Cordi Farmers Savvy in Face of Climate Change, Covid-19

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ATOK, BUGUIAS, Benguet – The cabbage boom that transformed economy of the then famously called “Mountain Trail” of old, of Halsema National Highway traversing highland Cordillera in Northern Luzon, attracted hundreds of settlers to the narrow ridge in 1950’s and 60’s, where before said decades, a mere handful of families lived there.

Like a “Once upon a time, “story but true, a string of fast-growing market towns later sprouted, among the new settlements were called Natubleng, Abatan, Mt. Data, sitting only a few kilometers from Buguias, then Sayangan, Paoay, in Atok. All the rest of settlements then quietly, followed suit.

One denominator welded them why they flocked to this place atop towering mountains: to grow vegetables. For starting in the 50’s going onwards, the place, blessed with cool weather suited for highland vegetables, was slowly being transformed as the “Mountain Trail Vegetable Hearth” north of the Philippines.

Along the cold Halsema National Highway, then known as dusty, unpaved, narrow, dangerous but passable to hardy vehicles, the settlers cleared small gardens on the scrubby land, many of these gardens hugging inclined, along mountainsides where slopes were 45 degrees or more.

It was at Halsema during those times where any uninitiated or first-timer traveler who refused to heed advice of toting a jacket or muffler would find himself/herself shivering from the cold draft of Mountain Trail while aboard a vehicle.

It was Halsema National Highway – which humorously earned the moniker, “abortion highway,” that became the vital link of the settlers to the “outside world,” which to them was Baguio City.

It was Halsema National Highway, built by Eusebius Julius Halsema in 1922 and took 8 years to complete, then merely a foot trail, which decided whether the settlers will break even from their efforts or fail miserably.

And the settler-tillers possessed scarce capital to fund their private endeavors. This would fall to another group who settled in Baguio City: The Chinese.

Of the Chinese and Japanese who had long grown vegetables in the Baguio-La Trinidad belts, a substantial number of Chinese expanded their operations north to Mountain Trail, in the process extending financial network to tillers and later bought their crops and sent these to Baguio and Manila.

This stage where the tillers depended on the Chinese for financial back-up was depicted as the entry of the middleman, seen to corner more profit from the produce of croppers.

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There, however, were many Chinese who transacted business with the planters with fairness. One, famously remembered for his magnanimity to the new farmers in Buguias those times was simply known as Mr. Singa.

Singa tilled a big portion in Buguais. By a variety of arrangement either through daily or monthly basis, many settlers came to work on Singa’s fields, eventually became sharecroppers on Singa’s subsidiary vegetable plots. Many came from as far as Atok.

While the Chinese may have dominated the early vegetable industry, they by no means displaced the independent cultivators along Mountain Trail.

Hard work, perseverance and fortitude were the hallmarks of the farmers. Many were able to save and started their personal gardening endeavors. Thus saw the vegetable growing frontier extend rapidly to the many peripheral villages of the former Buguias economic sphere.

One aspect remained with them: when they went to settle there, majority lacked knowledge of the commercial vegetable growing culture. The vegetable growing techniques adopted by the gardeners were largely of Chinese provenance.

But in adopting the vegetable –growing techniques of the Chinese, the Benguet farmers, too, introduced indigenous vegetable farming methods or changes which, in the view of many agriculturists, are indigenous resiliency competence learned only through experience.

Like out-of-the-classroom students, the farmers studied the soil. In flat areas in Buguias, they found heavy loam, called “loboy,” suited for “uma,” or kaingin farming and rich in organics.

They distinguished an infertile or light subsoil not good for vegetables, called, “komog.” They have learned of a very fertile soil with water retention qualities but use it rarely because of its potential flooding. It’s called “tapo.”

They can ascertain the “lagan,” mountain soil from the “oplit,” clay soil, and avoid using the “liang,” or red subsoil for its very low fertility.

