From a simple rice cluster to a successful cooperative

“Our success started because of the rice model cluster operation” Engr. Ramon J. Oliveros, Jr., Rice Model Cluster President said.
 
It was a fair sunny weather…the heat of the sun pricked into the skin of our face as we threaded the long dusty barangay road leading to Barangay Simimbaan and Casilbangan of the municipality of Roxas, Isabela. At first, the heat and the dusts were so irritating hoping we could arrive immediately. But as we pass by, we could not hold our Ooohs…. and Aahs…as we linger our eyes to the vast hybrid rice fields with bountiful golden grains. For the moment, we did not matter about the heat and the dust and just enjoyed the beautiful scenery.
We arrived at almost 10:00 am at the NIA Office in Barangay Simimbaan. Engr. Ramon  Oliveros, Jr. fondly called Mang Jun and other officers of the Model Cluster welcomed us with warmly with smiles. They entertained us with a merienda as we took our rest for a while. Of course, there was “kumustahan” at first. Then Mang Jun began his story…
 
“In the area, rice is the predominant crop, planted twice a year.   Livelihood opportunity is very limited thus, year round planting of vegetables is practiced to generate additional income. Farm labor is highly utilized and low productivity was experienced because of manual farming. Due to insufficient capital, private traders provide bulk of the credit requirement of the farmers with very high interest rate. The only multi-purpose drying pavement established is insufficient to dry the farmers’ produce. As such, during peak of drying, farmers are compelled to sell their produce freshly threshed which commands lower price. Nababaon na sa utang ang mga magsasaka“.
 
Mang Jun posed for a while reminiscing the plight of the farmers in those times. There was silence in the room. Everybody was eager to listen to the next line of the story. Then suddenly, with confidence he said, “walang problema na hindi malulutas kung makakaisa” (There is no problem that cannot be solved if we unite). I encouraged every member of the Irrigators Association (IA) to be very aggressive in looking for more opportunities with the modest natural resources available in the area and increase their industriousness as their enormous weapon, he added.”
 
No doubt the farmers in this area are fascinated in grasping new technologies as a way of transforming their lives as seen in their activeness in participating farmers’ field school (FFS), technical briefings, farmers’ meetings, and technology and method demonstrations.
 
Then an opportunity knocked when the Simimbaan-Casilbangan (SIMCA) IA was selected as one of the model Rice Cluster in the region in February 2006 by the Department of Agriculture-Regional Field Unit No. 2 (DA-RFU 02). The rice cluster operation is an extension strategy in reaching farmers and extending assistance to achieve increased productivity, food sufficiency and job generation. This is initiated in support to the Ginintuang Masaganang Ani (GMA) Rice Program.
 
Mang Jun with a proud look, boast of their selection as one of the nine (9) model rice cluster in the region. “We have the resources and my people are capable. We met the criteria”, he said. Simimbaan and Casilbangan, Roxas, Isabela have a 520-hectare compact rice area owned by 337 farmers and active members of the Irrigations Association (IA).  The Simimbaan and Casilbangan (SIMCA) had an outstanding performance as IA. As a Rice Model Cluster it represented the second District of the province of Isabela.
 
Mang Jun, who is a Farmer-Leader Extensionist (FLE), a model farmer in spearheading the hybridization program of Roxas particularly in Simimbaan and Casilbangan, an IA President, and a Magsasaka Siyentista was appointed as the cluster president with the consensus of his members. He is an Electrical Engineer by profession but because of his passion in farming, he gave-up his high-paying job abroad and devoted his full time in farming.
 
With their selection as a model Rice Cluster, many favorable situations continuously poured in. As a start, Mang Jun and other Cluster Officers with their Supervising Agricultural Technologist (AT), Mr. Pedie Lazaro of the Office of the Municipal Agriculturist (OMA) in Roxas, attended the first Facilitators’ Training on Farm Cluster Development Planning conducted by the Agricultural Training Institute – Regional Training Center Cagayan Valley (ATI-RTC 02) last March 2006. During the training, they were capacitated on how to develop a 5-year model cluster development plan. After the training, series of consultations and workshops were conducted in their community to be able to evolve a cluster development plan. They were jointly assisted by ATI-RTC Cagayan Valley, Cagayan Valley Integrated Agricultural Research Center (DA-CVIARC) and the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist (OPA) in Isabela. As an output, they came-up with a five-year cluster development plan for implementation from 2006 to 2011.  The plan was estimated at P47,307,500.00 for different program components such as production support, irrigation, credit support, marketing, extension, education and training, infrastructure and other postharvest projects, research and development and organization support activities. Part of the education and training component of their development plan was the conduct of values redirection and leadership training for members and officers of the cluster which was conducted by the ATI-RTC Cagayan Valley right at the cluster site.
 
Armed with the cluster plan, new knowledge, and an initial fund support provided by DA-RFU 02 under the GMA Regular Rice Program, they immediately started the project. Initially, they started with the establishment of two (2) units multi-purpose drying pavement (MPDP) with shade to accommodate drying activities of farmers even during rainy season. Then gradually the projects increased with the acquisition of one (1) unit flat-bed dryer and construction of farm-to-market road. Now, their goal of increasing productivity of quality rice for human consumption, industrial uses as well as improved farmers’ income and quality of life gradually realized.
 
