Agriculture

Berna Romulo-Puyat on bridging the gap between farmers and chefs

For years, the disconnect between farmers and chefs has been far and wide. Until Berna Romulo-Puyat stepped in and got both parties talking

Photo by Sonny Thakur

Let’s get this straight. Berna Romulo-Puyat is a public servant, not a politician.

While her impressive background (growing up in a family of respected government officials, childhood spent campaigning for an assemblyman and senator, and years spent in the University of the Philippines as an economist and educator) has groomed her for the esteemed role of an elected official, she has never been tempted to go back to politics after taking a stab at it “back when I was very young,” she recalls fondly.

“They ask me every now and then if I want to run, and I always say no,” she says. “There are many ways to serve your country, of course, and being an elected official is one of them. In fact, you can help anywhere you are—even if you’re in the private sector. I feel I can help more where I am now.”

Where she was prior to her Department of Tourism appointment ws the Department of Agriculture (DA), where she served as the chairperson for the Gender and Development (GAD) Focal System, supervising undersecretary for the youth, elderly, and indigenous people, and alternate chair of the National Organic Agriculture Board (NOAB).

Romulo-Puyat’s job takes her to different parts of the country, visiting farmers and fisherfolk in their work environment. They welcome her into their homes and their fields, and she immerses herself in their daily routines so she can get a firsthand account of how they toil and take care of the land.

“We walk or hike with them to the farms, help with the planting and the harvest, eat with them, talk to them about their concerns. Hearing them tell their stories helps us understand their situation better so we can craft more relevant policies and programs for their community.”

“It makes me happy when I see restaurateurs order newly discovered ingredients and feature them in their restaurants,” says Berna Romulo-Puyat.

She adds, “It’s one thing to know about the plight of our farmers from reports, but it’s another to hear about it firsthand.” Realizing that many farmers and fisherfolk still have difficulty getting access to government facilities, Romulo-Puyat is working extra hard to make sure they get the support that they need to be more productive and profitable in their fields. “We provide them with marketing assistance, help them with credit, and create more programs for capacity-building.” The goal is to support and educate the farmer or the fisherman to build a sustainable livelihood so he can stand on his own two feet.

A cause that is close to her heart is women in agriculture. “It always surprises people when I tell them this, but around the world, and in the Philippines, women actually play a major role in agricultural activities. Go to the fields on any given day and you’ll see women working just as hard alongside their husbands, their fathers, and their sons.”

In some cases even, the men’s only role is the upkeep of the machines and farm facilities while the responsibility of planting and harvesting falls solely on women. “It’s because women are such hardworking but diligent creatures. They also have a delicate touch that is required in handling some crops. And in some communities, it’s the women who possess the traditional knowledge in the propagation, harvesting, and processing of certain crops.”

This is true for the heirloom rice farming community in the Cordilleras and the female coffee farmers of Sag-ang, Negros Occidental. In both cases, 90 percent of the workers in the fields are women.

In the Cordilleras, the women are seedkeepers, holders of traditional knowledge in seed breeding as well as the knowledge for planting and harvesting. Heirloom rice varieties are passed down from generation to generation through the women in the family. It also falls upon the Cordilleran women, especially the mothers, to take charge of educating the younger generation about heirloom rice farming.

“It’s great that so many people are now making the effort to connect directly with our farmers and forming relationships with them. Every time this happens, we create more opportunities for them to increase their production and, of course, income, and further diversify their produce in the future.”

There is genuine affection and respect in Romulo-Puyat’s tone when she talks about women farmers. “Did you know that in Sag-ang, the women trek for hours every day just to get to their coffee farms at the foot of Mt. Kanlaon? I’ve done the hike with them and it’s not easy. These kinds of experiences make me appreciate female farmers more because after a long day in the fields, they still have time to go home and take care of their family.

“This is why platforms like the DA’s Gender and Development (GAD) program or the PCW (Philippine Commission on Women)’s Gender-Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation of Women (GREAT Women) Project are put in place,” Romulo-Puyat explains. They are geared towards the economic empowerment of women and promotion of gender equality.

Her office oversees the implementation of various projects like providing gender-sensitive planting materials and post-harvest facilities for female farmers, like lower machines more appropriate for a woman’s height or even a daycare area nearby so the mothers can bring their children to work. They also help promote products made by women.

Romulo-Puyat is also very committed to engaging the youth in agriculture by conducting trainings and seminars in local communities. “Sadly, a lot of them are losing interest in carrying on their parents’ livelihoods because they grew up seeing the struggles of running a farm and think there’s no future in it.”

Programs like Coffee Youth Camp, which Romulo-Puyat staged with the Origin Coffee Network, are teaching kids how to set up their own businesses using products or crops available in their communities. “The participants were young ones from the Cordillera Administrative Region. It was nice to see the sons and daughters of coffee farmers gain new appreciation for the work of their parents and realize that they, too, can make a living out of it.

Romulo-Puyat derives deep pleasure and fulfillment from seeing more and more people gain appreciation for the hard work of local fisherfolk and farmers whenever they accompany her during her visits.

“Education and awareness play a big part in all of this,” Romulo-Puyat stresses again and again. “Not only among the active players in the agricultural industry but also those who work with and benefit from the work of the farmers and fisherfolk.”

She is referring to the surge of interest among members of the food and beverage industry in connecting with the farmers and fishermen from whom they source their ingredients.

“Presently, chefs are considered as influencers, and they are effective channels for raising awareness on our farmers’ situation. The chefs we have worked with love talking about the farm-to-fork concept with their customers and fellow foodies. And this also helps promote local ingredients in their circles of influence.”

Just recently, the DA’s participation in the Philippine Harvest Trade Fair and international event Madrid Fusión Manila helped shine a spotlight on local ingredients. Promotion of regional cuisine also gives Filipinos and foreigners alike a better appreciation for the variety of products available in the country.

“Even I am still pleasantly surprised whenever I discover new products in unexpected places,” Romulo-Puyat says. In her most recent field visits, her team was introduced to grapes from La Union, lobsters from Isabela (which is known to be a corn-producing province), a new variety of large bananas from Bukidnon, indigenous souring agents from Mindanao like tabon-tabon and sua, 300 varieties of heirloom rice from the Cordilleras, and adlai, which is fast becoming a favorite among chefs. “It makes me happy when I see restaurateurs order newly discovered ingredients and feature them in their restaurants.”

“It’s great that so many people are now making the effort to connect directly with our farmers and forming relationships with them. Every time this happens, we create more opportunities for them to increase their production and, of course, income, and further diversify their produce in the future.”

Romulo-Puyat derives deep pleasure and fulfillment from seeing more and more people gain appreciation for the hard work of local fisherfolk and farmers whenever they accompany her during her visits.

“There was this one time when a group of friends joined me on a visit to the rice fields. They helped harvest and pound the bigas and saw the back-breaking work that goes into that cup of rice that’s served on their table. So while we were eating, I just had to laugh and smile when someone exclaimed, ‘Uy! Ubusin niyo ’yan. Ang hirap magtanim ng palay.’ It’s one of the simple joys of my job. This is why I do this.”

Someone said that Romulo-Puyat has helped make farming cool again. Hopefully, her tireless and dedicated work will contribute to not only sustaining the rising interest of Filipinos in farming but also to a more lasting shift in the way we view agriculture.

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