The COVID-19 Roadblock: Community quarantines isolated communities but cut farmers off from markets and consumers

Blog post by Ana P. Santos
More from Ana P. Santos

(Photo of Enrico Sarmiento courtesy of Kazuya Isobe)
(Photo of Enrico Sarmiento courtesy of Kazuya Isobe)

It started with pineapples. One thousand five hundred pieces of them.

Sonny Reyes, 49, had planned the timing of his harvest carefully. He was all set to meet his target of having enough to harvest in March. The timing would allow him to take advantage of the first wave of summer tourists coming out for weekend trips to his hometown in Tanay, Rizal about 35 miles east of Manila. By doing so, he could cut down on delivery costs of bringing his produce to the big wholesale markets in Manila and by selling directly to buyers, he could maximize profits. 

What Sonny couldn’t have possibly planned for was COVID-19 pushing the country into a lockdown. It was in mid-March when the government declared a community quarantine and checkpoints were set up in the city borders of Manila. Sonny was cut off from markets and buyers. The local Agriculture Office helped out by buying some of Sonny and the other farmers’ stock but it wasn’t enough–and if they didn’t move the produce, they would rot.

The checkpoints made it difficult for anyone and anything to move. Drivers were complying with quarantine measures and staying home. Those who tried to go out had gotten stuck at checkpoints. The chaos and confusion about the guidelines in the early days of lockdown made passing through a matter of luck.

“I was ready to sell the pineapples at P10 ($0.20) or less just to convert the produce to cash, give some away and the rest would just be left to spoil,” said Sonny. Time was running out and his other alternative sources of income had dried up. Sonny couldn’t drive his motorized rickshaw because of the suspension of public transport and his wife had seen sales at her small convenience store drop dramatically. The collective losses would mean defaulting on farm payments and mounting debt as the lockdown dragged on.

There are more than 10 million farmers in the Philippines. The agricultural sector makes up the largest segment of the informal economy. On average, they earn about P250 ($5) a day. In the first quarter of 2020, crop production which makes up 55% of total agricultural output decreased by 2.1%. These losses may increase as the full impact of the coronavirus is felt.

Sonny was connected to Cherrie Atilano, the founder of AGREA, a social enterprise that worked on helping farmers move from subsistence to small-scale commercial farming. By tapping her network, Cherrie worked out a way for Sonny to get his pineapples to the city and announced their arrival on social media to get advance orders. Volunteers came to help her and Sonny with packing and sorting. Over the next couple of weeks, they were able to sell 7,000 pineapples and the #MoveFoodInitiative was born.

Sonny’s pineapples sold for P21.50 a piece, giving him enough of a profit margin to pay his farm loans in full and save a little bit for himself and his family.

“By buying directly from our farmers at a fair market price, we pay them a dignified price for their labor and their product,” said Cherrie.

The #MoveFoodInitiative quickly expanded. Apart from Cherrie’s pop-up store, volunteers called “Movers” set up community farmer’s markets in their condominium buildings to sell fresh produce. After more than a month into the community quarantine, the programme had shipped and sold approximately 138,000 kilos of fruits and vegetables from almost 4,000 farmers like Sonny and Enrico Sarmiento.

“I’ve been a farmer since I came out of my mother’s womb,” smiled Enrico who plants purely organic bananas and papaya in the hills of  Trinidad, Bulacan in the outskirts of Manila.

A lifetime of tilling the soil had acquainted Enrico with the mercilessness of natural calamities, infestation and the profiteering of middlemen, but he had never seen anything like COVID-19.

“At the start of the lockdown, some used horses just to move our harvest from our farms down to the local market–just to avoid having them rot and going to waste,” he explained. Some farmers sold their produce at dirt cheap prices or at a loss just to get cash. 

Enrico and his cooperative, Kayumanggi Farms, is part of the #MoveFoodInitiative and is now selling his produce at a price that is 50% higher than if he had sold them to a trader or at wholesale market.

Other farmer to buyer initiatives sprouted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthened existing ones like Sessions Groceries and Bukid Fresh as consumers were offered a viable way to buy directly from farmers.

The next coming months will not be easy as the country struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic. The upcoming typhoon season that has always threatened the agriculture sector will complicate the COVID-19 response and the imposition of health and sanitation efforts.

For now, farmers and agriculture advocates hope that buying directly from farmers and at a dignified price will become a consumer habit and will become part of the new normal.