A Call to Farms: Why Young Farmers are Becoming an Endangered SpeciesFebruary 15, 2019
- Nico GocoWords
It’s only noon, on an otherwise unremarkable day in May, and I’m already breathing heavily. I have to pause and rest one minute for every five minutes I walk. I’ve never felt so out of shape in my life, but I don’t want to look like a weakling in front of the kuya who’s guiding me. I remember the ferry ride I took earlier, from Calapan in Oriental Mindoro, and the merienda I, regretfully, chose not to eat on the ship. I chug down some water with my disappointment and continue to walk along the pilapil1 as we make the rounds through the fishponds my grandfather had built some sixty years past.
My great-grandfather constructed our fishponds more than three generations ago.
It’s been three generations since my great-grandfather first began construction of the fishponds, built by his own hands, sweat, and blood. In the decades that followed, my grandparents and their four sons managed to grow and expand the farm while raising their respective families. Today though, only my dad and his brother stand as our elders, the rest are at peace.
I continue my trek, trying to imagine how it must have been back then. With each step, I take care not to stumble on the overgrowth of weeds, lest I slip and fall down the crumbling slope. With each step, I am mindful of the echoes of my heritage each time my boot hits the ground.
Mindoro, More than Just the Beach
Ask anyone in the Philippines about Mindoro, and chances are Puerto Galera will be the first thing they mention. It is, after all, one of the more well-known beaches in the country. For me, however, it will always be the island where I trace my roots.
Mindoro is a few kilometers shy of two hundred from Manila. Located just below Batangas, it is one of the southernmost Islands of Luzon. It’s one of the largest as well at ten and a half thousand square kilometers. While it is considered a gateway to the Visayas, it is still Tagalog territory, and people there speak in similar fashion to natives of Batangas and Quezon.
Oriental Mindoro has 160,000 hectares of agricultural land.
Our province, Oriental Mindoro, has almost a hundred and sixty thousand hectares of agricultural land. To provide better context, more than three hundred UP Diliman campuses could fit inside the area. Despite its large size, the province remains relatively undeveloped. Spend a few hours driving along the new highways and you’ll see nothing but farm after farm after farm. You’d be able to count the number of malls with just one hand.
Progress, though, does continue to come to Mindoro. Calapan, the provincial capitol, just got new traffic lights, and at one intersection, you can see announcements and ads being displayed on a large LCD screen. Overseas workers are now coming home, and with them, the money and drive to build new subdivisions and commercial centers.
Much has changed from the Mindoro I remember from my youth. I’m still a little astonished wheneve I drive through different towns without having to worry about damaging my car’s suspension. New sedans and SUVs from the casa2 in Batangas roll off the pier in a steady fashion.
Much more, though, still remains the same. The vast tracts of farmland are still there, tended the same way, and perhaps more telling, tended by the same people. Farms are left to the people that started them decades ago, as they’ve sent their children off to far away schools so that they may find work in corporations and call centers. Maybe, if they’re lucky, perhaps their children can even get jobs overseas.
The First Tide Comes In
There’s little of Mindoro’s history to be found in books or online. Much of the knowledge I’ve gained about my family and our roots in Mindoro come by way of stories from my dad and his brothers. Farming, for our branch at least, is where it all began. And the man who started it was my Lolo Tato, my great-grandfather. If there’s one story about him that would always pop up during get-togethers, it would be how he persevered through incredible hardships and managed to make a successful run at farming.
If they didn’t want to starve, the new arrivals had to find a way to convert and cultivate the land.
As one of the new settlers in Mindoro shipped there by the government’s homestead program, Lolo Tato faced many of the same challenges his neighbors did. If they didn’t want to starve, the new arrivals had to find a way to convert and cultivate the land that had long been left fallow. However there was no farm machinery available and continuous outbreaks of disease claimed the lives of many people. Many of his neighbors chose to leave and find their luck elsewhere, lolo decided to stay and offered to buy their land off them, often with nothing but a promissory note as payment.
In time, he managed to turn these lands into rice fields and fruit farms. He planted what he could, and did a lot of the work himself. When they came of age, his children, including my grandfather Leo, began to help and inherited duties and responsibilities around the farm as well. With a lot of hard work and perseverance, the farms proved successful enough for Lolo Tato to send his siblings and his children to school. He made good on those promissory notes. Leo, whom we all called Daddy, later became one of the first civil engineers out of UP Diliman, all thanks to farming.
In retrospect, I guess this is why Daddy wanted to venture into farming himself, building six fishponds to raise anything from shrimp and crabs to bangus and tilapia. His gamble did succeed, as all his sons got a good education from thanks the income generated by his fishponds.
Sometime in the sixties, the whole family moved to Makati to find even better opportunities in the booming metropolitan scene. Times were good back then. The Philippine Peso was still at 2 or 3 for every dollar and the country’s economy was widely held as one of the strongest and fastest growing in Asia.
Living in Manila, the farm seemed farther and farther away each year.
All the sons were able to finish college in Metro Manila, and found suitable employment after graduation. Despite their office jobs, the brothers still took turns managing the family farm. Living permanently in Metro Manila, however, and with their own individual families and lives to take care of, made things difficult. The distance from the farm seemed to grow further and further away each year.
Low Tide, a Generation Removed
According to Farmland, an upcoming documentary from the United States, “Most Americans are five generations removed from the farm.” In the Philippines, especially in Metro Manila, most adults are only a generation or two removed from the ploughing and planting, but the is gap steadily increasing.
