In our country’s pursuit of addressing and eradicating COVID-19, we were able to reaffirm our gratitude to our health workers who are in the frontline of this rough battle that we are facing. But as we seek to see the bigger picture, we realize that behind the sacrifices of our frontliners are our farmers, braving the consequences that lies ahead of them just to support their families and provide food on our plates and materials that are important for us to withstand this unlikely encounter.

‘Scared’, was the first word that Mrs. Leonora Mila, Manager of San Isidro Upland Farmers’ Multi-Purpose Cooperative (SIUFMULCO) of San Isidro, Brgy. Santiago, Agusan del Norte said when asked about how the people from the region’s premier abaca trading cooperative felt when the enhance community quarantine was imposed. “Just like any other person would feel, the idea of being infected with a threatening virus gave us fear. We could really never be sure of what is going to happen in the future days that we even came to the point where we said we said we needed to temporarily stop our operations”, Mila added.

But despite having decided to halt their services to prioritize their personal safety, Manager Mila said that their daily wage earners pleaded not to do so as they have no other sources of income other than their earnings made through abaca farming and processing. “Our farmers and even partners from other cooperatives said they still need to earn money to supplement the provisions of the government as well as to save up and prepare for the worst to happen”, Mila shared, saying how she understood their sentiments.

Another big factor that gave her the urge was knowing that Abaca fiber is an important material used in producing raw materials for hospital textiles and other products like x-ray negatives and linens. “Many of our buyers and investors called us because the demand for abaca fiber is still high”, Mila said. Being a major abaca fiber provider for many manufacturing companies not just in the region but across the country, she felt the weight and value of their services to helping solve this health crisis.

With their determination and compassion in mind, they continued their operations despite the pandemic, following strict health and safety protocols set by the government and health agencies. “The safety of our workers and farmers is still one of our top priorities, which is why we made sure that health protocols must be imposed in the office, warehouse and even in the field”, Mila explained.

During March 17-31, 2020, the SIUFMULCO team braved the possible threats of the pandemic and took risks in transporting their produce. On that duration, the cooperative have consolidated, graded and baled 61 metric tons of abaca fiber (plus the inventories from the previous days) and sold 84.32 metric tons of abaca fiber to Ching Bee Corporation at Baybay, Leyte.

“We were quite surprised that our sales actually increased these past few weeks, and even cooperatives or farmers who are not our usual clients have transacted with our coop”, Mila said, implying how it must have been difficult from other abaca farmers to sell their produce with this situation.

Within 15 days, SIUFMULCO was able to earn a gross income of P1, 709,397.00 from its Gross Sales of P5, 180,472.00 less the Cost of Goods sold at P3, 471,075.00.

These outcomes would not have been possible if not for the cooperation and support given by various government agencies to the cooperative such as the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Agriculture (DA) and Philippine Fiber Industry Authority (PhilFIDA) by providing certifications, allowing SIUFMULCO’s abaca products to pass by several police and military check points. The cooperative had successfully transported their abaca load three (3) provinces: Agusan Del Norte, Surigao Del Norte and Leyte.

SIUFMULCO is the lead Agrarian Reform Beneficiary Organization (ARBO) of Agusan del Norte in Caraga Region currently supported by the Convergence on Value-Chain Enhancement for Rural Growth and Empowerment (Project ConVERGE), implemented by the DAR and funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Philippine government. Its continued success speaks a lot about the courage and resilience of the people who worked together to make those outcomes possible, setting a good example and inspiration to many other ARBOs and farmers.

According to DAR Agusan del Norte Provincial Agrarian Reform Program Officer II Andre B. Atega, it is hard to stop agricultural trading even during a lockdown. He also said that the market may slow down, but it will always be supplied and filled with the products of the farmers. “We should thank our farmers for their hardwork and dare, along with our government workers such as in DAR and Project ConVERGE Agusan del Norte, who have continued to establish linkages with farmer-leaders in. We can all beat COVID-19 in this kind of spirit”, PARPO Atega added.

DAR has always envisioned of creating a just and equitable society through its various initiatives, and obstacles like this give more value of how important it is for our farmers to receive our utmost support, according to DAR-Caraga Regional Director Leomides R. Villareal. “Even in the simplest way like facilitating Quarantine Accreditation Pass for their products, we will do, because in this crisis, farmers are heroes too,” RD Villareal said, strongly pledging his continuing assistance to these farmers.

SIUFMULCO is just one of the many farming communities or ‘backliners’ in the country that are steadfastly fighting the COVID-19 battle with us through their sacrifices and they deserve no less than our appreciation and genuine commendation. But on top of everything, they also need our help and support right now more than ever. There are many ways in which we could extend our assistance and aid to our local and small-scale farmers despite the pandemic such as purchasing their harvest, promoting their products and creating linkages with potential buyers to ease up their selling process. No matter how minute it may seem for us, our support for both our health workers in the frontline and farmers in the backline could already go a very long way.

Wearing their masks, workers are cleaning and cutting the tips of the abaca fiber inside the SIUFMULCO warehouse

Office employees wear face masks and practice social distancing while doing business transactions as SIUFMULCO operations continue despite the COVID-19 pandemic

SAFETY FIRST—SIUFMULCO follows the prescribed health protocol by observing the “No Mask, No Entry” sign in their office