In the era of Michelin stars for restaurants and best chef awards, the humble farmer and food producers often get unnoticed. An average Filipino farmer’s monthly income is P8,750, which is sadly below the government’s defined basic standard of living wage of about P10,000. Here, three individuals who are working on the ground with farmers share ways on how we can help empower and support those toiling the soil.
Planting the seeds to grow
Farm manager of ProFarm Rashid Rosete holds the seed to a type of non-GMO corn hybrid that promises to help farmers have bigger yields. “You know how everything is so fast-paced nowadays? You just let it run by itself and you don’t have to touch it that much? People like that kind of stuff.”
Rosete is referring to the conveniences of GMO. “But it comes with a hefty price. It’s not best not only for our bodies but also for the bodies of the livestock that consume it.”
Even if we don’t eat GMO corn directly, we may not be exactly in the clear. Many conventional farmers purchase and push GMO corn feed on their livestock that then finds itself on our plates. ProFarm’s seed is a natural hybrid, which means that it is a product of guided natural reproduction.
GMOs are the result of unnatural methods usually produced in labs, creating organisms that would never emerge in nature. “What we have is a non-genetically modified organism. It’s a hybrid and it took nearly a decade to develop. We didn’t alter the genetic makeup of the organism. We instead took the time to breed it in the genetic makeup of the organism,” Rosete explains.
The seed was bred by its late founder Kamendra Mishra and it possesses many features that can give leverage to farmers.
“GMO corn’s roots are shallow and don’t grow deep as opposed to our non-GMO hybrid seed that has roots growing deep into the ground. So when there’s a drought, guess where the water’s going to be? It’s going to be deep into the ground,” Rosete says.
“What we have is a non-genetically modified organism. It’s a hybrid and it took nearly a decade to develop. We didn’t alter the genetic makeup of the organism. We instead took the time to breed it in the genetic makeup of the organism,” Rashid Rosete explains.
Because of this, the seed has been successfully grown both in drought and in typhoons. Its roots are so deep that it does not get uprooted even by strong winds.
Farmers are able to harvest bigger yields per hectare since the seed is a dwarf variety. This means a shorter corn stalk that requires less space to grow, and it produces a bigger corn with more kernels per row than a GMO variety. The seed is distributed locally by Isaacseed.
Technique is key
Kalipayan Farm founder Nikole Alicer Kazemi was drawn to helping the plight of the farmers of Pulilan, Bulacan. Introducing technology such as mobile money to pay for their water bills for instance was just the start of Kazemi’s synergistic relationship with Pulilan.
“What was most alarming for me was when I found out about their nutrition,” Kazemi recalls. Ironically, farmers who planted vegetables and crops were getting sick. “We saw the farmers looked malnourished and found that they wouldn’t consume the best product they have. Above this, they’re the first to get sick because they’re exposed to chemicals every week.
In an effort to protect them by eliminating chemicals used in conventional farming, Kazemi introduced Pulilan’s farmers to natural farming. Without using chemical pesticides and herbicides and by improving the soil with indigenous microorganisms, farmers are able to restore the soil’s fertility.
“Any seed can grow in a very good environment. So soil is among the first things we should improve on and manage and continuously cultivate because that is the source of all nutrients. There’s a network in the soil. This is the first thing that chemicals destroy. Chemicals used in conventional farming kill bad bacteria but also kill the good bacteria. So in effect, you have a less fertile soil. And it breeds more challenges after that,” Kazemi explains.
“When you do natural farming, there’s a little bit of disruption. You will need time to get to a certain yield comparable to conventional farming. In our case, it took three years to surpass the yield of a conventional farmer. Over time, you also improve your soil fertility,” says Kalipayan Farm founder Nikole Alicer Kazemi.
How does one harvest indigenous microorganisms? Kazemi had a simple method. “Where there is food, there is life. We took bamboo, opened it, filled it with the best cooked rice that we had, and closed it up with some rubber bands and put it under a tree in the mountain. After seven days, we came back and so much life attached itself to the rice. It looked like cotton. The microorganisms we harvested there were brought back to Pulilan. That was the source of our indigenous microorganisms that are now continuously cultivating in Pulilan today.”
Although farmers won’t see an instant increase in yield when converting to natural farming methods, Kazemi assures them that it is better in the long run.
“When you do natural farming, there’s a little bit of disruption. You will need time to get to a certain yield comparable to conventional farming. In our case, it took three years to surpass the yield of a conventional farmer. Over time, you also improve your soil fertility. And if you can see the farmers now that converted into natural farming, they have improved their health.”
Farmers should dream big
Founding farmer, president, and CEO of Agrea Cherrie Atilano is a bright force working hard to instill dignity in farming. “In Agrea, we coined the term ‘ecology of dignity.’ How do you put dignity in people who are producing food? How do you put dignity in people who are in the supply chain? That is the mission of agriculture—to make every Filipino have decent food on their table and to remove hunger. So putting dignity in the supply chain, the value chain, and more importantly the food producers is something that Agrea is focusing on,” Atilano says.
When agriculture is mentioned, usually statistics follow of how much yield was produced. Atilano noticed that something more important should also be inspected.
“You measure yield in terms of how much rice was produced or harvested. But we never really check the quality of the lives of our farmers or fisherfolk. Do they have food on their tables? Can they send their children to school? Do they have a decent roof on their head? How are they during typhoons since the Philippines receives about 20 typhoons a year?”
Agrea’s approach to agribusiness is quite different. In their farm school in Marinduque, farmers spend the first three days counting their blessings instead of farming.
“We really believe that teaching farmers how to dream is very important so we put up a farm school. Everything starts with changing their mindset. Many of the farmers feel that they’re poor and helpless. So we have activities that we call gratitude and dream building where we’d ask them what resources they have. Farmers would answer that they have one hectare of land from agrarian reform, 50 coconut trees, 20 banana trees, 10 chickens, one pig in the backyard. And when they open their eyes again, we make them realize that they aren’t poor after all since not everyone owns one hectare of land. Those kinds of activities shift their mindsets on being grateful and focus on the resources they do have. From there, we teach them agribusiness and teach them how to change from being just a farmer to being a farmer-entrepreneur,” Atilano says with enthusiasm.
“You measure yield in terms of how much rice was produced or harvested. But we never really check the quality of the lives of our farmers or fisherfolk. Do they have food on their tables? Can they send their children to school? Do they have a decent roof on their head? How are they during typhoons since the Philippines receives about 20 typhoons a year?” says Cherrie Atilano.
The pandemic has spurred Agrea’s Move Food Movement and Atilano recounts the day when a farmer called her asking for help.
“One farmer messaged me on Agrea and said that he listened to my talk on agrarian reform. He borrowed money from a bank to plant pineapple. And now that it was harvest time, the lockdown happened. He said he needed the money to pay for the graduation of his son (who was the first in their clan to graduate from university). I told him, ‘I don’t usually do this, but I’ll try. Bring your pineapples to Makati.’
The farmer was from Tanay, Rizal so we borrowed a truck from the barangay captain and he needed to go through 13 checkpoints to arrive in Makati. When he arrived, he had 2,500 pineapples. It took him six hours to go back to Tanay because of the checkpoints. While he was halfway to Tanay, I called him up and told him that I sold all of his pineapples through posts on my Instagram and Facebook. So I told him to return the next day and bring more pineapples. To make the story short, we were able to sell all his 15,000 pineapples.”