Photograph by Jcomp on Freepik
Culture Spotlight

Hey dreamers, it’s time we go back to the farm

Our search for better, easier, more convenient solutions and living conditions have led to very real changes in the countryside—and they’re not very good changes. What’s the solution? Self-sufficiency would be a step in the right direction.
Warren de Guzman | Aug 13 2019

Growing up my mother used to talk about her mother— my grandmother—who died a few years after I was born. She loved talking about my ‘Lola' whenever our family would fall on hard times. As an OFW family, life was a roller coaster, the peaks and valleys coinciding with the triumphs and tribulations of my father and his career as an engineer in Saudi Arabia. 

During such difficult periods, my mother would recall how our Lola would handle hardship in the province of Zambales. They lived on a farm, with acres of land planted with rice, fruit bearing trees, and a variety of crops. For Lola, any financial need that wasn’t in the budget was met by a trip to the market with a harvest of fruits or vegetables. Rice provided regular returns once or twice a year. They could also collect frogs in the fields or visit the river for all manner of fresh water fish. It sounded romantic. Whenever the family needed something, the land provided.

But times have changed. Most of my mother’s family has left the province. Just like my family, everyone decided to settle down in Metro Manila. Others left the country altogether, finding new homes in the United States. Those who were left behind have not been able to keep the farm running. Instead, the land was sold off, piece by piece. Parts of it were converted for various business purposes. Some endeavours succeeded, others did not. Those that did not left behind swathes of idle land and lost investment. 

We all still try and visit during the holidays. But as the years went by, the trips have been few and far between. My mother’s passing has also made trips to Zambales even more rare. I for one have not gone back to Zambales in years. I can say the same for many of my siblings and relatives. The family is no longer in Zambales, and the land no longer provides.

 

Crop production down

I was reminded of this story when I read the government’s second quarter gross domestic product report. Crop production suffered its biggest quarterly contraction in three years. Government blamed dry conditions caused by the El Niño Phenomenon. But there are other factors, including delays in the proper implementation of the P10B rice competitiveness enhancement fund, financed by the rice tariffication law. 

The family is no longer in Zambales, and the land no longer provides.

The influx of rice imports have made our staple food cheaper, but it has also made local palay  farming less profitable. It might not be an apples and oranges comparison, but the consequences are real. Our search for better, easier, or more convenient solutions and living conditions have led to very real changes in the countryside.

Who is to blame? I can’t blame my relatives for leaving our province. My family did the exact same thing. We even lived in the Middle East for most of my formative years. Why should I blame them for wanting to do the same? I don’t think I can blame local rice farmers for leaving the fields either. Most of them are old and grey. They worked hard so their sons and daughters could leave their farms for better futures in the city. All the parties involved felt there was no alternative to leaving. It is a harsh and sad reality.

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Is there a lost opportunity? The answer is yes. I believe there are huge opportunities lost on both fronts. For our family, the losses are painful. Idle land costs money.

Annual real estate taxes and idle land penalties add up. Little perks we took for granted are gone, including semi-annual deliveries of rice sacks and baskets of mangoes for personal consumption. ‘Bilaos’ of sweet rice cakes and bundles of ‘suman’ have also disappeared from our tables. 

 

What is self-sufficiency 

For the Philippines, the losses hurt even more. Millions of farmers are suffering from low farm gate prices, abused by cutthroat middle men. Consumers are faced with unpredictable prices, and sometimes unreliable supply. Large scale producers and farmers are forced to turn into importers just to compete with the massive inflow of agri products brought in to fight inflation. Its not ideal.

What should be done? Agricultural legislation and regulation is not a forte of mine. But I do feel self-sufficiency would be a step in the right direction. After all the Philippines is an archipelago. I don’t think I could sleep well knowing the islands I live in cannot produce enough food. There has been an argument against self-sufficiency, based on the merits of globalization. There are those who argue we can never become as efficient as Vietnam or Thailand in producing rice. But I still feel self sufficiency should not be treated as a pipe dream. 

Self-sufficiency in terms of food is definitely something we should all gun for. A farm sector that grows less than 1% is something to be ashamed of. Imagine an entire nation failing to grow enough rice, chicken and fish to feed itself. It’s an ugly image. It should feel infinitely worse than coming home to an empty fridge, which by itself is already a particularly putrid feeling (one that drives many to theft, even murder). 

Self-sufficiency in terms of food is definitely something we should all gun for. A farm sector that grows less than 1% is something to be ashamed of. 

Looking at trends in farming and food, everything is pointing back to self sufficiency on a micro level. Restaurants are increasingly looking for small organic partner farms to provide raw materials like free range chickens, GMO-free garden fresh vegetables, and even artisanal cheese and dairy. In this age of self-discovery and hyper individualism, chefs and cooks want to stand out by shunning the old ways of mass production. This is a good development. Grow Asia, a pro-farming organization supported by the World Economic Forum, says the mass producers of old cannot handle booming demand alone. The Philippines is home to over 100 million people. There will always be a need for more farmers.

New Farm Secretary William Dar has gone on record saying the proper implementation of the rice competitiveness enhancement fund is the focus of his first 100 days in office. That’s P10B for mechanization, financing, education, and other programs needed to boost local farmer’s efficiency and productivity. He also promised to do everything possible to make farming and fishing more profitable for locals. Aside from that, there are irrigation and farm-to-market road projects included in the Build Build Build infrastructure initiative of the Duterte Administration. There have also been efforts to improve farmer’s access to finance, crop insurance, and other vital services. But there is a lot of work to be done.

 

Growing our own food

For some, the solution is growing your own food. Urban techniques include vertical farming and hydroponics. My knowledge of these techniques is quite elementary, but the gist is basically maximizing production with minimal use of land or space. Others take a more simple approach, like growing herbs in pots on a windowsill. Taking care of a few chickens is another popular practice in and around Manila. Although I must say most of the chickens I’ve seen in the city are of the fighting kind.

It may seem like a monumental task. The numbers don’t lie. Filipinos appear to be giving up on farming. However recent trips to Japan and Switzerland have solidified my belief in agriculture. In those countries I have seen well tended farms co-existing with the modern world. I have seen rice fields set up side by side with 24 hour convenience stores and banks. I have seen entire communities with trains and cable cars centered around dairy farms. I have seen fresh cherry tomatoes, plump figs, and juicy apricots celebrated by adoring fans. I have seen melons wrapped in ornate packaging, and sold off at unbelievable prices. I have seen wet markets flooded with tourists and locals paying top dollar for fresh produce, poultry, meat and fish. A developed farming sector can be a powerhouse catalyst for the Philippines.

Filipinos appear to be giving up on farming. However recent trips to Japan and Switzerland have solidified my belief in agriculture. 

I for one would love to get my hands dirty on our family’s farmland. It could potentially be much more fulfilling compared to watching stock and bond markets fluctuate on screen. No doubt it would be much healthier. It may not help pay the bills right now, but a hearty plate of omelette made from tomatoes and eggs fresh from the garden would definitely be good for the soul, and the tummy.