Shortly before his assumption into office this year, Pres. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has shared his administration’s target to bring down the price of commercial rice to P20 per kilo. Marcos Jr., who also took over as Agriculture secretary, recently said the target is possible, but admitted realizing it may take a while.
Meanwhile, rice farmers in Sagada, Mountain Province and Pasil, Kalinga continue cultivating heirloom rice – a tradition and a part of their culture spanning centuries – largely for the consumption of their communities and then some for commercial purposes.
These pigmented rice grains, usually stocked in traditional rice granaries for a year’s supply, have always commanded a higher price when sold in the markets compared to well-milled commercial rice varieties.
Unlike the President, these highland communities devoted on heirloom rice production are hoping for the public to patronize Cordillera heirloom rice varieties, for a greater number of consumers to realize its higher nutritional benefits, and for them to appreciate why slow foods like the heirloom rice require so much and the participation of the whole community to produce, making it priced like an emperor’s food.
But like the President’s goal, Kalinga and Mountain Province heirloom rice producers acknowledge making their product widely patronized is also a long way to go.
Nonetheless, they are working on sustaining the industry while also facing an uphill battle to preserve their centuries-old practice.
In Pasil, members of the Fummag Heirloom Rice Farms take pride in continuing to produce the best unoy or chong-ak heirloom rice variety by keeping their traditional farming practices intact, doing it the way their ancestors taught them, while adopting eco-friendly technologies to improve their production.
On the other hand, the Kasiyana Farm in Sagada, Mountain Province, which highlights the balatinaw as a resilient heirloom rice variety, aims to demonstrate the successful blending of traditional and modern farm practices, following the concept of regenerative development in agriculture, to address old and current challenges in heirloom rice production in the province and farming as a whole.
Pasil’s unoy seed keepers
Atop a volcanic mountain in Kalinga that can be reached only by foot after more than an hour hike through a steep, winding, and seemingly endless path, the farming village of Balatoc in Pasil town back in July had their hands full with pregnant golden rice grains, harvesting what was to be their first and only palay harvest for the year after months of working on several hectares comprising the valley where the Fummag Heirloom Rice Farms nestle.
It is an annual rice farming “festival” of sorts, with the entire community invested in producing their year’s supply of the unoy heirloom rice, but one that is off-limits to those not involved in the farming unless the community gives its consent.
“It’s a ritual. During planting time, not anyone could just enter the farms. When we harvest, visitors cannot enter the rice fields because it will disturb the process. Nobody should also be burning weeds, because this will invite pests,” said Rowena Gonnay, Pasil’s focal person on agriculture and heirloom rice.
She said no other crops are planted in the Fummag farms. Farmers only plant the unoy variety since it is most suitable in the area. Community members also plant other crops, but they grow them in a separate area.
Gonnay said the soils in Fummag farms have never been touched by chemicals, and even when they upgraded their practices after they were introduced to new farming practices and techniques, Fummag farmers use only organic and environment-friendly fertilizers or pest control solutions they developed through the assistance of the Municipal Agriculture Office and the Department of Agriculture.
Families tending the Fummag rice terraces live down the mountain, but they stay in bunkhouses built beside their rice granaries atop the mountain from planting to harvest time.
Before every planting season starts, Fummag rice paddies are left bare to give it time to breathe or regenerate.
“Okay lang na tiwangwang ‘yung paddies because it will allow time for the soil to rest for the next year’s planting. We place rice straws saved from the last harvest on the paddies to fertilize the soil,” Gonnay said and with Balatoc sitting on a volcano, the mountain soil’s sulfur and mineral content also helps in the rice planting for its beneficial properties.
Most of the Fummag rice farmers, mostly women, do the farming with bare hands – from preparation of seedlings and paddies with carabaos as farm help, harvesting of palay, pounding of grain stalks, to winnowing. A few of them have been using kuliglig (motorized hand tractor) to till the soil, but each community member definitely would have a share of work under the sun from production to harvest.
