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Asking for the right price

Rural Rising helps farmers by bringing produce to the market

HOMELY vegetables tumbled about on the floor of the Activity Center of UP Town Center during Rural Rising’s Box All You Can, held on the weekend of May 20 to 22. At the price of P699, shoppers filled 14 x 14-inch boxes with all the vegetables they could fit (and they could carry).

This price sounds like small potatoes, but to Rural Rising co-founder Ace Estrada, it’s a small price to pay for the hard work of farmers, from whom they directly source the vegetables, from locations such as Baguio, to Pangasinan, and Nueva Vizcaya.

The Estradas operated coworking spaces and a coding bootcamp, before those operations were interrupted by the pandemic. A viral post of theirs on Facebook in 2020, which featured tomatoes and other produce set to be thrown off the side of the mountain because they couldn’t be transported and sold, sparked Rural Rising, a nonprofit that aims to buy produce directly from distressed farmers.

Bought at competitive prices, the vegetables are then transported to urban markets and sold at reasonable rates. “Since then, we’ve moved close to two million kilos of vegetables, in the past two years,” Mr. Estrada told BusinessWorld. “From accidental vegetable dealers, we’ve now started an advocacy.”

Alerts for available vegetables are posted on the Rural Rising Facebook group, which, according to Mr. Estrada, now boasts about 30,000 members.

Huge cabbages, cauliflower complete with all their parts, ears of unhusked corn, among other roots and bulbs we were not familiar with, were all on display during the event, and were regularly refilled when the customers had had their pick. Mr. Estrada used these vegetables as a jumping point to discuss problems farmers face.

“Problems? Marami (a lot).”

For example, there’s the farmers’ inability to market (in every sense of the word), due to flaws in the system.

“His best strategy is to bring his harvest to the bagsakan (drop off point).” At the bagsakan, he says, “The middlemen have already determined the price for produce. Wherever he (the farmer) goes, the price will be the same. The middlemen will buy that and sell it for very, very high. Like 10 times (more).”

Farmers can go to Facebook and other social media, but then the platform’s algorithm will show contacts who are also selling vegetables. “We are essentially the marketing arm for farmers, through our network,” said Mr. Estrada.

Other problems farmers face include rising expenses for transportation, fertilizer, and seed. “Farmers have no incentive to plant,” said Mr. Estrada.

At the same time, he talks about a hidden problem: smuggling. “In Divisoria, may mga smuggled vegetables pa (there are even smuggled vegetables). They look like they’re made in a factory,” he said. Unfortunately, these vegetables can be more appealing than what our farmers have. He describes them as shiny, at uniform size, and can keep for two months. In contrast, he says that local vegetables are “marumi, maliit, at tumatagal ng two days (dirty, small, and keep for two days).”

“Saan bibili ang consumer, kung wala kang mabilhan (where will the consumer buy, if they have nothing else to buy?) They will buy what they can, because that’s what’s available.

“What we’re doing is that we’re telling the consumer that it’s unhealthy. That’s unpatriotic. We have to buy locally, so our farmers can survive.”

On the bright side, Rural Rising’s activities have improved the lives of farmers, citing one who sent them a video of her new home, which Mr. Estrada dubs “the house that RuRi (Rural Rising) built.”

“We paid her double the price at farmgate,” said Mr. Estrada, noting that doubling the farmgate price is the standard formula they follow when purchasing. Even with this, they can still be a lot more affordable than what is offered at the supermarket.

“The prices should be like that. It shouldn’t be too expensive. More importantly, a big portion of that should go to the farmers, who sacrifice it at the lowest possible price, and the middlemen will sell it at the highest possible price. The space must go up for the farmers; the price must go up.”

He makes clear however: “There’s no problem with middlemen. We need them. Farmers need them to move the produce. This is traditional.”

“But there must be more love for the country and more love for farmers. We should treat them as the important people they are,” he said. “Middlemen aren’t evil… That’s it. We’re not out to change the system.”

As for their partnerships with Ayala Malls (a previous Box All You Can event had been held in April at Alabang Town Center), “We’re using the Ayala platform to bring the vegetables and the farmers to the prime consumer,” he said. “They’re not even there to buy vegetables. They’re here to buy the opportunity to help.”

Mr. Estrada’s goal for Rural Rising is to have more people follow their example. “If people who have the power to help farmers by buying and paying the right price… and more do it, there’s going to be an impact in the countryside,” he said.

He also calls on the government to use its purchasing power. “I think [government] should take the lead to buy the vegetables from the farmers,” he said. “The government is the biggest purchaser of anything in the Philippines. If they use that power to buy, it will immediately jumpstart the rural economy without even trying.

Sila naman ang i-angat natin (let us lift them up),” he said about farmers. “The farmers are not begging for help. They are just asking for the right price.” — Joseph L. Garcia