Seeds of Hope, Hedge Against Food Insecurity

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ATOK, Benguet — Farmers in Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) two month earlier stamped their mark on the lives of many Filipinos when food insecurity threatened to empty their food bowls, one major impact of the lingering pandemic that disrupted food chain supply in almost all part of the Philippines.

When the going got tough for many Filipino families in Northern Luzon and elsewhere, the tough Cordilleran farmers got going by becoming part of the seeds of hope in the nationwide battle cry, “Bayanihan: we heal as one.”

Although affected as well by the pandemic and having incurred huge losses and debt, Cordilleran farmers refused to be unbowed and instead reversed the situation by reaching out to Filipinos, giving free the fruits of their toils from the soil.

An act of generosity or self-sacrifice. A gesture to dispel neighbors from pandemic anxiety or cabin fever.  A helping hand to anyone who can’t go to work or lost a job. Support for families having relatives affected by Covid-19. Solidarity with medical people, police officers, and other front liners toiling day and night to save the public-at-large.

Whatever. Nearly three months from now, Herald Express has found there’s been no end to the tales of good deeds found.

PJ Haight from Sayangan, Atok, Benguet, is the personification of other farmers in CAR: hardworking, with individually unique characters, stewards of the soil and the reasons food stay present on the table.

For Haight and other Cordilleran farmers, there’s no such fixed schedule as working from 8 o’clock AM to 5 o’clock PM.

Up and about when the sun has scarcely risen, tilling the fields, retiring only when darkness settles.

And they are always on standby. If a cow goes on labor in the dead of night, the farmer is there to help in birthing delivery. When rains are late, they time their seeding to coincide with the falling rain, so the seeds of hope won’t wither and die.

They are motivated and capable, perpetual students who read, talk to Department of Agriculture (DA-CAR) extension experts and soak up as much information DA-CAR imparts through training and seminar.

Take it from Haight and other farmers spoken to by Herald Express: farming is not a lifeless environment, they explaining there’s always new farming methods, new developments and technologies to learn.

Balancing their field chores, they seek to constantly improve themselves and their business skills, the latter important when selling their produce at La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post, Baguio’s Vegetable Market Section, in Region 1, Region 3 or Manila, with middlemen trying to fleece them of gain.

Anyone cannot feel at home talking and doing agriculture or home gardening if such person knows least, the caprices of the weather.

In the words of Daniel Saclay, from Atok, Benguet, he says, “Anyone can farm – yet, not everyone can be farmer.”

Saclay knows from whereof he speaks. He had been farming for more than 35 years.

Farmers are driven by passion that gives them strength to stand up and start again after facing disappointment and failure. They live a life of significance and purpose, should be respected as professionals in their chosen vocation, their work having direct impact on well-being of anyone.

Haight, when he sensed food will be hard to get by during the restrictive period, parked his vegetable truck laden with over 1,500 kilos of vegetables in public places so his community members can avail free of them.

Stories abound of how many Cordilleran farmers, instead of dumping their vegetables by wayside because it was prohibited for them to travel outside CAR, instead drove their vegetable trucks in designated donation points and gladly handed over their produce. In doing so, they shelled out money from their pockets for gasoline expense, salary for helpers aside from food fare.

They came from various parts in CAR, converging in La Trinidad, Benguet, tired, often hungry because eatery business along Halsema National Highway were shuttered, momentarily relieved of their long travels, but worry in their eyes about their families they left behind.

For example, the farmers flooded the grounds of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, in La Trinidad, Benguet, with assorted vegetables, which were immediately distributed to barangays in Baguio City and in La Trinidad, explained Fr. Richard Stone Banagui, the church’s rector. Still donated vegetables kept coming in droves.

“They, (the farmers), too, are struggling to survive the pandemic, but they happily came with truckloads of carrots and other vegetables for FREE,” said Fr. Banagui’s sister, Sheila Banagui in a text message, adding further, “If you look at them deeper in their eyes, you can feel their sorrow behind those beautiful smiles, because they, too, are worried about what tomorrow might bring.”

Thousand tons of vegetables from Cordilleran farmers were trucked into receiving donation points where these were distributed to various parts in the country.

Herald Express tracked many of the farmers through text messages, asking permission for their names to be published but they were resolute in their desire to remain just anonymous. No more, no less.

One farmer, Paul Malucay, from Bulalacao, Mankayan, Benguet summed up the feeling of the farmers wanting anonymity, when he said,” May olay kosto. Panlaglagipan da en dakami ay farmers.” (It’s alright. That they may remember us as farmers).

Benguet farmers tried to shorten the “food chain link insecurity,” by making sure community members can avail of foodstuff when human restriction was clamped down and food supply from manufacturing bases wasn’t at peak movement.

Today, even if without pandemic threat, both Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) and Region 1 face challenges regarding food security if disruption of food supply chains occurs with events like major roads being closed by avalanche, typhoon occurrence, poor harvest, poor performance in fowl and livestock production and the like.

Such problem becomes multi-faceted when a crisis occurs, like Covied-19, forcing national and local   governments to institute human movement restriction, as authorities navigate a way to balance risks of the virus with the risks of livelihoods and lives arising from attempts to defeat it.

This is the hidden cost of any crisis:  food supply being depleted, and majority, particularly the marginalized population, bearing the brunt of the shock.

In parts of the Philippines where food security levels are on uptick, this statistic is cause for concern, given the challenges of a growing population, rapid urbanization, climate change and who is being educated to become next tillers of the soil.

Such questions beg for answers because it’s a fact that many in the farming population are aging. The young of today do not seem inclined to learn or adopt the basic characteristics that farmers need to have.

In short, where are the young, to replace the aging farmers of today?

William D. Dar, Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary, sensing this problem deeply and which will not go away unless something is done, has set in motion a program to lure the young millennials as the future of Philippine agriculture.

For starters, DA has zeroed in on 900 young persons, fresh graduates of batch 2019-2020 as “agricultural front liners” to become implementers of agricultural programs in each congressional districts, nationwide.

An initial 100 million pesos was allocated purposely for the 900 millennials, for use as allowance and other expenses for their six months on-the-job training (OJT).  After OJT, they will be absorbed by DA.

Dar, from Northern Luzon, being an Ilocano, graduated at Benguet State University (BSU) and later became BSU president, said, “We need young blood in agriculture. They have the defining attributes when it comes to utilizing modern agriculture. They are well connected to electronic devices that can help modernize farming and fishing activities.”

“By engaging the youth, we will be able to widen their mindset for farming to be more progressive,” Dar said.

Although Dar has set sight for engagement of the youth in the agricultural sector, he, also, was emphatic in pointing out the crucial contributions of the experienced farmers whose deep wisdom and knowledge have accumulated for generations.

“The youth may be ICT-savvy, but they still need the elder-farmers to pass to them their time-tested wisdom and experience in farming,” Dar emphatically said.

Dar explained the young millennials agriculture program, which will be embedded in all DA programs, forms part of national strategies in the agricultural sector to address the ageing population of Filipino farmers. – Bony A. Bengwayan

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