For our family, my generation is the first to grow up exclusively in Metro Manila. If you ask me about the number of times I’ve actually been to the farm, I’d probably be ashamed of my answer. In the first twenty years of my life, I would not be lying if I said I knew nothing about growing food or taking care of animals. Like Daddy, most of us took up Engineering or technical courses in college instead of anything related to agriculture. As children, we did spend summers at the farm, but we didn’t go there to work or help out. Mostly, these trips were vacations for us, and while we were exposed to farming, we were always kept separate from it.
Restaurants and groceries have effectively alienated us from the farm.
It’s a bit amusing to note that while we all know so much about the finished products that we consume, we know comparatively very little about the food’s source. Restaurants and groceries, the most immediate and familiar connections we have to food, have effectively alienated us from the farm, both as a concept as an actual destination to reach. We’ve chosen convenience over our connection with where our food comes from.
Very few of us view this separation as negative, very few even know that the delineation exists. We don’t have to look too far from home to understand the reason why. In Pamapnga, at an aquaculture conference I attended, a friend put it in this way, “Farmers work very hard. They do it to raise their kids and put them through school. And they say to their kids, finish school, and get a good job. Do it so you don’t have to go through a hard life. Do it so you don’t have to become a farmer.” Something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong if becoming a farmer is now being used as a tell tale sign of a failed life.
The Tide of Opportunity Comes In
I drove back from that conference with mixed feelings. While I realized that government and private sector support for the industry was growing, I couldn’t help but notice that I was probably the only one in my age group in attendance. I kept thinking back to what my friend said, that farmers don’t let their kids grow up to be farmers, and what that meant for the country’s future.
From that conference, I made my way to the PICC in Pasay for the last leg of the 10th National Organic Agriculture Conference. There, I was greeted by a totally different scene. The lecture halls were filled with students, young professionals, and people well into their adulthood. A few exhibitors who had developed technologies for organic farming were also quite near my age. There was something the air, a scent that you could tell everyone else in the building could smell, opportunity.
Opportunity, or the lack of it, is what I feel stops a lot of young people today from going into farming. From my personal experience, it’s difficult to let go of the safety net that is a salaried day job with benefits just to venture into agriculture. It’s an issue that my family is well aware of, and one that needs resolution soon.
To put it bluntly, it’s about the money. There are always bills to be paid, we have to send our kids to good schools, and we want to live in relative comfort. It’s hard to give all that up for a life that you know nothing about, one we’ve been told won’t help us reach our own goals.
There’s now added interest in producing healthy, organic, and sustainable agricultural products.
The new food movements, however, have become an unexpected ally. They’ve sparked new ways of thinking about food, creating an entirely new market niche. There’s now added interest and incentive in producing healthy, organic, and sustainable agricultural products. Farming continues to be a difficult endeavor, but it now has the potential to provide more significant income to for the needs of the farmers. Farmers can then focus on producing safe and good quality food without worrying about how they’ll be able to pay the bills. It’s a perfect marriage of business, sustainability, and social responsibility.
People are now becoming very picky eaters. There’s an added dimension of social responsibility that goes together with taste and flavor of food, and people are willing to pay a premium for food that provides this value. Admittedly, it’s a niche market for now. But the movement is starting to grow beyond just a being label that restaurants and specialty stores stick on their products so they can charge more. We’ve even featured some enterprises that have taken the next logical step in taking up the cause of farmers and producers of organic and socially responsible products.
Places such as Green Pastures, where organic ingredients are as important as the flavors, have begun to pop up. Our good friend, Jeremy of Mr. Delicious, makes it a point to build a relationship with the locals he sources his ingredients from. There’s also Got Heart, a store which acts as intermediary to give exposure to locally and responsibly grown products. One of the more inspiring endeavors is that of Gawad Kalinga’s Enchanted Farm, its business model seamlessly integrating social responsibility with a products people support because of their quality.
The new farm and food movements have the chance to flourish because they’re not just feel-good or charity cases. Farms can now say, “We’re producing food that values your well-being, that values nature, and that values the hands which farmed them.”
Going With the Current
It’s important to point out that some farms that have become success stories for sustainable agriculture. The Costales and Herbana farms are a couple of ventures in Laguna which I’ve been particularly impressed with, as they demonstrate that farming is a viable and profitable practice in this day and age. There are, of course, several other organic farms all over the country which have done well for themselves. All of them deserve our support.
Sustainability is what will keep you afloat.
I’ve mentioned sustainability a lot in this article. It’s a buzzword that is in danger of losing its meaning like the oft abused “organic” and “artisanal” labels. However, true sustainability is a practice which makes sense not only in business, but in our lives as well. In the end, it’s what keeps you afloat, the ability to sustain people through healthy crops, sustaining your operations with sound practices, and sustaining your self to be able to do the same day in and day out, and hopefully for the next generations to come.
In all honesty, I’m still totally unsure whether I should follow my ancestors’ footsteps and go fully into agriculture. For the past couple of years, I’ve been exposed to more ideas and more opportunities that get me excited over the prospect of farming. I also feel that becoming a part of the team here at Pepper.ph wasn’t a coincidence, as it allowed me to connect with so many people who share the same passion for and principles I do about food. Sometimes, I feel like the universe is trying to tell me something,