The Green Romance: Romaine Lettuce Production at the Cloud-capped Mountains of Bauko

When you hear of lettuce, the next thing you might be thinking will surely be salads, burgers, sandwiches and many more. Well, there is nothing wrong with that in fact who could say no to that crispy, tender, succulent and vibrantly green leaf ever present in any buffet table. However, have you ever wondered how lettuce is grown? Let us take you deep in the highlands of the Cordillera where that often sought-after leaf is cultivated in often various and splendid ways.
 
We are going to the municipality of Bauko in Mountain Province. It is about a hundred kilometers north of Baguio City via the dizzying Halsema highway. A welcome ark of Mountain Province amidst towering pine trees will greet you upon entering Bauko since it is the first town you will approach when you travel to Mountain Province through the Halsema highway. Going deeper you will deviate from the national highway and pass through a narrow but paved farm to market road etched on the side of cloud-capped mountain chains. Finally you will arrive at a place on top of the mountain with the chilling breeze welcoming you. In case you are wondering, you are actually in barangay Monamon Sur in the municipality of Bauko, Mountain Province. Here you will meet Mr. Cornelio Matias, a farmer who specializes in lettuce production. 
 
Just a short background, Mr. Matias, aside from being a full-time farmer, is also designated as the Magsasaka Siyentista of the Farmers Information and Technology Services (FITS) Center of the municipality of Bauko, Mt. Province. A Magsasaka Siyentista is an outstanding farmer recognized for his/her use of science and technology (S&T)-based and indigenous technologies and complements the services of the FITS Center. The FITS Center is a one-stop information and technology service facility dedicated for farmers, entrepreneurs and other clients. The Center is usually located at the Office of the Municipal Agriculturist/Municipal Agriculture Officer of a municipality. The MS and the FITS Center are components of the Techno Gabay Program (TGP), and extension modality developed by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) of the Department of Science and Technology. The TGP, which was then a form of extension research, was first implemented in 1998 through the agriculture, aquatic resources research and development consortia based in state universities and colleges in the country. It was later transferred to the Agricultural Training Institute of the Department of Agriculture in 2012 after it was proven to be an effective and matured technology. Mr. Matias, after a rigorous screening process, was selected as the Magsasaka Siyentista of Bauko, Mountain Province in 2007.
 
Mr. Matias is known among his fellow MS as very active and consistent in his aim to produce better products through better methods. His perseverance in pursuing his goals made him convince the PCAARRD, through a well-crafted project proposal, to fund his romaine lettuce production project through the PCAARRD’s Science and Technology-Based Farm (STBF) project. The STBF project aims to bring down the concept of research on the level of both the farm and the farmer where the farmer himself is the researcher or the scientist reason why they are called Magsasaka Siyentista. Mr. Matias proposed to study the difference between romaine lettuce produced inside a greenhouse and those produced right in the open field in Bauko, Mountain Province.
 
Although the funding for the STBF projects from PCAARRD stopped in 2010 Mr. Matias was able to sustain his research project and turn it into a profitable farm enterprise. According to Mr. Matias the lessons he learned from his STBF project served as his foundation in establishing his farm production system. Many of his neighbors were also convinced of the benefits of raising vegetables inside a greenhouse thus Mr. Matias is not the only guy in Bauko who produce crops under greenhouse conditions these days.
 
In 2015, with the ATI-CAR spearheading the TGP in the region, Mr. Matias submitted another proposal, this time a techno-demo project on using drip irrigation in the production of romaine lettuce under greenhouse condition. According to Mr. Matias he observed that their expanding production area requires more irrigation water however their source of irrigation water cannot sustainably supply the volume of water needed in the production process. Mr. Matias also noted that the sprinkler irrigation system commonly used in the locality wastes a lot of water. After learning about the drip irrigation system in one of the trainings he attended, Mr. Matias thought of adopting this in his farm. He understood that since he is the first to try such practice in their locality it will entail him more risk and more expenses but as a Magsasaka Siyentista he was determined to innovate and bring his farm to a higher level. Mr. Matias was able to pass the requirements of the ATI-CAR and after a thorough review of his proposal the ATI-CAR gave him the green light to finally proceed with his project. Starting the project was indeed challenging says Mr. Matias as he had to redesign his farm and his production process. Finally, through patience and perseverance, he was able to successfully adopt and showcase the drip irrigation technology in the production of romaine lettuce under greenhouse conditions. 
 
At present Mr. Matias grows his romaine lettuce exclusively for institutional buyers and was able to inspire his neighbors to follow suit thus they were able to produce and sustain both their timing and volume of production enabling them to access larger markets. Going back to his farm, Mr. Matias gladly shares how he started his venture through his adoption of the concept of a S&T-based farm, the story of his “green romance” with romaine lettuce.
Choice of Crop to be Produced
 
Mr. Matias, after attending trainings, seminars and reading various information materials was able to establish and confirm his idea that lettuce is indeed one of the most demanded high value crops from the Cordillera highlands. Moreover he also found out that the romaine lettuce is the most sought-after variety of lettuce by high-end consumers both locally and in Manila. Further, the municipality of Bauko can produce romaine lettuce under a low cost greenhouse considering that the environmental conditions are conducive to temperate vegetable production. Mr. Matias also realized that majority of the vegetables cultivated in the locality are those traditionally produced vegetables and are supplied in the open markets in the region and in Metro Manila. He further added that most vegetables in the region are produced in open field where there is a higher chance of pest incidence thus the persistent use of toxic chemicals. Basing from these concepts Mr. Matias understood that he has to raise a crop that is not commonly produced and can be sold to buyers outside the common open markets at a higher price. He also made further research on the characteristics of the romaine lettuce variety to finally assess the feasibility of his plan.
 
