Benguet, regarded as the “Salad Bowl of the Philippines,” produces over 60 percent of the country’s temperate vegetables, fruits, roots, and leafy vegetables.

By Jayvee Masilang

The province’s economy is anchored on agriculture, and this presents more opportunities to its people, of whom 80% are dependent on farming.

Given the province’s terrain, though, access to farm areas can be a major concern. Farm products in the province often need to be transported through rivers, ravines, or steep slopes. In traditional manual hauling, farm products can be damaged by the passage through rough terrain, and this results in lower income for farmers. As they are perishable, farm products which are not transported to, or sold in the market will need to be consumed—
or worse, left to rot in the farms.

The province produces potatoes, and the market value of this product decreases when hauled using traditional methods because the longer time it takes to haul these from the farm to
the market, the higher the moisture and sugar content of the product. It also suffers from unwanted discoloration.

To alleviate these problems, the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PHilMech) introduced the Agricultural Tramline
System (ATS) to ease drudgery in, and to improve, the transport of agricultural inputs and products.

THE ATS IN BENGUET – The ATS involves the use of ropeways or tramlines as a
conveyance system. Agricultural products are placed in carriers transported through cable lines. It is an alternative transport system for farmers in areas which are isolated from road networks because of ravines, rivers, and dense vegetation.

In 1998, PHilMech, together with the DA- Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) pushed to improve the tramline system for farming applications. By 2002 to 2004, several pilot
testing sites were set up for the ATS, which was found to be practically and economically beneficial to highland farmers.

Farmer-beneficiaries of the ATS (in the
background) in Taluy-Sur, Tuba, Benguet.

In a recent study by PHilMech on the ATS conducted by Rodel Idago, Science Research Specialist of PHilMech’s Socioeconomic and Policy Research Division (SEPRD), he found that the ATS is considered a “semi-public investment infra project.” The investment in an ATS by the government can be recovered in three years in a minimum farming service area of 25 hectares.

In 2009, the government launched the National Agricultural Tramline Program (NATP), a program which aims to establish agricultural tramline systems for upland
agriculture. A 200 million fund was approved by the DA for the construction of 110 ATS throughout the country, and Benguet is one of the project’s beneficiaries. The Benguet
tramline consists of a powerhouse, posts, cables, pulleys, and carriers.

POST-HARVEST SUPPORT AND POTATO CROPS – In a recent study conducted by Dr. Cirilo A. Lagman Jr. of the Benguet State University, he revealed that the ATS significantly improved postharvest handling of potatoes in the province. Manual hauling caused post-harvest losses like decreased marketable weight, increased sugar content, and unwanted dark color, greening, and bruising.

With the use of the ATS, weight reduction was limited to 0.05 percent from the 0.42 percent that resulted from manual hauling, proving that the tramline helps preserve produce quality since it lessens hauling hours and mechanical damage. The time spent on manual hauling or hauling with horses (about an hour) is cut to only three minutes with the use of tramlines, depending on the route that the products need to take to be transported.

The sugar content of products is also lessened with the use of tramlines as compared to manual hauling. Tramline hauling prevents prolonged exposure of the tubers to sunlight, thus
preserving its fresh quality for consumption and processing. The increased sugar content of potatoes may be caused by improper handling of potatoes, which facilitates the conversion of starch to sugar; the farther the distance to be traveled, the higher the sugar content of a potato.

The use of the ATS also protects the skin and flesh of potatoes, thereby slowing down physiological aging. This was observed as potatoes hauled via tramline have more than 36% higher shelf life than those hauled manually. With a reduced transport time, the products hauled via tramline are less vulnerable to microorganisms that cause rapid discoloration; the shorter transport time also allows potatoes to remain an ideal light
yellowish-brown in color.

In manual hauling, bruising is often evident, with an average of more than 16 bruised tubers per bag, compared to less than 4 tubers per bag when the produce is transported via tramline.

The source of bruising is the mishandling of products during transportation and unloading. The discoloration of tubers causes buyer rejection of the products at the market as they don’t want ringed, dark colored, and spotted potatoes. The acceptable slight browning was
observed in chips obtained from freshly harvested potatoes, especially those hauled via tramlines.

ADVANTAGES OF THE ATS – The ATS not only cuts down on hauling time, but also
minimizes hauling costs by as much as 60 percent. Farmers save 0.20 to 1.00 per kilogram with the use of a tram line. Labor costs also decrease by 0.10 to 1.50 per kilogram. If a farmer has a harvest totaling 3,000 kilograms, this labor cost reduction would translate into savings ranging from 300 to 4,500, and this can be added to the farmer’s income, or used to hire more people for other farm activities, or even to purchase other equipment or inputs.

Meanwhile, the use of the ATS need not be limited to farm produces. There are
now tramlines that are designed for use with animals and even by humans. This
will enable farmers to get to access roads along with their products so that they can
secure these and transport them faster to market. Organic and petro-chemical based
fertilizers can also be transported via the tram line.

When tramlines are available, farmers tend to expand their production areas because unlike access roads, tramlines do not require the clearing of trees along the mountain farms. This helps in the conservation of the environment. Moreover, the ATS is also up to 11 times cheaper than roads to construct.

One significant milestone in the use of the ATS in the country was in the report of the former mayor of Atok in Benguet, Concepcion Balao, regarding the first six tramlines installed in their area. These connected production sites separated by rivers from the national highway to the major roads. Balao reported that the hauling time and cost for farm produce dropped by 70 percent when they installed the tramlines between the farms and the roads. Before that, farmers had to rely on porters and trucks to haul their products, and this
process could take up to three days for some remote farms.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT – The ATS still has its limitations, such as the lack of
supporting facilities like packing houses to safeguard the transported products and preserve their quality. In Lagman’s study, it was observed that pathways leading to the tramline from farms needed to be concreted to allow for the smooth hauling of the products. Also, sheds or packing houses needed to be constructed near the access roads so that the commodities would not be exposed to the sun, thus preserving their quality.

It was also suggested that local government units (LGUs) should consider installing agricultural tramlines in areas with critical pathways and farm areas that are not accessible. LGUs should also adopt technologies that promote the longevity the freshness of farm produce through the use of modern facilities to ensure an adequate supply of vegetables.

Tramlines are recommended in areas with unstable soil conditions in lieu of roads to avoid landslides and erosions. However, farm to market roads are still recommended.

With technologies and innovations like the ATS, both farmers and buyers will benefit from a good quantity of quality vegetables.

This story appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s June 2014 issue.