ALABEL, Sarangani (MindaNews / 22 April) – From a simple bahay kubo, Jacquilyn Cobol-Layan and her family now live in a modest concrete house that took about a decade to finish, largely from the fruits of tobacco farming which, unknown to many, has been thriving in this coastal town since the 1970s.
She and her partner, Arnel Layan, in fact, belong to the second generation of tobacco planters in this municipality, the seat of the Sarangani provincial government.
Tobacco farming in this town originated from Negros Oriental, after several farmers from the Visayan province migrated to this part of the south four decades ago, lured by the government’s program enticing settlers to Mindanao or what it referred to then as “The Land of Promise.”
Until now, tobacco farming continues to thrive and has been benefiting dozens of families in Barangay Spring, about 10 minutes ride from the población of Alabel on motorcycle, the main mode of transportation in this first-class town with a population of at least 88,000.
“If not for tobacco farming, we would not be able to live in a concrete house. We built this slowly over the years. After we harvest tobacco, we would buy some construction materials for our dream house,” Jacquilyn told MindaNews in Cebuano.
Almost every day for six months a year in the last nine years, Jacquilyn would accompany her partner Arnel to go to their farm to take care of their tobacco plants.
Jacquilyn has four children from a previous relationship. They are with their father. Arnel has two children living with them from his former wife. Jacquilyn and Arnel have no children of their own after nine years of living together since she’s ligated.
All their respective children are still studying, between Grades 6 and 11. “Tobacco farming helped us send them all to school,” Jacquilyn said, adding that she sends allowance regularly to her children from their farming livelihood.
Tobacco is meticulous to cultivate and requires “daily attention,” Jacquilyn stressed, noting “Halosdi na gani mi kasimba (We can barely attend church services).”
It was Arnel who first learned the rudiments of tobacco cultivation from his father Agapito Layan, Sr., who taught the farming techniques to his children.
Of the seven Layan siblings, six pursued planting tobacco. From planting, it takes six months to harvest, and at least 18 days for curing, then off to the market.
“The income from tobacco farming is way better than corn farming. I raised my family mostly from tobacco farming,” said Agapito, smoking a paper-wrapped tobacco grown in his half a hectare farm.
On a good harvest, Agapito revealed he could earn P150,000 from tobacco, which, according to him, is three times the net income from corn.
For the first-class or those in the upper part of the tobacco plant, a bunch of 100 leaves is bought by their buyer at P600.
Agapito plants tobacco once a year and after harvest, would either plant corn or vegetables to complete the annual farming cycle.
Corn, which can be harvested after four months, is capital intensive in terms of the inputs, the reason why Agapito stuck to tobacco farming in four decades.
Tobacco can be ratooned but the yield becomes less compared to planting new seedlings, he said.
Although tobacco farming did not make them rich, Agapito, with the help of wife Antonia, stressed it allowed them to sustain the basic needs of the family and paved the way for their seven children, now all with their own families, to study until high school.
Agapito and Antonia, who are in their 60s, both smoke. But they do not buy cigarettes sold in the neighborhood stores. They smoke using tobacco produced from their farm, explaining it does not have a negative effect on their health unlike the cigarettes that undergo the manufacturing process. In a briefer, the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) said that while tobacco “is pinpointed as cancer-causing, it is considered by many as a panacea for many ailments. It may yet be the plant of manifold use as research continues to discover industrial and pharmaceutical products from the leaves as well as from its by-products.”
The Philippines approved Republic Act 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003 to regulate the use, sale and advertisements of tobacco products.
The law does not ban the cultivation of tobacco. According to the NTA data, tobacco is widely grown in the Luzon provinces of Ilocos del Sur, Ilocos del Norte, Isabela, Abra, La Union and Pangasinan.
Grown in Mindanao
In Mindanao, tobacco is grown in Bukidnon, Maguindanao, Misamis Oriental, North Cotabato, Sarangani and Zamboanga del Sur, it added.
In 2021, the value of tobacco produced in the Philippines amounted to around 5.71 billion pesos, market and consumer data provider Statista (www.statista.com) said in a report published in September 2022.
Agapito said they continue to plant tobacco since there is a local market for it in General Santos City and in Sarangani province, as accompaniment for betel nut or “mama” chewing aside from the unprocessed tobacco popular in remote villages or in the hinterlands.
According to him, the only chemical they apply to propagate tobacco is pesticide to kill the worms.
The weeds are being pulled out manually as spraying them with herbicides will kill the tobacco plants, Jacquilyn said while touring MindaNews in their farm, which is just near Agapito’s.
The Layans who are into tobacco growing – seven in all – each maintain a farm ranging from one-fourth to one-half hectare.
A few blocks away from the Layan compound, another veteran tobacco farmer, Buenaventura Pales, 66, shared how the crop helped him and his wife raise their four children, who all finished high school.
“I am a son of a tobacco farmer. My father used to work in a large tobacco plantation in Negros Oriental until he brought us here in the 1970s,” Pales narrated.
The fifth of eight siblings, Pales said their parents also brought them up from the sweat of tobacco farming.
Pales said two of his children have followed in his footsteps as a tobacco farmer.
“It is not easy to grow tobacco, it is labor-intensive, but I’m proud that we managed to make it sustainable until now,” he told MindaNews.
Pales said the emerging shoots of the tobacco plants must be removed manually so the older leaves will grow thick and tasty.
Ever since the locals cultivated tobacco, they have not had a problem with planting materials since the existing plants bear seeds they can propagate.
The seeds are sowed in a bed of soil and fully covered from the sun by available farm materials such as coconut or banana leaves. If there’s no rain, they are watered daily until the sprouts come out and replanted manually in the field after about 45 days.
Aside from pesticides, Pales said he applies urea to fertilize his tobacco plants.
According to him, he would not stop planting tobacco until he has the strength to do farm work.
“My father stopped planting tobacco when he was 80 years old,” Pales said.
But local tobacco farmers here are apparently out of the radar of the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) National Tobacco Administration.
“We hope the concerned government agency will extend assistance to our tobacco venture,” Pales appealed, the same plea that Jacquilyn aired.
“There’s no government help extended to our tobacco production in the village,” Jacquilyn said.
Shiery Chris Zulueta, Alabel Municipal Agriculture Office (MAO) Agriculture Officer 1, admitted the tobacco farmers have not received assistance since the DA’s thrust, as well as the local government unit’s, is focused more on boosting food production.
Food farmers as priority
“Unfortunately, tobacco farmers here are not the priority. The priority is the food farmers,” she said.
But last year, they received DA assistance in the form of corn seeds and fertilizers in line with the food production thrust of the government, Jerson Nerez, MAO Agriculture Administrative Assistant 2, said.
Local tobacco farmers need easy access to long-term financing, the provision of farm inputs to boost their production and marketing assistance, Jacquilyn said.
“Kaya man namo bayran pag pinautang mi gikan sa pagtanom ug pagbenta sa among tabako (We can afford to pay the loan from the proceeds of our tobacco harvest),” she noted.
Like other small farmers in the country, the tobacco farmers here also raise farm animals such as ducks, chickens, cows and carabaos, among others, to help them tide over during hard times. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)