Mr. Matias found out that the romaine lettuce variety under protected cultivation, particularly green house, can be grown in six cycles and a programmed production can be done at weekly interval such that romaine lettuce is made available the whole year round. Furthermore, Mr. Matias found out through a research conducted by the Bureau of Plant of Industry in 2006 that the average production of romaine lettuce per square meter area is three kilogram at an average price of ? 65.00 per kilogram. Thus his choice of growing romaine lettuce is based on the ideas he was able to validate such as romaine lettuce, though can grow well in the Cordillera highlands, is not usually grown by most farmers. He also thought that pest incidence and the ensuing expense for pesticides can be lessened through production in a greenhouse. Moreover, there is a clear and sustainable availability of buyers of romaine lettuce outside the open market. Mr. Matias as a Magsasaka Siyentista, also understood that the STBF project must have to showcase the production of lettuce under greenhouse condition to the community as he is the first to venture in this type of production process in their locality. At the same time the STBF will also encourage other farmers to shift into organic lettuce production to satisfy the local consumption all year round.
 
The Production Area
The STBF of Mr. Matias, being a research activity was aimed at determining the difference between romaine lettuce production inside a greenhouse and in an open field. Thus, he first designated two different spots or treatments with an area of 150 square meters each for the research project. The first area was labeled as the “farmers practice” where the cultivation of romaine lettuce in open field was performed while the other was labeled as “S&T intervention” where the production of romaine lettuce in a greenhouse was observed. Both areas were planted with romaine lettuce for three cropping cycles.
 
Planting Process 
Mr. Matias employed the same land preparation technique from weeding, harrowing to plot preparation in both farmers practice and S&T intervention. A planting distance of 30 by 30 centimeters was observed by the MS in both treatments. However the seedling preparation technique being practiced by most farmers differs from the recommended seedling production for romaine lettuce. Broadcasting of seeds is the common technique adopted under the farmers practice while the use of trays as recommended for romaine lettuce was employed under the S&T intervention. Mr. Matias further related that the usual farmers practice during transplanting that he adopted in his STBF project has no specific method and transplants four seedlings for every hill. On the other hand, the recommended transplanting method for romaine lettuce that he employed under the S&T intervention is the diagonal or quincox method with six seedlings planted per hill. The seedlings were transplanted from ten to 15 days after sowing for both treatments. He noted that the use of plastic trays in seedling production, under the S&T intervention, made the transplanting activity easier since the trays are carried closer to the planting rows, the seedling roots are not damage and the plant can easily recover from transplanting stress as compared to the farmers practice where no seedling tray was used. In terms of fertilization, the farmers practice did not use any fertilizer while vermicompost was applied to the S&T intervention.
 
Pest and Diseases
According to Mr. Matias soft rot was the most common disease observed for both farmers practice and S&R intervention. He further explained that the effect of the disease in both treatments was rated through its severity during wet and dry seasons. The resulting observation revealed that soft rot incurred a rating of 3.0 under the farmers practice during wet season. The severity was lower under the S&T intervention which was rated at 2.0 during the same season. The severity of the disease during dry season decreased and was the same for both treatments which was rated at 1.0. Cut worms and army worms were observed in both farmers practice and S&T intervention. Mr. Matias described the cutworms as the common insect pests observe on the romaine lettuce in both treatments. The pest feed on the plant leaves during the start of night time because they are nocturnal but the damage was only observed during the day time.  Army worms, on the other hand, attacked the plant in group during day time and also feed on the leaves. 
 
Harvesting and Post-Harvest 
The romaine lettuce was harvested at 50 to 60 days after transplanting. Mr. Matias utilized bamboo crates in transporting the harvested lettuce from the farmers practice while he used plastic crates for the harvest from the S&T intervention. Mr. Matias observed that the post-harvest damages were reduced through the use of plastic crates as compared to the harvest packaged through bamboo crates. He explained that the bamboo crates are too deep and the surface is rough as compared to the plastic crates thus the incidence of breakage, crumpling and tearing of romaine lettuce leaves is higher when farmers use bamboo crates in harvesting.
 
