Onion farmer’s widow recounts hardships amid market prices, imports

Amid high prices and imports, the onion crisis continues to drive farmers to financial ruin — with some choosing to take their own lives amid mounting economic desperation.

A group revealed the harrowing reality at a Senate committee hearing on Monday, emphasizing that sustained losses continue to drive farmers to financial ruin — with onions being left to rot on the fields or being lowballed for their goods at PHP8 to PHP15 a kilo (US$0.15 to US$0.27), only to be sold as high as PHP700 (US$12.76) in Metro Manila markets.

Merlita Gallardo of Bayambang, Pangasinan, the widow of an onion farmer who committed suicide in 2021, shared the difficulties local onion farmers faced. Her husband, Roger, took his own life after an armyworm infestation destroyed their crops, causing their debts to reach millions.

Gallardo carried on even after her husband’s death and replanted crops — but storms in 2022 affected her yield.

“We had even more losses since I planted onions again. But the rains came and our onions were still small,” she shared.

Elvin Laceda, the national president of the Young Farmers Challenge Club of the Philippines, said that farmers like Gallardo face yet another threat through onion imports.

“They would have just started recovering now, but because of importation, they have to harvest their onions before 100 days, just 85 to 90 days in,” he said.

“I hope her story does not happen again to other farmers. Five farmers in their village committed suicide,” he added.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) approved the importation of 21,060 metrics of onion earlier this month as onion prices in the market continued to soar as high as PHP700 a kilo.

Yet Romel Calingasan, municipal agriculturist of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, questioned the DA’s move to allow imports just as the local harvest season was fast approaching.

“You should have issued importation permits as early as September to balance out imported and local onions. But they took advantage and padded almost 1,000%. And now that Juan the farmer will be harvesting, this is when importation starts, too,” he pointed out.

Senators also questioned the DA’s processes and decision to allow imports now.

“Onion prices have been high for months, but the DA insisted in December that no importation will take place. But now it’s as if they’re saying, it’s just a joke, we’re doing it after all,” Senator Grace Poe said.

Poe added that perhaps it was time that a full-time agriculture secretary be appointed, with other essential goods such as eggs, sugar, and salt seeing price hikes and shortages.

“Soon, we’ll be having a hearing for everything in the kitchen,” the senator said.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. currently sits as the agriculture secretary. He recently left the country for a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.