By Revin Mikhael D. Ochave

IF any incident during the pandemic illustrated the continued inadequacy of agricultural logistics, it was the dumping of produce by desperate farmers.

At a time of great plenty, which coincided with a time of great need, the transport just wasn’t there to get the goods to market. And the few trucks that did manage the feat were also delayed at checkpoints.

A vegetable farmer from Tuba, Benguet, who asked not to be identified, said that most Benguet farmers chose not to transport their products during the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), and elected to plow the crop back into the land as fertilizer.

“During the ECQ, the prices of our produce drastically fell. I don’t remember the exact prices. We didn’t want to risk contracting COVID-19 so we just recycled our products,” the farmer said.

The farmer said some attempts at online selling were initially viewed as a means of recovering some of the capital spent on the crop, but might be the only viable way to sell if the pandemic is prolonged.

“Online selling is an effective way for us to offer our products. We have a stable market, and consumers are encouraged by the convenience,” the farmer said.

The farmer noted that logistics have improved since the government shifted to a more relaxed general community quarantine (GCQ) for Metro Manila and modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) in other areas of the country.

Housewife Agnes D. Monreal, who has purchased agricultural products during the lockdown, said she supported online sellers, because, apart from the convenience, she was driven to help farmers and delivery staff make money during the crisis.

“I saw the online store’s advertisement on a social media platform. I bought because social distancing measures were in force. It’s difficult to physically buy these things in the store because of the pandemic,” Ms. Monreal said.

Ms. Monreal said the disadvantages of buying online are the delivery fees and the inability to inspect the produce.

Though government planners anticipated the need to keep food supplies rolling in after the biggest market, Metro Manila, was locked down, snags remained in the form of checkpoint accreditations and local governments playing by their own rules, which were not harmonized with the movement rules set by the national government.

The number of times the government had to troubleshoot the checkpoint rules gives you an idea of how often the rules were misunderstood, ignored, or flouted.

• On March 16, the Department of Agriculture said that cargo vehicles carrying food may use “green lanes” subject to temperature checks for the drivers and delivery crew.

• On March 17, the department issued decals or passes to vehicles delivering food to Metro Manila

• On April 13, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) declared all agriculture and fishery workers essential personnel, entitled to unhampered movement.

• On April 23, the DA announced that the issue of food cargoes being held up at local government checkpoints was resolved.

DA officials said the logistics role in agriculture was typically played by traders and consolidators, who have, over time, been derided as “middlemen,” who squeeze farmers for low prices while selling their produce for much higher prices in urban centers.

DA Senior Technical Advisor Dennis M. Layug said the department’s direct-selling program for farmers, the so-called Kadiwa ni Ani at Kita, initially consisted of pop-up markets but recently expanded to online selling, or e-Kadiwa.

“The e-Kadiwa program aims to help farmers and fisherfolk to sell their products, while also preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Mr. Layug said.

Mr. Layug expects e-Kadiwa to disrupt the middleman.

“This app or program can assist in cutting down middlemen. This is the dream. But the e-Kadiwa is also meant to help all stakeholders,” Mr. Layug said.

Assistant Secretary for Agribusiness and Marketing Assistance Kristine Y. Evangelista said that the DA also acknowledges the role of middlemen and traders in the value chain.

“These traders are the ones who… add value by packaging, processing, etc,” Ms. Evangelista said.

University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P) Center for Food and Agri-Business executive director Rolando T. Dy said the effect of online selling on middlemen only changes the dynamic and does not expect them to be eliminated entirely.

“Middlemen will turn to consolidators. The consolidator can be in the form of a farmers’ cooperative, marketing, or contractor,” Mr. Dy said.

Mr. Dy said that a consolidator can provide digital connectivity and logistics to farmers.

According to Mr. Dy, the group that would be directly affected by the modernization of farm logistics is small farmers.

Whatever form the food distribution industry may take, the Pork Producers Federation of the Philippines, Inc. (ProPork) is alread seeing adjustments among its members.

ProPork President Edwin G. Chen said that one of its members, Holly Farms, Inc. has its own online selling channel called The Meat Market PH.

“We need to adapt to the new landscape. Most of the demand was lost especially in the hotel and restaurant sector,” he said.

Mr. Chen said that the company has tapped motorcycle ride-hailing service and logistics provider Angkas to deliver its products.

“This is the new normal,” Mr. Chen said.

Magsasaka Party-list Representative Argel Joseph T. Cabatbat said traditional middlemen will still play a role in the flow of agricultural products despite the emergence of online selling and digital markets.

“For a long time, big companies and corporations that played the role of middlemen have received the biggest share in the profit and contributed to the reason why our farmers are still poor,” Mr. Cabatbat said.

Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) Chairman Rosendo O. So said small growers currently do not have the means to attempt online selling.

“Mobile signal reception in the provinces is erratic. What more for internet signal? Online selling of agricultural products will only benefit online sellers and traders. Not small farm growers,” Mr. So said.

UA&P’s Mr. Dy said that the poor are missing out on the logistics revolution in agriculture, simply because they remain tied to traditional markets.

“The poor don’t shop in supermarkets. They only buy in small portions or ‘tingi.’ Most of them buy in wet markets or talipapas,” Mr. Dy said.

Magsasaka Party-list’s Mr. Cabatbat said barangay officials should bear the burden of modernizing such markets to ensure compliance with safety rules, as every location is unique and one-size-fits-all solutions impractical.

“The officials should enjoin their constituents to find a solution that will work for the betterment of everyone in the barangay,” Mr. Cabatbat said.

The Benguet farmer said that online selling was an eye-opener during the pandemic.

“Now that gadgets are the trend, I might consider trying online selling,” the farmer said.

Mr. Cabatbat said the distances, poor infrastructure, and irregular transport links remain hurdles to an online-selling future.

“It is not the answer because of how far the consumers are to farmers,” Mr. Cabatbat said, betting on measures like rolling stores at the barangay level.

“The future of agricultural retail is still up in the air. No one really knows. But it looks like the trend for the future is making farm products within reach of consumers who do not have to exert much effort,” Mr. Cabatbat said.