Thursday, October 9, 2014

What happened to MMSU’s Raniag potato variety?

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Time was when Ilocos Norte farmers were excited over “Raniag”, the lowland potato variety developed by the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) in Batac, Ilocos Norte. It was a super hit here in the province out-grossing “Cosima”, “Fina” and “Berolina”, the traditional varieties which they got from the uplands.

If given the right cultural management practices, Raniag can produce a yield as high as 35 tons per hectare. At Brgy. Palongpong, Batac, Ilocos Norte for instance, farmers were netting a little less than P6,000 from every 250-square meter farm in just 75 days.

Raniag trampled tobacco in income and ease of management. There was a time when that mighty garlic was no match to Raniag in regular seasons. What about rice? Raniag needed just one-tenth of the area planted to rice to match its income. To put it simply, it was 70 times more profitable than rice.

Field trials conducted by former MMSU Prof. Beatriz S. Malab and researcher Marissa I. Atis showed that Raniag had a 300 to 400 percent return of investment in total production. This means that for every peso invested, a farmer gets P3 to P4 in return as profit. In the middle of 1990s, actual production of farmers in Ilocos Norte reached as high as 31 – 35 tons per hectare amounting to some P62,000 to P70,000 gross.

How was Raniag Developed?
It can be recalled that from the late 1980s, Prof. Malab and some smart MMSU researchers schemed to get a share from the highlanders of their monopoly over the white potato. They did it! In fact, MMSU has been producing Raniag potato plantlets through tissue culture method to make sure that planting materials produced would be free from pathogens.

But just after a few years when Raniag enjoyed full support from the government and farmers, it gradually eked its way to the highlands through unknown big time farmers and traders who allegedly bought planting materials here. And since that day when MMSU has stopped supporting the production of Raniag potato plantlets, this rich man’s crop is now holding great promise to big time farmers and traders in the highlands.

Today, Raniag is now alien in the lowlands and, according to researcher Atis, is reportedly performing better than the traditional varieties of farmers in the highlands of Benguet and Baguio City. Its agronomic characteristics show that if it can profitably adapt itself in the uplands, it would perform well and can give the highest yield potential there.

In an interview with this writer, researcher Atis laments that there are three major problems that made Raniag elusive to lowland farmers—source of planting materials, storage facilities, and market.

Tuber seeds of Raniag cannot be economically produced in the province because farmers would need storage facilities to maintain the seeds’ viability until planting season in November to December. Some farmers have that burden of maintaining the diffuse light storage (DLS) hut for potato. DLS is the only practical storage system for farmers in the lowlands since they cannot afford electrical cold storage system.

Experience of some Ilocano farmers showed that if they store their harvest in an ordinary environment, half of it would be lost due to rotting. Of those which survive, half would die in the field. And of those which survive in the field, their tuber production would be half the potential tuber yield.

Because of this, Ilocos Norte farmers think that getting viable planting materials from the highlands would solve the problem. But this is easier said than done. For one, the cost of tubers in the uplands is prohibitive enough—a kilo costs about P15 to P20 during regular season and about P40 – P60 during offseason. This is the most expensive input in potato production. Here in the province, the more serious problem was the limited supply.

Postharvest handling, particularly storage, is another major problem. With the lack of good storage facilities in small farms, potatoes are piled carelessly, often resulting in shriveling, rotting, and greening. Greening is caused by sunlight and the green color gives that bitter taste in potatoes.

Researcher Atis said Raniag tubers can be stored for a month as long as they are kept in a partial darkness in a well-ventilated room. Still, farmers have to constantly check the stock and take out rotting potatoes so that they would not infect the whole harvest.

Market is also one big problem. In Ilocos Norte, a kilo of potato costs P40 if not P50 in mid-February. By March, it dips to P30 a kilo. Farmers here disastrously compete for the market by lowering the price per kilo which creates an artificial oversupply—to their own detriment.

Why they do this can be traced to the limited local market here in the province. Since farmers plant in small-scale (250 to 500 square meters), their production is also very low, and individually transporting their harvest to Metro Manila and to other provinces would be more expensive.

MMSU had been encouraging small-scale production as long as farmers would organize themselves into cooperatives. As farmers increased their land areas from 250 to 1,000 square meters, they get bigger yields. Other reasons for this small-scale production is the limited supply of tubers, high cost of production, and difficulty of market. Lowland potato farmers have a lot of organizing to do before they can penetrate big time markets—or at least stabilize prices in the local market.

And, lastly, financing. Potato production is capital- and labor-intensive. A hectare planted to white potato cost around P50,000 to P70,000. Here’s more. Since Raniag is also susceptible to common pests and diseases attacking white potato, it needs extra special care. That is, it needs loose a friable soil, and an almost daily vigil for pest and diseases out to destroy them—the most serious are the thrips and mites.

Raniag should not be planted immediately after tomato, eggplant and pepper or other solanaceous crops because they all belong to the same family and share the same pests and diseases. To control bacterial wilt, Raniag is recommended in fields previously planted with rice or sugarcane, because potato is not an alternate host to this disease. Submerging the field during rice season makes it anaerobic and inhabitable to most bacteria a pathogens.

Planting potatoes near river banks is also preferred. Sun-baking the land and flowing it during the rainy season will wash off most of the bacteria and pathogens. And don’t forget tom irrigate the farm weekly and spray the crops with the recommended fungicides, pesticides and anti-thrips as the need arises.

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