Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There are exactly three stalks of arugula in my otherwise abundantly leafy salad.
It was Enzo Pinga, farmer and chief operating officer of Earthbeat Farms in San Pablo, Laguna, who noticed the apparent lack of the vegetable on my plate. Pinga’s farm, among others, supplies arugula, as well as lettuce, kale, herbs, tomatoes, and eggplant to various restaurants in Manila. The arugula I was conserving for consumption might as well have come from his farm.
Pinga laughs, then says arugula is actually difficult to grow in the summer, explaining its scarcity that season. Pinga, along with Gio Espital, Charlene Tan, Raffy Dacones, and Ana Ojeda-Osmeña, is part of a small group of young organic farmers who meet up every month to share best practices and ideas in order to boost organic farming in areas near Metro Manila.
Espital, for his part, heads Elements of Tomorrow (ELMNTM), a farm based in Quezon and Mindoro. The farm has been around for two years, cultivating wild and endemic species as well as root crops and fruit trees. I first met Espital at Madrid Fusión, where he instructed me on the virtues of “sangke” — a local leafy plant which, when its leaves are crushed and rubbed, smells like root beer.
A few steps away from ELMNTM’s booth that day was El Dorado Farms’, which started out as an orchid farm before Ojeda, its owner, ventured into organic farming. “We grow leafy vegetables, herbs, tomatoes, kalabasa, bahay kubo vegetables,” she says. “Like the rest, we’re trying to experiment which grows best in the soil, what the local people grow. We try to protect their heritage there.”
Charlene Tan of Good Food Community is of the same mind as Ojeda. Tan, like most of her colleagues, works with smallholder farmers (farmers who till small plots of land, often with their families, and often use some of its produce for their own) in different areas in Capas, Tarlac, Mountain Province, La Trinidad, Benguet, as well as indigenous farmers among the Dumagats in Rizal and Aetas in Tarlac.
“We exist to bridge people with these smallholder farmers,” she says. The farmers in Capas typically produce lowland bahay kubo vegetables, while in La Trinidad, they produce the chopsuey types of vegetables. “The IP groups have different varieties of bananas, mostly root crops,” Tan adds.
For Dacones, the vice president for operations of Teraoka Family Farm in Mangatarem, Pangasinan, the farm exists to promote the cultivation of local ingredients. “We try to grow whatever’s local in the area, promote whatever local ingredients we have in the Philippines, which is actually “a better way to promote the Filipino cuisine here,” he says.
His farm “specializes” in leafy greens and bahay kubo vegetables, and fruits like mango, avocados, and guyabano. While his family has owned a farm since 1992, it was only in 2014 that he started devoting the land to organic farming.
At a time when agriculture faces a scarcity of farmers and “going organic” has become a loose term that has somehow lost its ethical implications — it’s supposed to be a “whole movement of trying to live in such a way that’s in harmony with the environment,” says Tan — the five young farmers (along with other members of their community) try to raise awareness on the origins of the food that we eat, and what it means for the people who produce them.
The ‘big gamble’
To become a farmer, interestingly enough, does not require deep roots in agriculture. For each of the members of the “young organic farmers” group — as Pinga, Espital, Ojeda, Tan, and Dacones call themselves — getting into organic farming was either a tentative choice that had become a lifelong commitment, or an accident they happily stumbled upon.
Ojeda was jobless and had just resigned from government when she found herself growing her own plants in her backyard. She started with tomatoes and okra. “Everyday I would be like, it was so cool that you could [see the plants] in progress. You’d have to water it, say hi to it before going to work,” she laughs. “You talk to your plants too?” she asks Pinga.
“Yes, it works,” he responds, to another round of laughter.
Espital also took to backyard farming in Taguig before his uncle offered up his farm in Dolores, Quezon, for Espital to pursue his interest. Having worked in an NGO focused on sustainable agriculture, Espital knew the values of planting his own food. “Kailangan pala natin i-spread ‘yung organic agriculture,” he says. “Wala kasing access to healthy and nutritious food. Nauubos na rin ‘yung mga nagtatanim, ‘yung mga gustong bumalik sa farming.”
Dacones took the “big gamble” to quit his job after witnessing successful farming practices in Japan. “I started with a 500-square-meter lot,” he says. “I planted veggies, basic stuff for the house, until I started building a better relationship … helping farmers, helping them market their own [produce].”
Tan was more motivated by the “bigger philosophical questions: like how should we live in this time. How we can create new systems based on social justice, where there’s more equitable distribution,” she says.
“I guess that’s the experiment of community-shared agriculture,” Tan adds. “If we could just be more than customers, if we really could have a stake in farming, if we could meet our farmers, maybe that is a better solution for everyone.”
But meeting the farmers, as Tan says, requires more than interest or capital. Most farmers are into conventional farming methods (which includes the use of chemical pesticides), and these are less labor-intensive than natural or organic farming, and bring in more profit at lesser costs. Convincing these farmers to plant using natural methods, as to yield organic produce, is akin to dancing the cha-cha, says Espital.
“There’s so much pesticide involved in keeping your regular vegetables looking the way they do.”