Productivity and Economic Viability
According to Mr. Matias there is indeed a significant difference between the farmers practice and the S&T intervention in terms of volume of production. He was able to record that during the dry season the harvest from the farmers practice was 360 kilograms while 240 kilograms of romaine lettuce was harvested during the wet season. He further found out that a higher and more consistent volume of production of romaine lettuce can be achieved under greenhouse condition as he was able to harvest 600 kilograms for the wet season and another 600 kilograms for the dry season. Mr. Matias then pointed out that the increase in yield between the two treatments was 50% in a production cycle. He then concluded that the cost incurred in the use of a protective cover such as the plastic house is compensated by the increase in yield and by the increase in the frequency of planting romaine lettuce inside a greenhouse. As a Magsasaka Siyentista Mr. Matias always made it a point to document his farm enterprise one way is by keeping records, an analysis of which will later serve as one of his major inputs in planning for the succeeding production cycle. Based on his records, his 150 square meter greenhouse farm requires a production cost of PhP5,866.67 while earning him PhP18,000.00 within three planting cycles during the dry season. Therefore he earns a net income of PhP12,133.33 for every 150 square meter of romaine lettuce in a greenhouse for three planting cycles during the dry season. The wet season even offers better income for Mr. Matias as his production cost remains at PhP5,866.67 while earning PhP54.400.00 or a net income of PhP48,533.33.
 
Challenges
Putting up and sustaining the romaine lettuce production process in a greenhouse is full of challenges says Mr. Matias. The occurrence of strong typhoons and other destructive weather disturbances cost him a lot for the repair of damaged greenhouses. He also noted that since he is still starting to adopt the organic agriculture system of production pest infestation sometimes become too prevalent. Mr. Matias related that the occurrence of pest infestation increased his labor cost as he has to implement other pest management practices without the use of pesticides. Moreover he has to reorient his farm according to the recommended pest management practices under organic agriculture which he, as a beginner in organic agriculture, found to be laborious and very exhaustive. Mr. Matias however admitted that, though these practices are difficult to implement at the start, these paved his way to a bountiful harvest. He also added that once these practices are started, sustained and integrated in the farmer’s production process, the difficulty becomes lesser and pests and diseases are easier to manage. 
 
Mr. Matias also narrated how he went through the challenges of marketing his produce. Though he was able to establish from the very start that there is indeed a profitable market for romaine lettuce, the process of searching for a particular market outlet and sustaining the trading relations was a different story. Mr. Matias is aware that if a farmer wishes to sell his products at a better price then he has to look for a market that will offer him such which means that the farmer must have to travel, build a good marketing and information network and other activities that will entail more time and financial resources. He further narrated that once a marketing connection is established, the agreed terms and conditions must be sustained by both parties and on his part he has to make sure that he fulfills his obligation in terms of quantity, quality and timeliness of his delivery. According to Mr. Matias he had a difficult time complying with his contract obligation especially in terms of quantity and timeliness when he was still starting. He recounted how several typhoons that damaged his greenhouse delayed or even reduced his harvest. This situation proved to be challenging on his part as most institutional buyers can easily shift from one supplier to another if they are not satisfied with the performance of a supplier. Once this happens the farmer has to start all over again from finding a market outlet to building a strong trading relationship says Mr. Matias. 
 
Moreover, as a Magsasaka Siyentista, Mr. Matias has a social obligation to his community and that is to convince his fellow farmers to follow science and technology-based agricultural practices as he does. At present many of his neighbors are already into greenhouse production of various highland vegetables but starting the task of convincing and converting them was indeed a Herculean task for Mr. Matias. In one of his sharing sessions with his fellow MS he related that farmers are bent not only on the “to see is to believe” principle but are also reluctant to try new but proven practices because of their “fear of losing” just because they have never tried such before. He added that his fellow farmers in their community have enough financial resources to put up greenhouses, which can even be far better and more expensive than what he has, but are hesitant just because they have never tried to do it before. Nonetheless Mr. Matias was never discouraged, he continued to build, operate, expand and improve his farm amidst the challenges of the farming industry and with that comes the fruits of his labor. His neighbors of course were always watching and observing him and when they realized that they can also replicate what he is doing and that there is money in it they were finally convinced to follow what their MS did. 
 
Realizations, Recommendations and Lessons Learned
The practices that Mr. Matias adopted through the S&T-based farm project broadened his knowledge and skills in the production of romaine lettuce. Consequently his production of romaine lettuce and other leafy vegetables improved in terms of yield and income. He emphasized that the adoption of S&T-based farm technologies especially the use of greenhouse increased the volume of production particularly during the wet season since the farm was protected from the adverse weather condition. Aside from enhancing production, Mr. Matias also considered the use of greenhouse as an effective method of maximizing time and labor resource as the farmer can work inside the farm even during rainy days. 
 
Mr. Matias further revealed that his experience in adopting and promoting S&T-based farming technologies and as an MS triggered his desire to fully convert into organic vegetable production. As a guiding principle he adopted the adage “love your neighbor as you love yourself” by producing vegetables that are pesticide free and of good quality so that his family and clients who are both consumers of his product will not afraid to eat the vegetables even if these are served raw. 
 
Mr. Matias is convinced that the adoption of S&T-based farming technologies in the production of organic romaine lettuce does not only increase the profit of a farmer but actually improves the farmer’s quality of life. Thus, he recommends that the technology should be replicated by the farmers in the community to further improve their farms’ productivity and profitability and conserve water resources and the environment while producing safe and quality romaine lettuce.