed.

If the public wants to continuously have fresh food on the table, the farming, the trucking and the wholesale-market industries cannot stop.


-- Edited by Dominic Menor, ABS-CBN News