Date released
09 October 2023

A stepped training program developed as part of an ACIAR-supported project in the Philippines is helping many smallholder farmers move towards Philippines Good Agricultural Practice (PhilGAP) certification for their farming and food safety practices.

Mr Adam Goldwater from Applied Horticultural Research is the operations coordinator for the project to develop vegetable value chains in the Philippines, linking smallholder farmers with higher-value vegetable markets.

Farmer training is one element of the project, along with the value chain and production research, which is being undertaken at 6 pilot sites on the islands of Mindanao and Leyte, involving about 130 smallholders.

Skills for smallholders

The training program is based on the existing PhilGAP certification and takes an extended hands-on approach over several months, to help smallholders move step-by-step towards full certification.

The training program has 4 elements: food safety, environmental sustainability, growing high-quality produce and worker health and safety.

‘We start with the easy things, such as the differences between the chemicals farmers might be using, and how to apply them for best effect, safely,’ explained Mr Goldwater. ‘Then we move onto record keeping, trying to keep track of what’s been done on the farm, and using those records to analyse profitability and comparing crops to support farm viability,’ said Mr Goldwater.

He highlighted challenges for smallholders in parts of the process that require financial investment, such as building separate storage facilities for different chemicals and installing a toilet on-farm.

Despite this, 19 smallholders have received full certification since the program began in 2019 and all participants have completed at least half of the training program. Another 30 or more are expected to be fully certified by the time the program finishes in June 2024.

Professor in Horticulture Dr Zenaida Gonzaga at Visayas State University is coordinating the project’s research in the Philippines, including testing for potential sources of microbial and chemical contamination that may affect the safety of crops.

Dr Gonzaga said key issues are Escherichia coli bacteria in irrigation water, contamination from fresh manure applied as fertiliser and pesticide residues on vegetables. Interventions trialled in the Philippines and Australia include the use of withholding periods following the application of manures, after irrigation and after the use of pesticides, and washing treatments to remove pathogens from harvested produce

Women sitting on the ground in front of their stalls
A stall inside the new BayBay City Hall, in Leyte, provided PhilGAP-certified farmers with the opportunity to market their produce, and their credentials to more than 1,000 employees. Photo: Visayas State University

Changing farm practices

Dr Gonzaga has also been involved in the training program and said one of the greatest successes from her perspective is the increased awareness of worker safety and the need for farmers to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) and protect themselves from exposure to chemicals.

‘From a production perspective, trials of new crops and collaborations among farmers to stagger planting and harvest times have been important steps in improving value chains,’ said Dr Gonzaga.

The use of protected cropping systems – some financially supported by local government – has boosted productivity and incomes and allowed smallholders to try new crops not traditionally grown in their area.

This has led to the establishment of onion production in Leyte, responding to a national shortage of this culinary essential.

The Jollibee Foods Corporation, which operates a multinational chain of fast-food restaurants, has been a supporter of the project’s supply chain developments, keen to secure a supply of onions. The PhilGAP training is helping smallholders meet the company’s baseline supply requirements.

Other new crops being trialled to meet market opportunities include garlic, carrots and strawberries.

A man standing in the middle of tall crops
A student from Visayas State University working on an experimental crop being trialled in the Philippines. Photo: ACIAR

Benefits to farmers

Mr Goldwater said the project has also undertaken surveys to identify consumer attitudes to food safety.

‘While PhilGAP certification doesn’t always register with individuals, food safety is a concern. Institutions such as hospitals and corporate buyers such as Jollibee are also highly sensitive to food safety issues,’ said Mr Goldwater.

Both the certification process and the resulting improved quality of produce is helping smallholders to tap into these markets.

Participating smallholders report gaining preferred supplier status with some of their wholesale and retail buyers, and at local markets, with an increase in repeat customers. Some receive price premiums, but that is not always the case.

Supermarkets have proven a difficult market for smallholders to access. The paperwork required has proved a burden, and delayed payments also pose difficulties.

Several farmers have turned to online sales to market their PhilGAP-certified vegetables; others have increased their farm-gate sales, sharing their farming stories directly with customers to achieve price premiums.

Growing demand

Mr Goldwater said the PhilGAP system has been in place for more than a decade, but there has not been market drivers for widespread adoption. However, with national private organisations leading the way, that could be about to change.

ACIAR Research Program Manager, Horticulture, Ms Irene Kernot highlighted the importance of this project in the bigger picture of encouraging Filipinos to eat more vegetables for better health.

‘To do that, consumers need to be confident that the produce is safe to eat. Developing training and farming systems to minimise and reduce contamination in a way that is practical for smallholders, that they can manage with limited resources, is an important part of that,’ said Ms Kernot.

ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Developing vegetable value chains to meet evolving market expectations in the Philippines’ (HORT/2016/188)