When farmers sell some of their harvest through their cooperative to defray other living expenses, Gonnay said the unoy variety, usually planted in December and harvested from July to August, is worth P130 to P140 a kilo, considerably higher compared to other rice varieties.
But this, she said, is just a break-even price for the farmers, even a bargain amount, given the amount of industry invested in the entire farming process, the grains’ competitive quality and characteristics, and the age-old culture and practices they protect and sustain embedded in every grain they save and able to plant to this day.
Unoy is also called chong-ak heirloom rice variety, the former used in naming the Unoy Pasil Terrace Association, the association of female rice farmers in the area who are the primary holders of the traditional knowledge that governs seed selection and preservation.
Marphine Oculit, a farm leader in Fummag, has been a farmer all her life, like her parents. Due to poverty, she was not able to go to school, not even elementary, and was used to eating sweet potatoes, a part of her life she is not ashamed of.
One of the unoy seed keepers in Balatoc, Oculit grew up planting unoy exclusively, since it is the only heirloom rice variety that would grow suitably in the kind of soil, water, terrain, and climate of Fummag.
In her part of the farm of about 350 square meters, Oculit’s family normally harvests 10 dalan or 600 bundles of palay, which is equivalent to around 600 kilos.
Most families in Fummag only consume unoy they sow themselves, and as part of their centuries-long practice, seed keepers like Oculit are responsible in saving heirloom seeds to be used during the next planting season.
The Kalinga Rice Terraces Farmers Cooperative, of which Fummag farmers are members, helps in the rice milling process and in selling some of their produce to markets in Kalinga and nearby provinces and to clients in Baguio City and Metro Manila.
With the younger members of Oculit’s family eager and actively involved in farming unoy, Oculit is optimistic the legacy of her ancestors will not end with her but will be continued by the younger generation.
“I teach them how to work in the farm, just like how my parents taught me, and it’s good they are willing to learn. They help when they have no classes. Mawawala itong bukid kung hindi nila itutuloy. Ang bukid, kapag hindi tinamnan, masisira,” she said.
Through a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who worked in nearby Uma, Lubuagan and who found a way to help the farming community responsible for producing the unique and aromatic rice she used to eat during her assignment in Kalinga, Pasil’s unoy was brought to international attention and in 2006, the first 500 kilos of unoy were exported in Montana, U.S.A.
Gonnay said Balatoc’s indigenous production of the unoy heirloom rice variety, which is likened to a snail’s pace but which assured its quality and healthier benefits, is what captured the attention of the Slowfood Movement, a global grassroots organization working in over 160 countries to ensure everyone has access to good, clean, and fair food.
Slowfood aims to preserve traditional knowledge, practices, including seeds like heirloom rice varieties and materials. It catalogues products that are becoming extinct.
In 2019, Pasil became the first indigenous Slowfood community in the Philippines courtesy of its heirloom rice, which according to Gonnay is considered as slow food because it is natural, untouched by commercial fertilizers to hasten production. It follows nature as one has to wait until it reaches the right time to bear fruit. A counteract of fastfood, heirloom rice when cooked is not laced with artificial enhancers to make it taste good.
“They saw that if you buy one kilo of unoy rice, you are protecting the fragile area and it will help in protecting and sustaining its production because only few are now producing this rare variety,” Gonnay said.
It was also in 2019 that the unoy variety, the Balatoc farmers, and the entire Balatoc Fummag area were certified as organic. After that, they applied with the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), which the country recognized to be made part of the legal framework for organic agriculture in the Philippines through Republic Act 11511, which provides for the development and promotion of organic agriculture in the Philippines, and which amended RA 10068 or the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010.
PGS, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, are locally focused quality assurance systems of organic products certification which small farmers can afford, and which provides healthy and safe farm products. As an alternative to third-party certification, the PGS play a vital role in rural development and farmer empowerment through active engagement of farmers in the whole process of verification, decision making, and marketing.
Gonnay said two groups from Fummag farms had finished training last July 19 and five of its farm leaders are now certified to certify their fellow local farmers as organic practitioners for five years.