Espital recounts the first time the farmers in Quezon tried organic farming. The farmers harvested tons of vegetables, but discovered that at that time, it cost them more to transport the produce to the market. “So tons of vegetables, naibalik sa lupa kasi first, walang market, ‘di pa maganda ‘yung road access at that time,” he recounts. “And ang daming supply. ‘Yung mga galing sa north na Baguio vegetables, sobrang baba nung price.”
“‘Yung mga tao, parang, ‘Wala naman pala ‘yan. Walang market ‘yan,’” adds Espital. “So bumalik na naman sila sa conventional.”
As Espital persuades the same farmers to try organic farming again, he and his colleagues grapple with the reasons why some farmers go back into conventional farming, even though the latter option is more harmful to one’s health and the environment.
“Mas madali sa kanilang maglagay ng pesticides. Kasi ‘yung difference ng labor cost ng pesticide ng [conventional] farming, mas mataas ‘yung labor cost ng natural farming,” he says.
It may not come as a surprise, therefore, that the farmers don’t eat what they plant for the market. “Kasi alam nila na puro pesticides ‘yun. So sasabihin nila, ‘Sir, ‘wag mo kakainin ‘yan, kasi para sa Manila ‘yan,’” says Espital.
Dacones recounts the same experience with some commercial farmers. “I visited one of their farms, and I saw how they … have a separate site for organic farming and those for commercial use. So I asked them why they have a separate site … [it’s because] they do bad practices to earn a higher profit.”
“There’s so much pesticide involved in keeping your regular vegetables looking the way they do,” adds Tan, discussing her experience with some commercial farmers in La Trinidad, Benguet. “For [the farmers], [it’s like] ‘We want this healthy option, but we need it to make economic sense, because we need to send our kids to school.’ The challenge was, how do we find a market that’s willing to pay a fair price?”
Competing with ‘palengke’ prices
Even if they compete with the advantages of conventional farming, the young organic farmers see no need to take shortcuts.
“I can’t compete with palengke prices, because those are practically what we pay our farmers at the farmgate,” says Tan. “And then to bring their produce to the market, I have to pay for the freight cost, quality control, what dies along the way, and even the assurance that they are farming in a way that respects the soil.”
Organic produce is expensive, and this turns most people off, says Pinga, but he clarifies a few things. The first is organic produce can exist in the mass market. “When you go into the mass market … may organic din dun, from farmers that can’t afford [chemical] inputs. So they’re in the same market as all the conventional ones, so they end up selling at the same price,” he says. The produce is “organic by neglect.”
Even so, there’s not enough organic produce to go around. “Organic produce in the Philippines is just not enough,” says Pinga. “We’re small farmers. Walang malalaking farmer, or farm, yet, na all-organic. Because of such [a] small quantity, we try to position in a way that we can get the most money for our efforts din.”
“The kind of knowledge we get from universities or even our agriculturists is like a particular kind of education that is tied to corporate interests.”
Organic farming also has to compete and compensate for the mass machinery of commercial farming, especially when it comes to knowledge sharing. As it is, there is a dearth of knowledge and information about natural farming methods. “We have to create our own compost, even knowledge of what variety [a plant] is, all of these things we have to do ourselves,” says Tan
Espital says they get most of their knowledge from YouTube. Ojeda shares, however, that most knowledge online is based on Western practices. “We can’t apply that because we don’t have the same seasons. You really have to talk to a lot of people,” she says. “[In] books, [there’s] not that much [knowledge] and you don’t even know where to start looking for those books.”
“A lot of it is also experimenting, depending on your area and on the seeds you have. You just have to try it out and hope it will grow well,” Ojeda adds.
Tan also comments about the content of available knowledge. “The kind of knowledge we get from universities or even our agriculturists is like a particular kind of education that is tied to corporate interests,” she says. “That’s the kind of war happening in the Department of Agriculture. There are some people who are pro-organic, others who are not, and even if they wanted to go organic, that’s probably not what they were taught in school. So they can only tell you what they read in books.”
The most important kind of knowledge on organic and natural farming, however, cannot be found in books or in the internet. Pinga says there must be efforts to preserve the knowledge with the “experienced farmers, the older generation.”
The idea is to preserve and pass down what the elder farmers know to benefit future generations. “More experienced farmers, they can tell from the way plants look, what does it lack, and what should I plant next,” adds Tan. “If we could extract that knowledge from our farmers, that would be amazing.”
But perhaps the biggest hurdle is changing people’s attitudes about what it means to go organic, beyond its meaning in the Organic Agriculture Act.
“People just haven’t fully grasped the value of organic produce,” says Pinga. “Right now it’s such a loose term. Sometimes, it’s like planting conventionally but just using non-chemical inputs. People [also] really don’t fully grasp the value of protecting the environment [through organic farming], the farmers’ health.”
“We’ve [also] been misled by this notion of abundance that we can get everything year-round and at cheap prices, but at what cost?” Pinga asks.
Meanwhile, Pinga and the rest of the young organic farmers continue to do the difficult work of intimately knowing the soil where our food grows, and shortening the distance between farm to table, in the hopes that slowly and surely, these small efforts will somehow help consumers make better lifestyle choices.
Organic, sustainably produced, and earth-friendly products (including those from the farmers featured here) are available every week at Good Food Sundays at Mandala Park in Shaw Blvd., Mandaluyong.