The cluster did not stop from sourcing out funds to support more projects of their cluster. During the event, Mang Jun presented their cluster development plan. To his surprise, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo through the Department of Agriculture-Central Office granted them support amounting to five million pesos (P5M) worth of postharvest facilities, which include one (1) unit Flat-Bed Dryer with biomass furnace, one (1) unit semi-commercial rice mill with complete accessories and shade, two (2) units rice dual-purpose thresher and eight (8) units rice harvester-brush cutter type with complete accessories. “With teamwork and unity, we did it”, Mang Jun proudly boasted.
As their counterpart, the members repaired and maintained irrigation canals and facilities, provided space for the establishment of multi-purpose drying pavement and warehouse for the acquired equipment.
 
“After about three years of implementation, I can say that this cluster project is very successful as manifested by the 100% adoption of farmers on hybrid rice technology”, Mang Jun humbly said. According to him, with the series of technology demonstration established in his farm showcasing new technology on hybrid rice and served as the learning site for his 25 farmer-participants as FLE, farmers gradually shifted to hybrid rice. With this remarked, they considered Simimbaan-Casilbangan cluster area a hybrid rice community.
 
After this, the average production in Roxas particularly in SIMCA Cluster increased from below five (5) tons per hectare to 5.5-6.5 tons per hectare. Mr. Oliveros believed that this average production will possibly increased up to 7.5 tons per hectare in the succeeding years. This can be achieved with the full support of the different government agencies like the DA-RFU 02, ATI-RTC, National Irrigation Administration (NIA), OPA and the Local Government Unit (LGU), he noted.
 
Being a hybrid rice community, they sustained the demand for hybrid rice of the Local Government Unit (LGU) of Roxas as their One Town One Product (OTOP), the EDEN Rice Mestisong Bigas project. Through the LGU, consumers from other towns visited the municipality just to buy hybrid rice for restaurants and home consumption.
 
In the course of their operation, they decided to register the cluster as a cooperative called Simimbaan–Casilbangan Model Rice Cluster Multi-Purpose Cooperative (SIMCA-MRC-MPC) with 47 member-cooperators in 2007. Gradually, their membership increased to 480 regular and associate members including the youth, Rural Improvement Club (RIC) members and religious groups in 2009.
 
Their major business as a coop is the rice mill. The produce of its members is procured by the cluster coop at reasonable price for them to process into milled rice and sell it to LGU-Roxas under the OTOP-EDEN Rice Mestisong Bigas Project. With a marketing agreement, the market price of palay particularly hybrid rice became stable.
 
With their strong partnership with NIA, they were appointed as collector of the irrigation fee of its members. Certain percentage of the collection was left to the coop as their incentive to form part of their mobilization fund.  On the other hand, government credit institutions like Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) and LGU Roxas are extending loans with affordable interest rate to all cluster members through the coop. The coop also procured inputs for loans to members at low interest rate.
 
Being a hybrid community, some members now engaged in producing their own hybrid rice seeds by planting A x B (female parental line) for A x R (F1) seed production. This would produce readily available hybrid rice seeds for members and farmers in nearby municipalities.
 
Aside from hybrid rice enterprise, they also venture on fishery. Through the Bureau of Fishery and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the cluster coop had dispersed fingerlings to initial 23 fishery cooperators who have backyard fishpond and rice-fish integrated farming.
 
With all these achievements, the officers believed that the project would not be successful without the capacitated officers and members. Thus, the cluster officers and members attended series of training on enterprise development and social mobilization conducted by ATI-RTC. On-site trainings on rice-based integrated farming system, organic fertilizer production, organizational development and management, cooperative pre-membership seminar, leadership and team building, entrepreneurship and basic bookkeeping were also conducted.
 
With all these projects, it provided social impact in the community. The malnutrition level of pre-school children decreased from 19 to three (3) percent. The electricity in the barangay now expanded to other puroks to cover the whole households. On education, a resolution on the establishment of a National High School prepared by the coop is already approved by the Municipal Council and ready for submission to the Department of Education. This will benefit the children of the farmers within the cluster and nearby barangays. The average farm profitability increased from P70,000 per hectare per annum to P217,375 per hectare per annum due to 100% shift of the cluster farmers on the use of hybrid rice varieties, application of accurate fertilizer based on soil analysis result and other updated farming practices that they believed contributed to their success.
 
As the coop continuously reaps its success, they shared part of their income for the development of the community like diversification of other businesses in support to the livelihood projects of the youth, religious group and rural improvement club as their associate members.
 
In the future, Mr. Oliveros planned to expand their operation to other commodities like high value commercial crops (HVCC) and livestock to cover the holistic process of farming. They opened their doors for more opportunities and still looking for more possibilities for the cluster to portray the BEST and ONLY cluster coop in the region.
Indeed, the SIMCA-MRC-MPC has already gone a long way, a dream come true to all members. It just evolved from just a simple cluster of rice farmers to a successful cooperative.