They are very adept at mixing soils into hybrid form.  Through trial and error, they have discovered “oplit-loboy” mixture suit vegetables very well.

Even today, one can spot a farmer sifting soils into sacks and transporting these to his garden; certain soils from one mountain and transporting it to his garden and mixing them into the plots, the probability is, the farmer is making his hybrid soil.

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Such change or remodeling is called “Climate-Resilient Agriculture” (CRA) by modern agricultural wordsmiths and technocrats.  Highland farmers understand it as “as ability to adapt to changing environment,” or “panangbaliw ti aramid ti panagmula.”

Many of the old farmers that Herald Express had the chance to talk with through text messages went back to the times when they said their forebears constructed their gardens into terraced systems which they inherited. They called these “garden.”

Note! Benguet farmers are not fond of the word “farm,” when they talk of their landholdings. The simply talk of their landholdings as “garden.”

Talk to anybody there, even today, like asking, “Napanan ni Nanang mo?” Or, “Napanan ti tatang mo?” The usual answer would be, “Napan idiay garden.”  Even if the plantation is as big as two hectares or more, they still call it simply as, “garden.”

Over the years that they carried such knowledge, they refined their indigenous techniques and honed their skills to a degree of competence that even modern agriculturists of today respect.

Unexpected curve balls pitched at the path Cordilleran farmers by climate change and the pandemic have made   many planters to dig their heels in, rummage into their indigenous bags of gardening tricks as well as changing course suitable to production system to make it resilient.

They understand adaptation is a concept that reflects desire to improve integration of agricultural development responsive to unfavorable planting conditions.

They always seek to maintain or enhance their ability for desired production level, or even increasing output, as well as solving production distribution or product-marketing.

When they speak of unfavorable conditions, Cordilleran farmers spoken with, describe such situation whereby their growing produce is highly vulnerable to unpredictable and adverse weather conditions, land condition, and pest infestation where before, they hardly experienced or were able to overcome easily such negative occurrences.

Many farmers of today have realized to re-direct their gardening methods towards safe and sustainable agriculture.

For one, farmers have been blamed for rampant cutting of trees to pave way for more vegetable plots. Such truth is happening at Mount Data National Park and other parts in the Agno areas.

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After all, although many Cordilleran farmers won’t admit it, they are partly to blame for some effects of climate change resulting to unfavorable conditions prevailing upon the vegetable farming belt that stretches from Atok to Buguias.

The expanding “vegetable over forest” attitude of many Cordilleran farmers had, for example, ran amok over 5,513 hectares of Mount Data National Park, critically affecting the Park’s remaining 9 hectares.

Many farmers also admit that soil deterioration is the result of constant vegetable production to satiate the needs of millions of Filipinos. Half a century of toiling the land had resulted to its being acidic and becoming more so when farmers use synthetic fertilizer to upgrade soil fertility.

Water system, the main ingredient for a successful vegetable growing venture has also been severely affected. Vegetable growing expansion is the direct result of water levels having gone down in several tributaries of the Agno River Basin, as confirmed by the Benguet Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO).

Today, vegetable gardens totaling about 9,500 hectares lie sprawled at the foot of Mount Data, in the town of Buguias, according to PENRO figures.

Some local indigenous communities have taken the initiative to halt the further spread of vegetable farms, by creating management zones.

Many vegetable farmers have griped about such move but the concerned communities have stood their ground.

To bolster the management zone concept, the Department of Agriculture-Cordillera Administrative Region (DA-CAR) has offered smart, organic farming to avert further agricultural crisis and even stave off effect of the pandemic.

DA-CAR offers three solutions: Agroforestry, crop programming and organic farming.

Nonetheless, when Covid-19 struck, Cordilleran farmers, instead of dumping their produce, got their acts together, shelled out money to truck in their vegetables to areas in CAR, like Baguio City, La Trinidad, and other areas in Luzon for people to avail of them, free. – Bony A. Bengwayan

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