The family of Bernadette Bakidan, who is also from a family of farmers from the nearby former mining barangay of Batong Buhay, is also among those tilling at the Fummag farms assured of having family members who will continue their unoy industry. Her daughter, Belinda, is among the certified farmers who trained under the PGS.
Bakidan’s husband also developed a customized pedal thresher to help in their harvesting. Every after harvest, one of their traditional practices is to save rice bran and apply it to their plots to maintain soil fertility, instead of using chemical fertilizers.
Gonnay, a rice farmer herself, is proud to be among the guardians of the heirloom seeds which will protect their ecosystem from the destruction chemical-based farming may cause.
“Sila ang mga naiwang seedkeeper ng heirloom variety. Kapag hindi ito sinustain ng aming mga ancestor, wala kaming nakita at natitikmang heirloom rice ngayon. Kaya itong mga anak ng mga farmer, at least nakikita nila at sana ay gayahin nila at i-sustain,” Gonnay said.
They admit it would be still difficult to sell heirloom rice to local markets, reason why they plan to revive exporting the unoy and other heirloom rice varieties in Kalinga since international buyers would be mostly the ones which could afford it.
Gonnay said it would help that Slowfood and the Department of Tourism have forged a partnership to assist heirloom rice and coffee farmers in Pasil and in Itogon, Benguet, respectively, in exporting their produce, and for this the Kalinga MAO is encouraging the rice farmers to plant not only during the wet season to increase their production.
Balatoc has also expanded heirloom rice farms in available spaces, including some abandoned farms that can be revived and made suitable for rice production.
The Pasil municipal government has also allotted a budget for the purchase of additional unoy seeds to be given to farmers interested to go back to rice farming, aside from providing training to improve rice transplanting and other environment-friendly farm technologies.
The DA has also recently trained heirloom rice farmers in the Cordillera on how to come up with development plans that will equip them in identifying challenges and craft solutions that will improve their industry.
“Magandang malaman ng mga tao ang labor when producing heirloom rice, so that they would not bargain with the price. The farmers sell on break-even price, no profit, just enough to allow them to buy other needs aside from rice. It is all-natural at wala pang ibang pwedeng mag-produce ng ganitong commodity dito sa aming lugar,” Gonnay said.
Saving resilient balatinaw, regenerating Sagada’s uma
In Sagada, Mountain Province, farmers in 2014 discovered colonial wire worms eating the soil where stalks of heirloom rice seedlings are supposed to take root, leading to low productivity, or none at all. They cannot explain where it came from and how it reached their farms.
The worms have eventually destroyed the uma (farms), which for centuries have borne fruits of the industry of the town’s forebears and served as a witness to the community’s indigenous farming rituals and traditions.
Slowly, rice farmers, who used to plant heirloom varieties, started abandoning the farms and turned to alternative livelihood sources after several attempts to stop the infestation did not work.
For all those years, Sagada rice farmers had not been using chemicals to weed out pests or only minimal when it cannot be avoided because of their indigenous value of not using such remains strong. But when the worms invaded, they had to look for stronger chemicals, which caused an internal conflict among them. They knew it is toxic, but there was no other way.
This was the situation when Dom-an Florence Macagne, after years in works involving social preparation and community organization that once landed her a stint with DA’s Cordillera Highland Agricultural Resource Management project as a community development specialist, went back to reconnect with the land she grew up with in Barangay Madongo, Sagada. Her plan is to continue planting the balatinaw heirloom rice variety, using a piece of rice land and the knowledge she inherited from her mother.
But the challenge she had to face is more than just winning over the worms eating off the rice stalks.
After years of working with and understanding what people and communities need and their problems, Macagne observed there has been struggle among the indigenous heirloom-rice producing communities in her town in terms of keeping their farms instead of abandoning it; and remaining conventional in their farming methods to preserve their tradition.
She decided to transform their family rice terraces into a demo farm that would show it is possible to use both traditional and innovative ways to make farming sustainable. She called it Kasiyana Farm, from the Kankana-ey term kasiyana meaning “It’s alright. Things will be better,” and for the farm to mean, “We don’t despair, we understand the problem. We take concrete actions and eventually change will happen.”
