Thursday, August 02, 2007

The New Hacendero

I had a very interesting conversation with an old college buddy during my short visit to Bacolod City recently. My friend used to be based in Makati but he decided to go back to Negros a little over a year ago to try his hand at sugarcane farming. I guess he got tired of the traffic, pollution and the crowds of Manila. Over lunch at Bacolod Chicken House restaurant, we talked about how he is adjusting to his new life as a modern-day "hacendero" (or "sugar planter" or just plain "planter" as he prefers to call himself now). Incidentally, there's a rumor circulating that Bacolod Chicken House will soon close down its branch along Lacson Street (which has been there for as long as I can remember) because Mang Inasal offered to pay higher rent. Well, we cannot fault Mang Inasal for being aggressive but I just wish they would leave BCH alone because it has been there for decades. Bacolod Chicken House pioneered chicken inasal, much like what Ma Mon Luk is to mami and siopao, and has become an institution in Bacolod. I am sure many Ilonggos will truly be sad to see it close down.

Well going back to my topic. As a child growing up in Negros, I have always been fascinated with the children of hacenderos some of whom I went to school with at Don Bosco Technical Institute-Victorias. I remember viewing them as glamorous figures (not only were they better-dressed but were generally taller, fairer and good-looking than many in my school). Some were a bit quirky while others I found downright eccentric, but it only seemed at least to me to add to their mystique as non-conformists and singular individuals. I always envied watching them after school being fetched by their drivers and riding their fancy cars and I always imagined that they would go home to their centuries-old manors located amidst hectares and hectares of canefields. Of course, as I grew older, this idealized vision of their class would change and my recent lunch with my planter-friend modified my views further.

My friend revealed that although he grew up in an "hacendero" household, he knew next to nothing about sugarcane farming. All that he remembers of his intermittent visits to their hacienda back when he was still small were the games with the children of their farmworkers. His parents never taught him and it is only now that he is learning the ropes of the sugarcane business. But since he comes from a well-known hacendero family, people naturally assume he knows what he is doing.

When my friend told me months ago that he was going back to Negros to plant sugarcane, I assumed that he was asked by his parents to manage the family hacienda. That's why I was quite surprised to learn that he was not managing their hacienda (another family member is managing it) but was in fact leasing sugarcane fields (campo) owned by land reform beneficiaries in an arrangement called arendo in the local vernacular. The big haciendas of Negros are now gone, cut up into smaller pieces by agrarian reform. Former hacienda tenants (sacadas) now own the land, ranging from one to three hectares in size. But with no capital to buy sugarcane shoots and fertilizers, these land reform beneficiaries usually revert back to subsistence farming. Some tried their hand in sugarcane farming, but my friend claims that one to three hectares of sugarcane field is not really financially viable in the long run. Today, the former sacadas of Negros now own the land and may have enough to eat, but find themselves without enough money to send their kids to school and buy basic necessities like toothpaste, soap and the like.

What my friend usually does is talk to the heads of family one by one and convince them to lease out their land to him (his task becomes easier he says if the beneficiaries have formed themselves into a cooperative). Current rental rates ranges from P10,000 to P15,000 per hectare per year, depending on the land's location and arability. Aside from rent, my friend also offers them a regular salary to work their land. Herein lies the attractiveness of the arendo system: the agrarian beneficiaries both derive income from renting out their land to the capitalista-hacendero while at the same time receiving a regular monthly salary. They do not have to worry about the rising prices of sugarcane shoots, fertilizers, gasoline, machinery, etc. and if the price of sugar suddenly plummets, it is not they but the capitalista that takes the hit.

According to my friend, a sugar planter can expect an annual net profit of P6,000 to P10,000 per hectare depending on the quality of your sugarcane. So if you are tilling 20 hectares, your net profit is P120,000 to P200,000 per annum which is really not that big considering the hours and effort you put into it. One can easily earn that kind of money nowadays working for a private company or even a government entity. But its the lifestyle my friend says, the opportunity to work outdoors, the constant offroad 4X4 trips and the wide-open spaces that makes the job exciting for him. Although dealing with the sugarworkers can be a pain in the ass sometimes, he claims to derive fulfillment in knowing that he is somehow providing employment to the least employable - the uneducated sacada.

After speaking with my friend, it is only now that I understand the nature of the hacendero. The hacendero is first and foremost an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is someone who is quick to spot an opportunity to make a buck. Although he may no longer own the land, the modern-day hacendero has found ways to continue working and deriving income from an industry which many describe as a sunset industry. Because he no longer owns the land, today's hacendero must have the bargaining skills of a diplomat, the motivational skills of a politician, and possess a fine nose for weather (which is becoming more and more erratic every year) to become successful in today's world. Agriculture is the only business I know which has everything going against it. If the weather is okay and the harvest good all around, the prices naturally go down due to oversupply. If the weather is bad and a typhoon destroys all your crops, that is when prices go up. Considering the odds stacked against you, one I think not only has to have a positive or optimistic attitude but a gambler's mentality to thrive in agriculture. And this I think explains why the hacenderos of Negros have acquired a reputation for being big gamblers and risk-takers.


mschumey07 said...

Add the produce that China dumps on us and the cast is set. Globalization sure has hit the poor farmer. Without the proper safety nets and a sound domestic economy, the agriculture sector could be a thing of the past. While bigger countries protect their farmers, ours would even steal fundings for the hapless farmer. Cooperatives can only do so much, but without the initial aid from government, it cannot survive very long.

sparks said...

I agree about protecting the agriculture sector, which employs 40% of our labour. Food security is a vital part of national security. Too bad the Doha Round has broken down. It would've been some sort of mechanism for fairer trade in agriculture. Oh well. Live to fight another day.