Macagne took up an online course in regenerative agriculture, got inspired by farming concepts such as Nicanor Perlas’ observation on the evolution of farming movements, and blended it with the technologies she learned on the job.
“Saving the heirloom rice is not just planting the variety itself. We have to relearn the values and the science which has advanced so well already. We have to relearn the art and reconnect with the spirit,” Macagne said.
In her search for a way to solve the colonial wire worm infestation, Macagne came across agriculturists from Besao, Mountain who were having the problem. They were talking with a veterinarian from Pangasinan who introduced an organic solution used in cleaning fish ponds.
This piqued her interest and with the help of her daughter who studied Biology, they found out the organic solution has the same raw ingredients which Sagada farmers used to apply before they started using chemical pesticides.
Macagne tried it on their farm and was successful in eliminating the worms.
Together with some women organic agriculture practitioners, they organized the Sagada Farmers Network which promotes the use of the organic solution against the worms and has made it available to those interested to use it.
“For years, farmers have been suffering with the worm infestation, and during those times, there was not an effective solution. So out of our frustration, we were able to find a solution, but we understand it would take time for other farmers to embrace it. We need to convince them, and this is one of the objectives of Kasiyana Farms,” Macagne said.
Macagne hopes to convince farmers to adopt farming innovations to address old problems that have not been solved using traditional practices, such as the use of stone ripraps to address collapsing swidden farms; and the system of rice intensification, a method that applies spacing of rice seedlings and increasing its number in a row to improve yield.
She said from their old ways, farmers had no choice but to find ways to stop pests and increase their productivity.
But the process has led farmers’ development to stagnate, lands to deteriorate due to use of chemicals, and the core values to degrade.
“Naging mechanized ang methods of production, but instead of advancing, the industry declined. We got into these volumes of production and all that but the quality of food, land, and health declined. Planting techniques have advanced, but it was lacking. Na-stuck tayo sa pagandahan ng technique, even relationsips were stuck. We lost the connection with the lands. Organizational development did not advance. Otherwise, we would have been more independent now and should have had a more stable business model,” Macagne said.
She encourages the production of healthy food, and to do that, she said the soil must be nurtured, and this ought to motivate producers to make it financially viable, not just to keep the culture. With agri tourism becoming viable these days, she said those planning on venturing on it must consider making tourists respect and understand Sagada’s culture, not just its surface.
For farmers not to be overwhelmed and intimidated, Macagne is trying to introduce suggested innovations by showing how it is done.
“Many of them say they don’t understand the farmers’ economy and find it difficult to shift to be more enterprising, that is why we really had to develop farms for them to see. Small scale para komportable sila,” she said.
Through the farmers’ network and Kasiyana Farms, Macagne, despite lacking logistics, is hoping to allay farmers’ apprehension to the changes they are suggesting by bridging the gaps in knowledge.
“We are looking into how to bridge the gap. We do trust-building; we use anecdotes of each farmer who tried the innovation. We show them the mechanism ourselves. We demonstrate, document, connect the stories, and engage the farmers to take risks with us. It’s a problem we didn’t have solution and it was getting worse. What we’re saying now is let’s move towards that solution in a systematic way,” she said.
Macagne believes regenerating the farms is a way of saving the heirloom rice, in her case the balatinaw variety, which aside from being high-grade is known for its strong resilience or ability to adapt to weather conditions. Except for floods, she said it can withstand and does not bow to thunderstorms and hailstones.
She added their rice fields itself are an heirloom. “For indigenous peoples here, these are not only an economic base, but also a cultural base. That’s why kahit maliit na bukid, imagine the hardwork and all invested in the farming process. If our culture based on rice collapses when the farmers leave the fields, all these rituals and all these stories will disintegrate, and all we will have are the gongs,” Macagne said, adding as one of the children of the lands in her community who came back after doing other endeavors, she wanted to contribute in sustaining the industry and stay doing what her ancestors passed to her to carry on. – Hanna Lacsamana